Tradition vs Innovation – The state of Lebanese food and a Moghrabieh recipe

moghrabieh with black pudding, star anise poached chicken and a gewürztraminer reduction

A recent article I’ve read in the New York Times discussed the phenomenon of upholding tradition when it comes to Lebanese food. With the exception of a minority, Lebanese chefs, whether those in Lebanon or who are part of the Lebanese diaspora, focus on producing high quality, authentic Lebanese food. Restaurants seem to set themselves apart not by innovation but rather by the quality of the beloved staples of the cuisine. There is nothing to criticise about a nation who takes pride in its national cuisine, and where traditional food is held in high esteem, but it would be refreshing to see some imagination and flair in the Lebanese food scene. The omnipresent purist approach may be the result of many contributing factors, the greatest of which, to my eyes, seems to be a lack of education in the global food scene. I’ll give you an example, but please don’t judge us too harshly. On a recent trip to Lebanon, a childhood friend was opening a sushi restaurant. When I was told about this, I was quite impressed, and I asked how much it cost to hire a Japanese sushi master in Lebanon. I imagined it wouldn’t be cheap as I knew that it would probably take a Japanese sushi apprentice decades before they are considered a true sushi chef. My friend replied by saying that to hire Japanese staff was expensive and that the staff were actually Korean. Apparently, Koreans were hired because they were cheaper and, wait for it, “because they looked right”. This wasn’t a racist comment. Don’t get me wrong, we are a racist bunch, but this comment was simply an indication of the low level of knowledge the Lebanese posses when it comes to Asian cuisine.

Perhaps one of the greatest influences global gastronomy has experienced is the effect of Asian food, especially at the fine dining end of the market. Chinese and Japanese cuisines have greatly changed not only food aesthetics, but have introduced new ingredients and techniques that have crept into Western cuisines. You can clearly see the effect of Asian food on modern Australian, Spanish, American and French cuisines. Unfortunately, the Lebanese posses little insight into foreign food cultures. During the war years, Asia seemed too far, and though at our doorstep, Europe seemed even further. So Lebanese gastronomy stayed in a quasi-freezer state, and our sense of imagination became dull. Though the Lebanese enthusiasm for global cuisine has started to take over the country, there is still a long way to go, and I feel that without a big effort on behalf of the chefs to educate themselves, Lebanese fine dining will never be world class. Hummous will be hummous and waiters will always stack up dirty plates right there on the table.

Following this rant, I feel like giving out a recipe for a modern Lebanese creation of mine. I cooked this dish in my first ever secret dinner, and the photo was taken in low light, so apologies on the poor quality of the photo. This is a play on a well-loved dish called moghrabieh, but with a few different ingredients and techniques. Moghrabieh refers to dry, round pellets of pasta that got to Lebanon from North Africa. There’s a North African couscous called berkouke which is the size of a chickpea. Berkouke is better suited for travel than small grain couscous as it is less prone to spoiling, and it is highly probable that it was introduced to the Lebanese by North African pilgrims on their way to Mecca. My version of this dish gently poaches chicken in a stock flavoured with star anise. The stock is then reduced with gewürztraminer, a wine that I feel has the perfect flavour profile in that it is fragrant, slightly sweet, and low acid. The reduction is then monté au beurre, and flavoured with caraway, the traditional spice used for moghrabieh. I’ve used some black pudding to replace lamb, and it works beautifully. The boiled pasta is then mixed with chickpeas, caramelised confit onions, pan-fried black pudding and the chicken, and finished off with a glazing of the stock/wine reduction. It is sensational, if I may say so myself. If this dish ends up on restaurant menus, email me and let me know. I will be a very happy man.

Moghrabieh Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 small whole chicken
  • 3 chicken carcasses
  • 2 chopped carrots
  • 1 chopped celery stick
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 10 baby onions
  • 1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
  • 1 black pudding
  • 1.5 cup dry moghrabieh pasta
  • 1 bottle of gewürztraminer wine
  • 3 tablespoons of butter
  • 4 star anise pods
  • 2 teaspoons caraway
  • Salt, to taste

Method

  1. Begin by peeling the onions. Then you can confit them by slowly cooking them in oil on low heat and then caramelising them in a pan, or deep frying them until deeply caramelised.
  2. Boil the chickpeas until done, but not too soft.
  3. Put the chicken, the carcasses, the star anise, the carrots, the chopped onions and the celery in a big pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until the chicken is done, skimming any froth. Leave the chicken in until it is cool enough to handle. This will infuse the flesh with the flavour of the star anise.
  4. Take the chicken out and then strain the stock in muslin to remove any impurities. Discard the carcasses and the veggies. In a sauce pan, add the bottle of gewürztraminer to the stock and reduce until there is around 1/2 cup of liquid left. It should be nice and thick. I don’t thicken my sauces with flour and prefer to reduce my sauces. Add the butter off the heat, and swirl your saucepan to incorporate the butter. The liquid becomes thicker and glossier. Add the caraway, taste and add salt if necessary. Make sure you don’t add any salt until now as the saltiness intensifies as stock is reduced. Always add salt at the end when reducing a liquid.
  5. While the stock is reducing, boil your pasta in plenty of salted water and when cooked, put the chickpeas in there to heat them up. Drain thoroughly and keep dry and warm.
  6. Pan-fry discs of black pudding until nicely coloured. Cut the chicken into nice pieces.
  7. Ensure all your ingredients are hot. Mix the pasta and chickpeas with some stock reduction. Top with the chicken, black pudding and confit onions and drizzle with some more stock reduction. Sahtein.

21 Comments

  • It sounds sensational. I love the idea of the black pudding replacing the lamb. BTW considering you are pretty busy with new arrival soon, any secret dinners planned for later this year??

  • Lisa says:

    Ooh I remember this dish at the secret dinner, it was fabulous! I knew nothing about Lebanese food at the time, but your fabulous food inspired me to learn more and I’m fascinated by the cuisine. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Pamela says:

    I do have to make one comment regarding the Korean sushi chefs… There’s an incredible sushi restaurant that my husband and I frequent quite regularly. The place is not much to look at, the servers are rigid and we certainly don’t keep going back because of the ambiance. But the sushi is fantastic, and the owners are korean. I don’t know if by some fluke of nature this is so, or if this is the exception, but I have to give it to the sushi chef. He prepares everything before us, it’s always, ALWAYS fresh, consistent and delicious….

  • Pamela says:

    Oh, and I have to admit, I call my mum up every single time I want to try making a new lebanese dish that I’ve yet to attempt, and I jot them down word for word, because I do want that authentic lebanese taste. And I definitely want to lock all of these recipes in a vault and pass them on to my children, because in my eyes they are sacred; they’re recipes handed down in my family from one generation to the next.

    C’est tout.

  • Amanda says:

    My passion for Lebanese cuisine really tends to focus on high quality traditional dishes too, with a genuflection in the direction of Greg Malouf (that’s my Catholic background coming out, there!), but your recipe sounds beautifull! Also, I have to agree with Pamela – one of my favourite sushi places is actually Korean, so try not to judge your friends too harshly! 🙂
    Amanda
    http://lambsearsandhoney.com/
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Slow food =-.

  • Silvia says:

    Funny. I read the same NYTimes article and thought of you…

    People are hesitant about innovative culinary twists because they fear it will substitute tradition. Why? If the old is good, and I tend to be a food traditionalist, it will survive. Innovations are options and alternatives, not substitutions.

  • Fouad says:

    sara – thanks! maybe a secret dinner for SIFF in October. I’ve been talking to Karen from Citrus and Candy to replace Lili, but she is yet to say yes, so we’ll see

    Lisa – you’re welcome! I’m so glad you enjoyed the dish. I hope Lebanese food is less of a mystery for you now 🙂

    Pamela – I’m not disagreeing, but merely stating that Koreans were hired because they looked Asian enough, which shows that there is little understanding when it comes to something as revered as sushi making… The staff actually didnt know much about sushi but got trained in it. Also, you probably know that I have HUGE respect for traditional Lebanese food, and that is the core reason why I blog about Lebanese food. That said, I feel chefs could be a bit more adventurous. Amanda would tell you how amazing the food created by Lebanese chef Greg Maalouf is. It is modern without being gimmicky and totally delicious, and somehow manages to keep the spirit of the cuisine.

    Amanda – Are you Lebanese (secretly hoping for another Australian Lebanese food blogger)? How awesome is Greg Maalouf. I had dinner at Momo last year. I flew to Melbourne especially to try his food, and I also got to meet him. With regards to the Korean sushi chefs, please read my response to Pamela. But as a summary, I feel Lebanese chefs can do with more education when it comes to the global food scene. I think anyone would agree with that, right?

    Hi Silvia. Thanks for thinking about me at all hehehe, and well put. The new doesn’t need to replace the old, but it can be a nice option every once in a while. Lebanese food is awesome, and no one can disagree, but sometimes the unexpected can create a very memorable experience.

  • Amanda says:

    Sadly, not a drop of Lebanese blood – bog Irish!
    I ate at Momo last year, too. It was truly fantastic and one of the most memorable meals of my life.
    Amanda.
    http://lambsearsandhoney.com/
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Slow food =-.

  • I read your post with great interest Fouad; I think that in regards to culinary traditions we have to give Lebanese chefs a break; in Beirut, there are some very innovative chefs who use traditional cuisine to do amazing things; one of them is in a restaurant downtown and the other is in Paris and London and even published a cookbook “La cuisine Libanaise d’hier et d’aujourd’hui” that is very popular and innovative. We need to keep in mind that Lebanon has and is in a state of siege. We have been attacked 6 times, last time in 2006; our society is kept unstable by our enemies; how can you innovate in these conditions? it is a miracle we have survived as a country (barely); so I have full confidence that Lebanese chefs can and will do extraordinary things if given te chance.
    I love what you did with the moghrabiyeh; it is very innovative but also maintains the spirit of the dish.
    .-= tasteofbeirut´s last blog ..Swiss chard raviolis with kabocha and cheese stuffing =-.

  • Anh says:

    A great post (and so happy to discover your blog)

    I think i understand the sentiment. But look at what Greg Malouf has done? His books and restaurants introduced a new world of Middle Eastern cuisines to me, and I love it!

  • MariannaF says:

    Hi Fouad, just discovered your blog today and love it 🙂
    I agree with pretty much everything you wrote in your rant, but living in Paris, I am also sometimes surprised how often people will confuse Lebanese/Levant cuisine with Moroccan cuisine for ex. Some people think couscous is Lebanese and hoummous is Moroccan… so I guess there is confusion on both parts of the world 🙂
    .-= MariannaF´s last blog ..FEELS (AND TASTES) LIKE SUMMER…. =-.

  • Fouad says:

    Amanda – hehe. That’s what I thought. I remember reading that on your blog but when I went again, I couldn’t find the reference… I can knight you an honorary Lebanese if you’d like 😛 Momo is unbelievable right?

    Joumana – Great argument, and to an extent, I agree. But hear me out. You’ve recently been to Lebanon, and have undoubtedly seen the unbelievable show of wealth demonstrated in opulent restaurants and hospitality establishments. The attacks on Lebanon have not stopped enterprising individuals from creating successful businesses in the food sector (and otherwise), and the quality of the food served is amazing. Why should the attacks then stop people from innovating? Do you feel, like me, that there is a general, dominating attitude that Lebanese food should not change? I tried buying the book you mentioned but it is on pre-order for August. Thanks for the tip. I look forward to reading it. And thanks for your kind words on my moghrabieh (and your kind words on the toum entry on your blog, I am really touched).

    Hello Anh – Greg Malouf is one of those exceptions, but keep a few things in mind:
    1- Greg was not raised in Lebanon, and so he had the Australian influence along with the Lebanese
    2- Greg’s training is European, which gives his technique advantage over Lebanese chefs trained in Lebanon
    3- Greg’s insight into Lebanese food and culture, and I say this with the greatest amount of respect, is somewhat flawed and under informed, seeing that he didn’t grow up in Lebanon. He refers to saj bread as sorj bread and to laban immo as laban immor, and seems to finish his conversations with inshalla, in the most inappropriate places. I don’t hold this against him in any way, as he is not Lebanese. He is Australian of Lebanese ancestry. This as a fact gives him much more freedom than most chefs to innovate. When he visits the Middle East, I bet you that he goes wide eyed and is amazed by things that people like me grew up with on a day to day basis. It gives his food a sense of excitement and an exotic element. To me, I’d like to see that excitement coming from Lebanese chefs who grew up in Lebanon

    MariannaF – I’m glad you arrived to my blog. Please have a seat and I’ll get you some coffee 🙂 I’m also glad you agree. Ooooh, hummous is such a big debate in this world isn’t it? In Sydney, we hardly have the Moroccan influence you have in Paris, as Lebanese food dominates the Middle Eastern food scene. So do Moroccan restaurants serve hummous in Paris?

  • MariannaF says:

    true, we have a big moroccan community here… no hoummous in moroccan restaurants though (they are more about cousous and tajine!), but it still surprises me when people think that anything arabic means same food, same cuisine!
    .-= MariannaF´s last blog ..FEELS (AND TASTES) LIKE SUMMER…. =-.

  • Gourmantic says:

    The concept of Modern Australian food works well here because we don’t have traditional cuisine in Australia so we’ve become very good at creating a melange that works well for our produce and climate. I don’t see that countries which don’t follow the same have lost their culinary imagination.

    I, for one, hope that culinary traditions remain and Lebanese cuisine (among others) doesn’t get swept into the global cuisine movement and loses its identity. I do not want to see the likes of hommos on sushi, just as I don’t want to see the homogenisation of cuisines that we end up travelling the world and eating the same thing.

    Your moghrabieh looks delicious! I enjoy this dish very much but I end up picking out the chick peas and putting them aside. Will you be having a secret dinner soon?
    .-= Gourmantic´s last blog ..Winning the May Grantourismo Travel Blogging Competition: A Personal Post =-.

  • Fouad says:

    Hi Marianna – it all comes with education and experience, right? Lebanese food is so diverse from one village to another, so to think that Arabic/Middle Eastern food is all the same is such a mistake…

    Hi Corinne (now that I know your name LOL) – First, congratulations on winning the grantourismo travel blogging competition. I am so proud of and happy for you. Hommous on sushi? That sounds great! I’ll write a post about that 😛 Let’s not mistake fusion food for modern food. I am not asking for a happy marriage between Lebanese and Thai food. But it would be nice to see some restaurants showing innovation based on the flavour profiles of our cuisine, maybe along with some serious application of scientific advancements (sous vide/thermomix/paco jet), fun molecular gastronomy techniques, etc… I am 100% in agreement that traditional food must remain intact, but at the top end of the market, where people pay for amazing produce and expect some labour intensive dishes, it would be good to see some imagination.

    So, you don’t like chickpeas? How did you ever survive in Lebanon?

  • Gourmantic says:

    I don’t have anything against the techniques and the experimentation you mention as long as they remain authentic. A top end Lebanese restaurant would be interesting to try. Not sure if there is one in Sydney any more after Cadmus closed down.

    Thank you for the congrats 🙂 I do like chickpeas but not when they’re whole (long story!)

    I look forward to your hommous on sushi post, complete with a food styling shot that will convert me 😛
    .-= Gourmantic´s last blog ..Winning the May Grantourismo Travel Blogging Competition: A Personal Post =-.

  • Jean says:

    Hi Fouad, Just found your blog via the reference to it on tasteofbeirut. Congratulations, it is really fantastic, I’ve been reading your posts with great interest. Now, on this subject of tradition v/s innovation, I agree with you that Lebanese chefs (and most of their customers) are stuck in a rather rigid conservatism. True, things are changing, but a bit too slowly. We probably need a young innovative chef who will dazzle the “it” crowd with his/her version of nouvelle Lebanese cuisine, be featured on some of the magazines that these folks read (we Lebanese are such snobs) and give this very timid trend a big push forward.
    Finally on Greg Malouf’s book: I read it for the first time years ago, when I was in Europe. To be sure, I thought the recipes looked great and were certainly very creative, but the links to Lebanese cuisine… were tenuous at best. I agree, with you, he really is an Australian chef, first and foremost. If anything, he reminded me a bit of Stephan Pyles’s cuisine, which I was fortunate to taste when the Routh Street Cafe was still open, and that doesnt make me any younger!

  • Chris says:

    My view is, Lebanese food doesn’t change because there’s no point in messing with perfection. :d

  • MarkC says:

    Hi Fouad;

    I just discovered your blog, and am already a big fan. I also often wondered why (what could be broadly described as) middle eastern cooking, with all of its fascinating spices and preparations, never grew beyond a small niche in the world culinary scene. As you say, this is probably attributable to cultural factors (conservatism, insularity), and the absence of haute cuisine methods which would make these dishes suitable for a restaurant plating. Surely an accomplished and creative chef could unlock the potential of this cuisine.

    Then recently I discovered Ana Sortun, a Boston-based chef with a restaurant called Oleana, who just came out with her first cookbook, called “Spice”. She is a culinary genius, and this book is a revelation. If you are interested in this subject, then you must get this book. Her basic idea is that Arabic cooking creates flavor by the subtle layering of spices (unlike French cuisine, which creates flavor with animal fat). Each chapter is based on a different trio of spices (first chapter – “cumin, coriander, and cardomam”, second chapter ” saffron, vanilla, and ginger”, etc. ). By deconstructing the cuisine this way, and untethering it from any single country, she has captured its essence and rendered it thoroughly modern.

    Sorry for the length of this post, but I myself was very excited by her book, which I think is a first for its kind.

  • Fouad says:

    Hi Mark

    Thank you so much for your fantastic comment. It’s really great to get this kind of information. I’ve looked the chef up and her work sounds super interesting. I will be buying the book. The approach you mentioned is in line with my thinking in that we should use the flavour profiles we have available to create some new an exciting advancements in Levantine and Middle-Eastern food. I personally don’t like the term “Arabic” cooking because very few countries are truly Arab, but I understand the direction. I’ll buy the book and give you more feedback 🙂

  • MarkC says:

    Thanks for the reply. You’re right, “Arabic cooking” isn’t the proper term – much of her inspiration comes from Turkey, for example. It’s just that “Eastern Mediterranean” takes too long to write, and “Levantine” sounds fusty and Victorian. If this is going to become the new “power cuisine”, somebody’s going to have to think of a better name. “New Levant”, maybe, or “Nouvelle Levante”?

    By the way, loved the look of those pistachio croissants this morning. I have the beginnings of a Lebanese patisserie forming in my mind.

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