The Rebirth of Lebanon

By | lebanese food, lebanon food | 4 Comments


View of the Mediterranean from Byblos, with Roman ruins in the forefront, followed by the recognisable heritage Lebanese home overlooking the water (source, The New York Times)

Though this entry is somewhat unrelated to food, it does not stray far from the general theme of this blog, which revolves around my Lebanon. As a phoenix is reborn from the ashes of its monumental fire, my Lebanon is getting its own rebirth. In 2009, The New York Times deservedly voted Beirut as the number one tourist destination in the world. The article mentioned the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, Le Gray as the forces of change in Lebanon’s culinary scene. For traditional Lebanese, the mention went to Al Ajami restaurant and Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen.

More recently, Jbeil (Byblos) was the subject matter in an article in The New York Times as being the Cannes of the Middle East, in contrast to the saying Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. I really enjoyed that article not the least because I actually grew up in Jbeil (and went to school in Monsif, if you must know), despite the focus being on one of my least favourite Lebanese trait, which is the exorbitant show of wealth. Having just returned from Lebanon this year, I can confirm the Jbeil is the place to be. The council has done wonders in creating a tasteful city, and the beaches are fantastic, though mostly privatised and almost unaffordable to locals. Jbeil imparts the visitor with a great sense of history and coupled with a unique tidy, civilised laid-backedness. It has everything Beirut doesn’t, and more. By more I mean a chicken shawarma from el Rock followed by a fruit cocktail from el Addoom. Oh my God!

The Jbeil article mentions the following restaurants:

Bab El Mina
Mother
Pierre & Friends
Locanda a la Granda (mentioned as the best restaurant in town)

Zaatar Ice Cream – Bouza 3a Zaatar

By | ice cream, lebanese food, Recipes | 10 Comments


Zaatar Ice Cream (melting in the Sydney heat)

While in France last year, Lainy and I made our way down from Paris, through Orleans and to Provence and then ended up in the enchanting Cote d’Azur, better known in English as the French Riviera. We settled for a week in the seaside city of Nice, taking indulgent day trips to Italy to have a bowl of pasta, and then heading back for a stroll and a glass of wine in the city. It was here where I met my childhood friend Grandizer, strolling on the pebble beach, and it was also where I saw the different flavours of ice cream on display. The French seemed adventurous with the flavours on offer and they seemed to look at local flavours for inspiration. Lavender ice cream was an obvious one, but coquelicots (corn poppy) ice cream, though relevant, was a bit more abstract.

This got me thinking, and I decided that a zaatar (thyme) ice cream is in order. At first this might not seem like a match made in heaven, right? Zaatar for the Lebanese is a savoury herb, and we eat it every day mixed with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil, and it forms our very basic breakfast. We also use it to marinate meats and sprinkle it in salads. Zaatar is not exactly a herb that you would say, put in a cake. You would probably not find Coca Cola rushing to make a special edition Zaatar Coke for that ultimate manakish experience. Zaatar chewing gum? Refreshing…


Grandizer, making a stand in Nice and a selection of French ice creams

But hold on. The French are making coquelicots ice cream for God’s sake! Have you ever nibbled into a coquelicot, and tasted that red bitterness. Or have you ever smelled the grassy green aroma it gives out? If you have, you might agree with me that with all things being equal, zaatar ice cream might not be such a bad idea. And indeed, if you taste my ice cream, you might even agree that it’s actually a great idea. The lingering aroma of thyme infuses beautifully in the custard, and marries with its luxurious creaminess like, well, a match made in heaven!

To make this ice cream, I followed a basic vanilla ice cream recipe, and instead of infusing vanilla beans in the milk and cream, I infused the zaatar. I used dry, Lebanese zaatar, because it has a completely different flavour to fresh thyme. And to complete the flavour profile and the play on the zaatar theme, I threw in some toasted sesame seeds. It is worth mentioning that this ice cream usually comes out milky white. The color you see in the photos is purely because I used raw cane sugar (because it is low GI). I actually prefer white sugar in this recipe because I find the treacly sweetness of raw cane sugar slightly overpowers the aroma of the zaatar. You must try this recipe because you will love it, but please, don’t eat it wrapped in Lebanese bread with cucumbers and olive oil!


A bowl of Lebanese zaatar with sumac and toasted sesame seeds

Zaatar Ice Cream Recipe

Ingredients

  • 300ml thick cream
  • 300ml milk
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp dried zaatar (thyme)
  • 3 tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Method

  1. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat, mix in the zaatar and set aside for 10 minutes to infuse.
  2. Place the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat until pale.
  3. Strain the milk to remove the zaatar
  4. Carefully pour the milk over the eggs, then return to a clean saucepan.
  5. Cook over low heat, continuously stirring, for about five minutes until it is slightly thickened and coats the back of a wooden spoon.
  6. Set aside to cool, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  7. Place custard in a plastic container in the freezer until frozen at the edges. Remove from freezer. Beat with an electric beater. Re-freeze. Repeat this process two more times. Add the sesame seeds in the last time you beat the ice cream(Alternatively, churn in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions and add the sesame seeds as the ice cream is beginning to freeze)

Eggs and Sumac in Pottery – A Lebanese Breakfast

By | lebanese breakfast, lebanese food, Recipes | 7 Comments


Eggs and Sumac with yoghurt

The Lebanese are bacillophobic, but their fear of bacteria is somewhat selective and irrational. Growing up, most chicken I had was cooked until all trace of moisture had evaporated. Runny eggs? Forget it. Sashimi? Unheard of. Yet, from the age of five, I have been enjoying delicacies such as kibbeh nayyeh (raw minced beef/lamb), liyyeh (raw tallow fat) and even raw liver (which is great by the way, with nothing but finely ground black pepper and a sprinkle of salt). It seemed that lamb and beef were exempt from germs, if your uncle knew the butcher, but a nice fresh piece of raw kingfish was out of the question. Things are changing, and sushi is now all the rage (I have a good story about that, but I’ll save it till later), but it seems there is no convincing my fellow compatriots of the virtues of a buttery, creamy egg yolk that is barely starting to set. For instance, my good friend Ludwig, upon a recent visit to Lebanon tried to make his brother scrambled eggs. The eggs were organic and fresh, and Ludwig cooked them to perfection, but his brother still would not touch them because they were still “raw”! Instead, the normal way of eating eggs would be frying them until the whites were golden crisp and the yolks were completely dry. Then and only then would they be safe! It was only when I came to Australia in 2001 when I saw the lunacy of this approach.


A jar of sumac

Now that I’ve sufficiently ranted, it is worth mentioning that we do have some excellent egg recipes. Eggs with qawarma (lamb preserved in its fat) for instance rivals the best eggs and sausages, truly. Another favourite of mine is eggs with sumac. Sumac is both the sumac plant and the dried crushed berries that grow on it. Sumac, verjuice and pomegranate molasses form a trinity in the Lebanese villager’s mouneh (larder) and they serve the purpose of providing acidity, and are excellent substitutes for lemon juice, especially in the mountains where citrus trees can not grow. The use of pottery to cook the eggs is also traditional, and with sufficiently low heat, you will be able to achieve crisp egg whites, while maintaining a creamy yolk. Sumac sprinkled on top of the eggs is wonderfully decorative, and its acidity is not overwhelming, but is aromatic and interesting.

Eggs with sumac recipe

There is really nothing to this recipe. Put a ceramic fry pan on a low flame and add a tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, crack the eggs on top. After a minute or two, add your salt, pepper and sumac. How much you add depends on your taste, but I’d say half a teaspoon of sumac for each egg. Keep frying until the egg whites have set. Serve with fresh Lebanese bread and Greek-style yoghurt.

Mighli – A Guilt Free Lebanese Christmas Pudding

By | dessert, lebanese food, Recipes | 6 Comments

With the festive season still in progress, the excesses of Christmas are catching up with me. My diet has mainly been terrible: a low intake of veggies (peas), coupled with a massive increase in animal fat (read duck fat, cream, butter) and animal protein , and those nice bottles of sherry and wine – my liver is sluggishly churning through the indulgences, and I’m feeling sleepy. But it is the season to be jolly after all, and you can’t be jolly without puds, right?

Mighli is one of those Lebanese desserts suitable for Christmas, and it’s fat free, so my digestive system is partially thankful. Mighli’s suitability for Christmas comes from two aspects. The first one is the recipe’s use of spices – cinnamon, aniseed and caraway – as spices are used for Christmas puds the world over. And second, the Lebanese make this recipe when a child is born, so of course, it is very relevant to the birth of Christ. The beauty of this recipe is in its simplicity, flavour and texture. Mighli means boiled, and I believe that is because the creamy mouth feel comes from boiling rice flour with sugar, water and spices, making it surprisingly rich for a fat free dessert. Joumana from Taste of Beirut has a nice entry on Mighli, and since she wrote her blog entry before I did, I owe her a mention. So try this dessert – it’s sweet, creamy and somewhat healthy. Well, healthier…

Mighli Recipe

Ingredients
Water – 6 cups
Sugar – 1 cup
Rice Flour (Fine) – 1 cup
Cinnamon – 2 tsp
Aniseed – 1 tsp
Caraway – 3 tsp

Garnish
Pistachios, no shell, soaked overnight – a big handful
Pine nuts – a big handful
Almonds, peeled, soaked overnight in water laced with orange blossom water
Raisins, dried shredded coconuts or anything that takes your fancy

Method

  1. Boil 3 cups of water
  2. Add sugar and spices and mix until the sugar dissolves
  3. Separately mix the rice flour with the remaining 3 cups of water making sure there are no lumps
  4. Add rice flour slurry to the boiling water
  5. Bring up to the boil then reduce the heat to medium
  6. Continuously stir with a wooden spoon
  7. The mixture will eventually become quite thick. This should take around 40 minutes or so
  8. When sufficiently thick (around twice the thickness of custard), turn the heat off and put in a large serving dish or individual ramekins
  9. Wait until cool then refrigerate

Assembly

  1. Peel and drain the pistachios
  2. Drain the almonds
  3. Garnish the ramekins or serving dish with the nuts/raisins/coconut
  4. Serve cold

Sfouf Recipe – A Lebanese Christmas Cake

By | lebanese food, Recipes | 7 Comments


Sfouf – Lebanese tumeric and aniseed cake

I’m sure everyone will agree that the English have Christmas pudding down pat. A warm, moist cake bursting with brandy and rum, studded with candied fruit, raisins and currants, and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. And to make things even better, a bit of brandy butter or custard! In contrast, the Lebanese do not have a Christmas pudding, but I thought that sfouf would make a fine cake for the festive season. Though much lighter, and indeed drier than a Christmas pud ought to be, sfouf gets its distinctive color from tumeric, which along with aniseed gives it a distinctive flavour. It’s this spicy combination that in my mind makes it Christmasy. My British friend Daniel – whose taste buds were shot off in the war – recalls eating this cake prepared by his Lebanese neighbours in London. He hated it, and in consequence has little regard for Lebanese food. I maintain that Daniel’s neighbours must have not known a good sfouf recipe. The cake is simple and fragrant. But don’t expect a moist cake; this one is on the dry side and is perfect with a cup of coffee or tea.


how good does the cake looks with those lovely golden almonds?

In Lebanese, sfouf means “rows”, which I believe is in relation to the way it is cut on the baking tray. The best sfouf I’ve ever had was in the city of Sidon (Saida), from a street cart pushed by an old man. This travelling patisserie only sold sfouf and nammoura, another beautiful dessert. From what I understand, the old man had been selling these cakes all his life. At some point, he had made enough money to open a shop, but he left that to his kids to run, as he preferred pushing the cart in the open air and speaking to old friends. And as the old man walked through the busy streets of Sidon, people would flock to buy the fresh, aromatic, yellow cake. One of my favourite things about this cake is the use of tahini to “butter” the tray or cake tin. It gives the edges a beautiful crunch and nuttiness. For an authentic experience, do not substitute the tahini with butter. This recipe is adapted from Chef Ramzi.

Sfouf Recipe (makes 1 medium cake)


The dry ingredients will result in a mild flavour of spice and an awesome yellow colour

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • 2 cups medium coarse semolina
  • 1.25 cups white flour
  • 1.5 cups caster sugar
  • 3/4 cup butter (room temp)
  • 1.5 cups milk
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp tumeric
  • 1/2 tsp aniseed (ground)
  • pine nuts, sesame seeds OR almonds to garnish

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C
  2. Mix the flour, semolina, baking powder, tumeric and aniseed in a mixing bowl
  3. Cube the butter and use the tips of your fingers to thoroughly incorporate into the flour and spice mix. The mixture will not appear too yellow just yet
  4. Melt the sugar in the cold milk
  5. Add the milk and sugar to the flour, mix and incorporate thoroughly with a spoon. The yellow colour will now come through brilliantly
  6. Use the tahini to butter your cake tin
  7. Pour the cake mix into the cake tin and make sure the surface is flat
  8. Add your garnish of choice. Sesame seeds can be sprinkled, but pine nuts or almonds need to be placed in an orderly fashion ladies and gentlemen
  9. Bake the cake for around 30 or 40 minutes (depending on the thickness).
  10. Test by inserting a skewer and checking if it comes out clean
  11. When done, turn off the oven but put the cake under a hot grill for a minute to make the surface nice and golden. Keep an eye on it, or else it might burn
  12. Wait for the cake to cool down (or slightly warm) to serve
  13. Enjoy!

Al-Sikbaj and the Art of Medieval Arab Cookery

By | Of Arabic Origin, Recipes | 22 Comments


al-sikbaj, the extinct ancestor of escabeche

At school, we learn that Lebanon is a Mediterranean country with an Arab façade. Due to this dual identity, we are taught Phoenician history, and it forms a large part of our self image. Even though the rest of the world may consider Lebanon an Arab nation, many Lebanese consider themselves and their country separate to the Arab world. Our Canaanite ancestry is one we hold on to dearly, and with pride. Our refusal to be labelled as Arabs does not stem from a desire to be non-conforming or dissidence. The Arab label is simply not accurate for us as a people. Genealogically, our ancestry does not trace back to the Arabian Peninsula or the Syrian Desert. Linguistically, our language has more Syriac and Aramaic influences than Arabic. But we are considered Arabs only as a government which has political interest in embracing an Arab identity. That said, our relationship with the Arab world is a close one. We learn the history of the Arabs, of their Golden Age, their sciences and medicine, their poetry and their arts. We are also taught to speak and read Arabic (an illiterate Lebanese will not intuitively understand Arabic), which is our formal written language. This has allowed us to gain a great appreciation for our neighbours and to celebrate their achievements, and in this case, we learn to revel in their culinary contributions.

From before the year 1400 AD, there were more cook books written in Arabic than there were in all the languages of the world combined. Arab food was richer, more sophisticated and more complex (made so by the Arab invasions of Persia) than any of its contemporaries. The cuisine had access to an unbelievable variety of products and produce: delicate, heady flavours of saffron and rose water, the sweetness of cane sugar, honey, date molasses and grape juice, the sharp acidity of vinegar, fresh herbs and dried spices, rich fatty meats and game, fruit and vegetables, sumac, cheese, murri (Arab equivalent of soy sauce), yoghurt, etc… Endless combinations gave way to new dishes, many of which remain in existence to this day, and many other that have disappeared, but whose trace can be seen in dishes kept alive in other forms by other cultures.

One of these dishes is al-sikbaj (pronounced assikbaj, s being a solar letter). One of the most popular Arab dishes of its time, al-sikbaj is mentioned in most medieval Arab cookbooks. The name derives from the Persian sikba: sik, “vinegar”, ba, “food”. And so, the basic premise is that meat is cooked in a mixture of some sort of sweetener (honey, grape juice, date molasses) and vinegar. The interesting thing about al-sikbaj is that it is no longer cooked in the Arab world. Its memory now lives on in the Spanish escabeche. During the Arab invasions of Spain and Portugal, al-sikbaj became part of the local diet. The name was changed due to mispronunciation to escabeche, but the recipe stayed more or less intact. To this day, escabeche denotes a meat that has been cooked in vinegar and something sweet. This dish may have also reached South America and given its name to ceviche (but the scholars have not yet agreed whether this is true or not, with several theories on the subject). However, another interesting word that derives from al-sikbaj is aspic. Since al-sikbaj can be eaten cold, as the cooking liquid cools down, it becomes a jelly, and as such, the word aspic (meat jelly) came to be, as an another alteration of the original word.


the opulence of medieval Arab cookery included rare, exotic, indulgent and expensive ingredients

In my reference books, I have around seven different recipes for al-sikbaj. Medieval cookery books provide challenges in interpreting their recipes. For instance, they do not specify quantities. Often, they ask you to add spices, without telling you which ones to use. Same goes for meat, where you do not know which animal or what cut to use. Cooking times are non-existent, and you are asked to use your judgement in determining when to stop cooking.

When I first cooked this dish, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I felt like a scientist or an archaeologist rediscovering a long forgotten world. And truly, when I tasted the end result, this dish blew me away, exceeding all expectations. The flavours of saffron, dried fruit, almonds and rose water really give you a sense of medieval Arabia. I hope this recipe reaches the thousands of Middle-Eastern chefs out there, and I would love to see al-sikbaj make the remarkable resurrection that it so deserves. So here it goes, my recipe for al-sikbaj, put together after many hours of reading through medieval cook books and attempting to reach the right balance of ingredients.

Al-Sikbaj – Recipe


al-sikbaj, the finished product

Ingredients
600 g lamb shoulder without the bones in 1 inch cubes
3 medium onions, slices
3 medium round eggplants, peeled, quartered then halved, then pricked with a fork
cinnamon, 2 tsp
dried coriander, ground, 4 tsp
apple cider or white wine vinegar, 1/2 cup
honey, 1/2 cup
saffron, a large pinch
5 dried figs, quartered
raisins, handful
almond flakes or halves, handful
rose water, 1 tsp
olive oil

Method

  1. Boil the eggplants for 15 minutes, covered
  2. Drain the eggplants and set aside
  3. Cover the bottom of a heavy based pot with olive oil and heat up
  4. Brown the meat and onions really well
  5. Add the cinnamon and coriander and stir for a minute
  6. Cover the meat with boiling water and add 2 pinches of salt. The water should be around 1 cm over the meat
  7. Boil the meat on medium heat for 20 minutes, skimming the froth that rises to the surface
  8. Place the eggplants on top of the meat. Do not stir
  9. Mix the honey and vinegar. The mixture should be both sharp and sweet
  10. Pour the honey and vinegar on top of the eggplants
  11. After 5 minutes take some of the liquid out and mix the saffron with it and pour back on top of the eggplants
  12. Simmer until the liquid has reduced and thickened, around 45 minutes
  13. Add the raisins, almonds and figs on top of the eggplants
  14. Take the heat down to an absolute minimum, clean the sides of the pot with a damp cloth and cover
  15. Keep cooking for around half an hour
  16. When done, sprinkle with some rose water and serve
  17. You can also eat this cold, and it is equally delicious