There are many roles in which food could play in our social lives. Food has a certain power beyond its physical purposes; not only can it satisfy, but it can inspire, inform and unify people. It evokes creativity and grounds us to our culinary heritage and our land.
He gets up early, 5:30 sharp to be exact. At 6:00 he opens the doors to his sweet shop in Basta el faw’a to get that fresh air from the slow-waking city. For just a little while, time stands still and he starts his preparation for a day of stirring and cooking allowing him to take in this life with a deep inhale and appreciation of this skill he has perfected over he years.
There are places that you remember, not particularly because they have a lavish décor but because there is something quite humane about them.
Some products have withstood the test of time because they are simply beautiful products. Molasses, dark, golden brown or velvety red colored, heavily textured is one such ingredient. The way it flows and glides along the spoon into a dish is a vision for food lovers and enthusiasts.
“Let thy greens be thy medicine, and they medicine be thy greens”
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.
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.
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!)