One of the most revered traditional breakfasts in Lebanon is a platter of raw liver, raw lamb muscle meat and raw liyyeh, sheep tail fat. Middle-Eastern sheep are a particular breed with tails that grow to a massive size. I’ve heard it said that up to one quarter of the sheep’s weight could come from its tail. The tail is pure, soft, white fat. For breakfast, along with the raw meat and liver, the liyyeh is sprinkled with salt and pimento and eaten with bread. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially the liver, but the initial reaction subsides when you take the plunge and eat some. I personally find that the flavour of liver, or anything for that matter, is milder when the food is raw.
Raw sheep tail fat is delicious, but, I also really like it barbecued on charcoal. The outside caramelises beautifully, and a bit of salt brings out a sweetness in the fat. It’s not greasy or oily, but rather creamy with a round, buttery mouthfeel. Here in Australia, sheep tail fat isn’t something you can find. My Lebanese butcher tells me that they tried, but failed, to raise Middle-Eastern breeds of sheep in Australia. Something to do with the weather and humidity causes the sheep to get sick… Don’t quote me on that.
So a few days ago, I find myself at AC Butchery in Leichhardt looking at a piece of lardo: cured pig fat. The fat is subcutaneous, which is the soft fat from underneath the skin of the pig (as opposed to visceral fat, which is intramuscular). The fat gets cured with salt. It’s sometimes flavoured with herbs and sometimes it’s also smoked. I couldn’t resist buying it – $15 a kilo for fat from a free range pig sounded like a financially wise investment. Today, I had a craving for the good old days back in Lebanon. No tail fat for me unfortunately, but the lardo did the trick. The Italians slice the fat thinly and eat it for antipasti, or use it as a topping for bruschetta, among other uses. I tried something else with the fat: seared on a hot pan until it goes slightly crisp and golden, flipped and then served with sauerkraut and hot english mustard. Delicious, and so nutrient and energy dense, I probably won’t have to eat anything else until winter arrives. Maybe I’ll hibernate for the afternoon…
During Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, Saida’s sweet makers change their menu by adding a large number of sweets that are specific to that time of year. Passing by Al Hallab in Saida (a new branch as Al Hallab is from the north of Lebanon and Saida is in the south), I spotted a gentleman making ataif or Middle-Eastern pancakes. These get filled with ashta, Middle-Eastern clotted cream, or walnuts mixed with sugar and rose water. The ashta variety gets covered with sugar syrup and decorated with pistachios and candied orange blossoms and is absolutely delicious. It certainly is more decadent than the walnut version, but they’re both wonderful.
Here’s a video of the guy at Al Hallab making them in Saida. It’s a pretty cool video, so make sure you watch it.
Around the year 2000 BC, Cadmus, the young Phoenician prince of Tyre set sail from the shores of Lebanon in search of Greece. His mission was to find and bring back his sister Europa who had been abducted by none else but Zeus, the father of Gods and men. With him, Cadmus took one of Phoenicia’s most brilliant inventions. You see, the Phoenicians were traders and meticulous documenters, and at some point, they grew tired of drawing cats and dogs like the Egyptians did and had long since given up the labourious cuneiform script that was so well-loved by the Sumarians and the Assyrians. They decided enough is enough, and came up with the alphabet, a means to write that allocated each spoken consonant a character. The Phoenician alphabet was revolutionary, a gift that would change the world and that would endure for millennia. But back to Cadmus, the Greeks understood the importance of what he had brought along with him. We all know Greeks are greedy buggers, and instead of apologizing for abducting Europa, they also abducted the Phoenician alphabet.
Why am I telling you this? Simply, the story above is to show a precedent. Stealing Phoenician princesses and revolutionary alphabets are one thing though, but stealing moussaka – now that can’t but shock you, right? Yes, indeed, one of Greece’s most famous dishes is another missing person case. If you ask a Greek what the word moussaka meant, they’d have no clue. A Lebanese though would immediately tell you that moussaka, or moussaka’a (as we would spell it) means cold or chilled in Arabic and in Lebanese. Moussaka’a is a dish common around Lebanon and the Arab world and usually simply consists of eggplants, olive oil, garlic, onions and tomatoes. The Greek recipe would almost certainly have been identical to the Lebanese one had it not been for Tselementes (who you should really read about), the Greek chef who borrowed influences from the French and smothered the dish with béchamel sauce and meat, in an attempt to make moussaka’a more noble.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Greece’s version of the moussaka’a, but it indeed has strayed far from its origin. Moussaka’a is a humble dish, though one that proves that peasant food is more than the sum of its parts. Good tasting tomatoes are key but what’s brilliant about the Lebanese recipe is the addition of pomegranate molasses. The sweet/sour flavours that it gives are insane with the silky eggplants. No béchamel-laden moussaka can beat that.
2 large eggplants, peeled with just a bit of skin left on, sliced in wedges
4 large onions, sliced
8 cloves of garlic, diced
1 kilo good tomatoes (diced) or ½ kilo tomatoes, ½ kilo passata
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (Cortas is a reasonable brand)
1 tbsp dried mint
Dissolve 2 heaped tbsp of salt in enough water to cover the eggplant slices. Weigh down the eggplants with a plate to make sure they are submerged and soak for anything between half an hour to over night. Remove the eggplants and squeeze them dry with a kitchen towel. Deep or shallow fry in neutral oil until golden and soft. Remove and set aside. In a frying pan, add around ¼ cup neutral oil and fry the onions and garlic until soft, but not golden. They need to become sweet without getting caramelised. Add the tomatoes and passata if using, the dried mint and the pomegranate molasses. Bring to the boil, taste and season with salt to your liking. Here you can also add more pomegranate molasses if necessary. Preheat the oven to 180c. Put the eggplants in a baking tray, top with the tomato mixture and 1 cup of water. Bake in the oven until the sauce has thickened, around 30 minutes. Put in a serving plate and wait until the dish is cold. I also like it to eat it slightly chilled – after all, that’s what the name moussaka’a name begs you to do.
I haven’t really written about the man’oushe (plural manakish) since 2009, though it features really strongly in the Lebanese diet today. Manakish are Lebanese pizzas, and they are much simpler than the Italian version. A Lebanese man’ousheh usually has only 1 topping, most commonly zaatar (thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, salt and olive oil) or a white cheese like akkawi, hallloumi or a mixture of both. Have a read here to read my earlier post to get a good idea about this Lebanese breakfast. The ones in the photo are made with akkawi cheese manakish and are most delicious when freshly baked. The cheese would still be stringy and stretchy and moist. We eat it with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and mint. Have a look at the video to see these wonders getting baked.
Recently, I was invited to my friend, author and TV show host Barbara Abdeni Massaad’s for lunch, where we had a taste of her man’oushe. That was a great privilege, since Barbara actually wrote the book on the man’oushe, literally! Have a look at her wonderful book, entitled Man’oushe, Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery. It’s a must own if you are interested in Lebanese food or pizzas. You can find more information here.
I’ve been putting this post off for so long. I just didn’t want to write about knefe (or knefeh) in Australia because I couldn’t possibly have done it justice. Let me start by explaining what knefe is. First of all, though it is sweet, knefe is not considered to be dessert; it’s a meal all on its own and it’s most commonly eaten for breakfast. A layer of ground kataifi pastry is kneaded with ghee, laid on top of a layer of akkawi cheese (de-salted) and is baked until the cheese goes super-stretchy and the pastry a deep, golden brown. The huge tray the knefe is baked in is called a sidr, and the sidr is displayed outside most patisseries: showing off your knefe creates a swift trade. When you order a knefe, a special sesame seed bun called kaakeh is stuffed till it explodes with cheese and pastry and is then doused with sugar syrup. Knefe needs to be eaten on the spot, hot and stretchy.
To witness peak demand on knefe, you only need to go clubbing in Beirut till about 4am and then on your way back, find yourself a Sea Sweet patisserie. There you will see lines of Lebanese boys and gals queueing up for a post alcohol feast. In reality, nothing is as good as a knefe after a big night out. You really must watch the video of the talented knefe guy in Saida doing his thing. You’ll get an idea how raucous things can get when people are queueing up for the good stuff. I took this video at Jardali patisserie in Saida, but I buy my knefe from Al Basyooni, which has a great knefe and is much more civilised. The knefe cost 2,500LL, which is less than $3 AUD.
If you want a knefe in Sydney, go to Sea Sweet in Parrammatta, or try the Turkish kunefeh at Efendy in Balmain, which is absolutely amazing.
My little village of Ain El Delb does try hard, you know. Today, they invited a prestigious army band over to commemorate the feast of the disciples of St Maroun, the patron of the local church. They organised a village style dinner: a simple spread of labneh (strained, salted yoghurt drizzled with olive oil), zaatar and fresh markouk bread. Markouk is our most traditional and loved bread. I’ve uploaded a video of the bread being made. Notice how thin it is. This thinness allows the sheets of bread to cook super quickly and since the bread has very little moisture, it lasts very well compared to bread loaves and the like. Check out the skill these ladies have, how they turn the dough to something seriously thin and evenly round. I thought it’s best to keep the church prayer in the background, just to give you a sense of the place.
Yoghurt is a relatively new ingredient to the western world, despite being a staple in the Middle East for centuries, which is probably why most yoghurt you find on the shelves of Australian supermarkets isn’t really yoghurt, but a mixture of skim milk powder, gelatine, cream, xanthan gum (for texture), yoghurt bacteria, sugar, salt, additives and flavourings. The West seems to favour yoghurt as a creamy, indulgent dessert style food, and it’s mostly eaten cold and sweet. One of the differentiating aspects of Middle-Eastern cuisine is how yoghurt is used for cooking: we make yoghurt soup and boil meats and vegetables in it. I won’t elaborate, as I’ve discussed this before in my labna post here, which is well worth reading, so go read it.
Little Sara is now 8.5 months old. She’s eating a huge variety of food already: apples, pears, custard apples, apricots, plums, blueberries, blackberries, nectarines, watermelon, rockmelon, bread, chicken, beef, lamb, zucchini, pumpkin, silverbeet, hummus, sweet potatoes, cucumber and a whole lot of other wonderful things. It’s now time to see how she handles dairy products, and yoghurt is a good first choice. Obviously, additive laden yoghurt isn’t what I have in mind. Lebanese brands of yoghurt are fine, but I want a bit more quality control in Sara’s first yoghurt, so I made a batch for her. She might have some for lunch today. I’m draining some of the whey to give her creamier yoghurt. This is a deciding moment. Is she Lebanese and, like me, love the stuff, or will her mother’s English genes dominate?
To make yoghurt, bring 2 liters of milk to 83 degrees and cool it to 46 degrees. Add 3 tbsp yoghurt from that tub you have in the fridge (provided that it’s real yoghurt). Mix it in properly. Cover the pot and keep in a warm place for 24 hours. Voila.
Kibbeh can be approached in over 20 different ways. The sheer variety of kibbeh in Lebanese cuisine is what makes most people consider it Lebanon’s national dish. There is raw goat kibbeh, kibbeh meat balls, chickpea kibbeh, potato kibbeh, pumpkin kibbeh, lentil kibbeh, sweet potato kibbeh, rice kibbeh, and the cooking methods include boiling, baking grilling and frying. So in essence, kibbeh is not a singular dish, rather a family of dishes that share a commonality. The basic approach is the mixing of a binding agent (be it meat or a mealy grain or vegetable) with burghul and spices. At its most basic form, raw kibbeh is a fine paste of (traditionally) goat’s meat with burghul, salt and allspice.
I’ve written before about pumpkin kibbeh, which to me is the queen of kibbeh. I moved away from the traditional approach for this recipe. Instead of boiling the pumpkin, I roasted it at 200c with olive oil and salt. The roasting concentrated the sweetness and added the complexity of caramelisation. To complement the sweetness, I caramelised 3 large onions with star anise until they became beautifully dark. Star anise has an affinity with caramelised onions and takes them to a whole different level. This dish proves two things. First, it proves that my design skills are terrible – I can’t draw for shit. Second, it shows that vegetarian dishes can, if done correctly, outshine meat any day. Seriously, this dish is a must try. Give it a go.
Slice the pumpkin, toss in olive oil and salt and bake at 200c until soft and slightly blistered. In the meantime, slice the onions and fry in olive oil with the star anise and a touch of salt on low heat, stirring occasionally until caramelised. Roast the walnuts for 5 minutes in the oven. When the pumpkin is cooked, cool it down and remove the flesh from the skin. Discard the skin. Mash the flesh into a pulp and squeeze through a clean pillow case or something similar, removing as much liquid as possible. Mix the cinnamon and pepper with the pumpkin flesh and add the burghul. Leave for 15 minutes to allow the burghul to soften. Add enough flour to to the pumpkin and burghul to bind it. Oil a cake tin and put half the pumpkin mixture on the bottom, flattening it evenly. Mix the walnuts and the onions, adding them on top of the pumpkin, discarding the star anise. Use the remaining pumpkin and create a layer above the walnuts and onions. Make a pretty design, brush with olive oil and bake on 200c for around 30 minutes, until the surface is slightly golden. Remove from the oven and cool it down. This pumpkin kibbeh pie is best eaten at room temperature.