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.
Lovers of Middle Eastern food will be interested in attending this event, part of this year’s SIFF. It’s a great line up organised by the Khouzame group. I’m a big fan of Greg Malouf’s cooking and Chef Joe Barz, a personal friend of mine, has pioneered modern Lebanese cooking in Lebanon and was part of SIFF’s World Chef Showcase last year. Shane Delia from Melbourne’s Maha will be there too, and the sweet ending goes to Vincent Gadan from Patisse. Hope chef Gadan can translate his French patisseries to something Middle-Eastern. For those interested, here are the details:
I’m sick of it. There’s a sort of monotony in Lebanon’s restaurants: the same old mezze, charcoal barbequed meats and some seafood if you’re on the seaside. I came hoping to see some flair and innovation, but the whole thing might be a fleeting dream. When every restaurant is a déjà vu, inspiration for writing is a bit hard to come by.
Tawlet is not a déjà vu, unless you’ve been reading the NY Times, Vogue, Masterchef magazine or if you’re a Bourdain fan and remember the Beirut episode (the one were he didn’t get stuck in a war). This widely acclaimed and highly publicised restaurant is a spin off from Souk El Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers’ market. In a most unlikely neighbourhood below a residential building in the grittiness of Beirut’s Mar Mikhael, Tawlet is a funky, little spot showing off its modern, clever design and stylish finishings and is home to a crowd so hip and cool that they’ve forgotten how to speak Lebanese. I joke, but deep down, I feel a bit upset about the lack of real Lebanese people at Tawlet. That is perhaps the result of Tawlet’s international reputation being much stronger than its local one, which means a more international clientele is attracted, in addition to those Lebanese wankers who can only speak French.
Forget the stupid crowd. You probably won’t notice it, and in any case, we’re here for the food, so let me tell you a bit more about it. Tawlet has been better described as a producer’s kitchen – the same people who grow the food for the farmers’ market Souk El Tayeb cook the food for Tawlet. Like the menu, the chef changes daily. Today, it could be a farmer’s wife, and tomorrow it could be a local cook, but they all use high quality, seasonal produce and dish out some seriously tasty stuff. The food is not cheffy but it’s not boring either. It’s home cooking, all honest and all good, and done really well. The food is served in a buffet and is for a set price : 40,000LL + VAT for open buffet or a reasonable 15,000LL + VAT for a “Business Lunch”. Tawlet likes to celebrate regional cuisine, but from what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t rush to label the food as regional. My general feeling is that true regionality in Lebanon is quite minimal due to the country’s small area – most Lebanese people cook from the same repertoire, with minor variances on recipes, with few exceptions of course. Forgo regionality for seasonality: depending on the time of year and the chef, you could get anything from wonderful makloubeh (eggplant, chicken and rice pilaf with nuts) to mildly spicy sujuk (Armenian sausage) cooked in pomegranate molasses, great salads, soft white beans with coriander and garlic, and eggs with awarma (confitec lamb), all made from prime Lebanese produce. Desserts haven’t failed us yet. If available, try halawet el jibn, a cheese pastry filled with clotted cream and doused with sugar syrup – it’s bloody wonderful – or anything else since it’s all good. There’s a fantastic list of Lebanese wines to boot, and good arak, so if you’re in Beirut, go to Tawlet, and if you’re Lebanese, stick to your mother tongue.
P.S. My deepest apologies for the hipstomatic photos… I couldn’t help it.
El Nabattiyeh is one of those out of the way cities, somehow overly populated while being in the middle of nowhere. The streets choke with dense, irregular traffic and those carelessly wandering on foot fill even the tiniest spaces between the cars. Have you heard of swarm behavior? A single bee or ant isn’t smart but their colonies are – I’m not sure how anyone survives on that road, but they seem to come out of the madness unscathed. Right in the city center is a butcher with half and quarter carcasses hanging out in the shop window. There’s beef and local lamb with large hunks of liyyeh, the beloved tail fat that is eaten raw or used for cooking and perserving. Over charcoal, very little food beats a properly handled skewer of pure tail fat: the surface turns golden and crisp and the inside melts in one’s mouth, savoury and even sweet. Luckily, like many butchers in the area, this shop also doubles up as a charcoal barbeque restaurant, so we enter hungry and eager. Here, eggplants for babaganouj are pounded with a mortar and pestle until smooth and get a touch of tahini, only enough to feel its presence. The kafta, minced lamb and parsley kebabs, are served with chili-flavoured bread – they’re super fresh and bloody awesome.
After a brief wait for the 12-year-old boy who works at the green grocer’s to remove his cart from behind our car, we resume our journey. We enter Jarmaq (ref here), a stunningly rugged bit of landscape both green and barren, and pass by its wheat fields. A farmer is busy with the harvest, aided by two young daughters. It takes some effort, but after he is convinced that I’m not a spy, he lets me take their photo.