Shankleesh is the only mold ripened cheese native to the Middle East. It is believed to have originated among the Kurdhish al Zankieen tribes. It is essentially yogurt whey that is shaped into smooth balls by hand, then either ripened for a few days and consumed (green shankleesh) or aged for up to 16 weeks, traditionally in clay jars called baresh.
Italians and pasta connoisseurs beware this post is definitely not for you. In Lebanon, we tend to lebanify food and sayings that belong to other cultures, yet are very much part of our every day fabric. Words like chérie, become charchoura, to google a word we say gawgela. At dinner parties sushi cake ingeniously feeds a big number of guests. In a very friendly way we reply Bonjourein (two bonjours) when one greets us with a bonjour. We say things like “angaret ma3eh” which is derived from the word anger, meaning I got really angry, to express how we feel. We say “sachwaret sha3reh” (from the word séchoir, meaning I just had a blow dry). There are so many words and things that are part of our cultural, colonial, and historical background and are now so quintessentially Lebanese.
Labneh (strained yogurt) is a daily food in the Lebanese diet and known by everyone and mainly eaten at breakfast. Go deeper in the country, into the Bekaa Valley or the Shouf Mountains, and another delicacy will unfold made in a terra-cotta bowl (labnet al jarra), where baladi and shami goats are respectively the main grazing animals that produce it.
There is something about festivities that render the air around our household full of joy mixing with the aromas of butter, sugar, rose water and nuts, as the smell dissipates from the kitchen into the rest of the house. Religious traditions and love of family become the essence of the month of March. Ma’amoul are the holiday cookie par excellence in this part of the world; every family has the designated maamoul maker and in mine we luckily have my mother who would make them and decorate them by hand. These light golden crumbly sweets are very popular in the Middle East, and although they are particularly associated with festivals, it is not uncommon to find ma’amoul around the house at other times as well.
Za’atar is a blend with deep historical and emotional roots. The smell is strong but not hot, rich but sharp, lemony and a little earthy. Za’atar has an amazing and unique flavor that is aromatic, and tangy at the same time. Eaten in the Middle East for centuries, Za’atar has a fascinating history. The word refers both to the alluring spice mixture that you eat at home, and to the wild oregano. It’s been part of the Mediterranean diet for thousands of years.
What if you were to indulge, just completely let go, and sink into a fresh bowl of Labneh? Become drenched in that sour creamy texture encapsulating everything that is great about our food. Taste it. Savor it. So rich, your tongue becomes thick with it. Frothy and smooth with a hint of saltiness, it’s a dish saturated with pure bliss, overflowing at the brim with zesty green olive oil.
The many charms of Lebanese food is its varied desserts, rich, sweet, and full of flavors. Sometimes a name can elevate and carry a certain resonance to something so simple. This amazingly aromatic dessert that is quite refreshing with a rich complex taste stemming from subtle hints of Mastic (Arabic Gum), orange blossom water and rose water carries a poetic name that speaks volumes about our culture.
I always laugh when the mother in law in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is flabbergasted that her son in law doesn’t eat meat. A Lebanese version of that would be: “You don’t eat no Kibbeh? Kiff ya3neh? Ba3milak kibbet batata? Tayeb kibbet la2’tin? Shou? El borghol bya3milak nafkha! Ma a3m bifham!” (What do you mean? Shall I make you a potato kibbeh? How about a pumkin kibbe then? What? You feel bloated after eating bulgur? I don’t get it!)
The Ark of Taste, which is a foundation created by Slow Food International, Slow Food Italy, and the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, is an operational body for the protection of food biodiversity. They travel the world collecting small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet: an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats. The Ark was created to point out the existence of these products, draw attention to the risk of their extinction within a few generations, and invite everyone to take action to help protect them. In some cases this might be by buying and consuming them, in some by telling their story and supporting their producers.