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.
Category Archives: zaatar
It’s a big claim, isn’t it? The best chicken kebab ever? If you are doubtful, you possibly haven’t tried this Lebanese specialty as many times as I have during my teen age years. You see, back in 1996 (the post war years), McDonalds and Burger King hadn’t yet entered the Lebanese market, and Lebanon was full of non-franchised eateries that served good quality fast food. The choice wasn’t restricted between a Big Mac and a Double Whopper, but instead we had a vast array of what you could call street food. This is food that is traditional and regional to our culture, food that we know and love and that is ingrained in our cuisine. Think crisp falafel bursting out of fresh Lebanese bread drizzled with lemony tahini and packed with pickles and parsley, or a moist chicken shawarma traditionally carved by a master craftsman, charred and full-flavoured, sitting on clouds of white garlic sauce. Manakish, kafta, lahm mishwi (barbeque beef or lamb), and the list goes on.
When McDonalds (now lovingly reffered to as MacDo by dolled up French-accented Lebanese girls oblivous to the giant’s impact on our local culture) opened in Lebanon, we rushed and queued to get a taste of what was on offer. In retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I would have started my own Slow Food movement, but in our ignorance, as if in a bout of mass hysteria, McDonalds was accepted, and though we knew deep down that the food did not even compare to our local oldies, we embraced the terrible new. I personally haven’t eaten McDonalds for around six years now, and prefer to eat food prepared by individuals who are passionate about what they do. I also hope that my efforts here on my blog can help preserve the enthusiasm people have for regional specialties. One of these specialties is shish tawook.
What I love about shish tawook is that it is so popular all over Lebanon and that there isn’t a single recipe that is used by everyone to reproduce these skewered beauties, but that every home has its own recipe. I also love that though it seems so engrained in our culture, hardly any of us know what the word tawook means. Well, let me tell you. Tawook is a variant on the Turkish word tavuk, meaning chicken. So shish tawook means chicken skewers. The reason for this popular Turkish dish to be on our menu is because the Ottoman Empire ruled Lebanon between the years 1516 and 1920. Today, our generation can not easily identify the mark of the Turks on our history, mainly because the Turks goverened Lebanon through local leaders. But in reality, our love of backgammon and much of our food has been influenced by the Turks, and if we were try to get a positive out of every negative situation, I’d say shish tawook is certainly one positive to add to the list.
The shish tawook recipe below is one of many that you would find out there, but I think it’s the closest in flavour to my favourite version that I used to have in Lebanon. Eat it with plenty of toum and some pickled cucumber with Lebanese bread, and then tell me if it’s not the best chicken kebab ever.
Shish Tawook Recipe
- 1.5 kg chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 cup olive oil
- 3 tbsp dijon or mild mustard
- 3/4 cup lemon juice
- 10 crushed garlic cloves
- 2 tbsp salt
- 1 tbsp white (or black) pepper
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 4 tbsp finely chopped thyme or 2 tbsp dried thyme
- mushrooms, optional but highly recommended
- 1 red and 1 green capsicum, optional but highly recommended
- Emulsify the mustard with the olive oil. This is done by whisking a little bit of olive oil into the mustard and continuing to do so until all the olive oil is encorporated
- Add and whisk the lemon juice, salt, pepper, tomato paste, garlic and thyme until well mixed
- Marinate the chicken in the sauce overnight in the fridge
- Skewer the chicken along with pieces of mushroom and capsicum and barbeque or grill until don . Don’t over cook otherwise the chicken would dry out
- Eat with lots and lots of toum, pickles and Lebanese bread
- Blissfully avoid social interaction for 4 days until all garlic symptoms have subsided
I remember breakfasts of Labneh, Zaatar, mint, tomato and cucumber with fresh, paper thin markouk bread. On weekends, when time was a luxury we could afford, it would be kishk and qawarma hiding full cloves of garlic in creamy whiteness speckled with shallow fried pine nuts. We burnt our tongues in impatience and never learned to wait. Eggs with sumac were fluffy and crunchy, slowly fried with olive oil in pottery and devoured within seconds with farm fresh home made goat’s milk yoghurt. Every once in a while, mom would send dad down to the baker’s with a variety of containers to be made into Lebanese pizzas and pies. The one for manakish would be full of her special zaatar mix – hand picked mountain thyme, dried and mixed with freshly roasted sesame seeds, sumac and of course, olive oil from our decades old olive grove. Another would have spinach and wild silver beet mixed with onions and used to fill the triangular Fattayer b’Sbenekh w Selek. Then there was Lahm b’Ajeen, mutton and beef mince mixed with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts, pomegranate molasses and spices served piping hot on top of the crispy golden brown pastry. A squeeze of lemon juice was all it needed to become the perfect meat pie. Let’s not get into an argument here.
Dad would drive on missions in search of the freshest produce. On his way back home, he would beep the horn, sending a special message that got us on to our feet and out to greet him. The three boys would help dad carry boxes full of the freshest produce upstairs where mom would complain. On a good day. electricity was only available for two or three hours if we were lucky, and that meant that produce needed to be bought and consumed very quickly. But Dad had a problem. Buying a kilo or less of anything was a strange concept he never embraced; and so mom got busy cooking three or four meals at a time, preserving what she could and handing out the rest to the neighbours, who were all too keen to repay the favour and offload their own husbands’ overzealous shopping habits, undermining mom’s evacuation efforts.
Over the next few posts, I want to cover many of the Lebanese breakfast foods we eat. I will aim to recreate the recipes using high quality raw ingredients sourced locally from Sydney wherever possible . Wish me luck.