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What Is Lebanese Cuisine?
Lebanese cuisine refers to all the rich culinary traditions of Lebanon, a region steeped in the flavors and techniques of the Levant. Though Lebanese recipes do feature a good deal of meat (usually chicken, lamb, and occasionally beef or fish), many dishes are also vegan, thanks to the country’s love of whole grains, legumes, and fresh vegetables. Many recipes center around the concept of mezze, a dining style that composes an entire meal through a spread of small plates.
9 Traditional Lebanese Ingredients
Most Lebanese dishes stem from simple, quality base ingredients cooked in straightforward ways, like grilling, frying, or baking. The combination of spices, condiments like tahini, and aromatic sweeteners like rose water lift those ingredients into new dimensions.
- Sumac is a tangy spice with a sour, acidic flavor reminiscent of lemon juice. This fragrant spice is used to brighten up dry rubs, spice blends like za’atar, and dressings. Sumac is also commonly used as a garnish, to add a pop of bold color or slight acidity to a dish before serving.
- Za'atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that traditionally consists of ground za’atar—a wild thyme native to the eastern Mediterranean—sesame seeds, dried sumac, and salt. Recipes often substitute the difficult-to-obtain ground za’atar for similar herbs, such as domesticated thyme or oregano. Za’atar is used as a seasoning for meats, roasted veggies, and dips, or as a garnish on breads and soft cheeses like labneh.
- Parsley is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and as a result, the mildly bitter, grassy herb—typically the curly-leaf variety—is used liberally throughout Lebanese cooking, most notably in tabbouleh.
- Rose water is water flavored with the distilled essence of rose petals. Modern rose water is made through a process called steam distillation, where rose petals are steeped in water to extract their essential oils.
- Orange blossom water is made using the same method as rose water but features fragrant, potent orange flowers. This ingredient is most commonly associated with Lebanese desserts, namely baklava. Orange blossom water is also the main ingredient of Lebanese café blanc—hot water with orange blossom water, and a drizzle of honey.
- Pomegranate molasses is a thick reduction of fresh pomegranate juice. Pomegranate molasses is a sweet and sour condiment used to add brightness and acidity to any number of dishes—it can be stirred into whole-grain stews, drizzled over kebabs and roasted vegetables like eggplant, or used in marinades.
- Tahini paste is made from ground sesame seeds. Tahini can be mixed with other ingredients like garlic and olive oil to make a savory, silky tahini sauce, or even added to sweet dishes to balance flavor and add nutrients.
- Sauces are a common sight alongside many Lebanese dishes like kafta, shawarma, and falafel. Two of the most common are toum, a garlic sauce with the consistency of creamy aioli, and tarator, the garlicky cucumber yogurt also known as tzatziki. Labneh is the thick, strained yogurt sometimes referred to as Lebanese-style cream cheese. It’s commonly eaten as a dip with an assortment of breads, drizzled with olive oil and garnished with za’atar or mint, or in sandwiches.
- Legumes and grains like bulgur wheat, chickpeas, lentils are a crucial, protein-packed part of the Lebanese diet. Bulgur, a nutty whole grain consisting of precooked, dried, and ground kernels (groats) of wheat is found in meat dishes like kibbeh and salads like tabbouleh, while the invaluable chickpea appears in falafel, salads, and hummus. Lentils are the key component of mujadara.
15 Traditional Lebanese Dishes
Here are just some of the most well-known dishes of the Lebanese canon:
- Falafel is a deep-fried mixture of ground chickpeas or fava beans, onions, garlic, and spices like cumin, coriander, and cardamom. It’s one of the most popular street foods throughout the Middle East, where it’s often served in a pita with a mound of cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled vegetables, and tahini or hot sauce.
- Hummus is a lemony, garlicky dish of mashed chickpeas and tahini most often eaten as a dip and served with pita bread or vegetables. Lebanese hummus is often topped with veggies and sumac, and one Lebanese style of hummus, “hummus awarma,” features pine nuts and minced meat on top.
- Fattoush is a chopped green salad with a smattering of fresh vegetables like tomato, cucumber, and radishes mingling with toasted bits of pita bread that resembles panzanella. Fattoush is typically served with a tangy dressing made with sumac and pomegranate molasses.
- Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern salad of finely chopped fresh herbs, tomatoes, green onions, and cracked bulgur wheat. Tabbouleh is a refreshing mezze staple thought to have originated in the area that today comprises Syria and Lebanon. In general, Lebanese versions tend to be more herb-heavy, with some recipes omitting the bulgur entirely.
- Warak enab, also known as dolmas or stuffed grape leaves, has been a staple dish throughout the Middle East for centuries. The stuffed appetizer features a hashweh, or filling, of meat, rice, cooked vegetables, or a combination thereof, wrapped in cured, briny grapevine leaves.
- Pita, one of the most popular Lebanese breads in the world, is a leavened flatbread known for its puffy inner pocket. Pita bread is often served with baba ganoush, falafel, hummus, and assorted mezze.
- Manakish is a thin, foldable flatbread with subtle indentations made to catch drippings of za’atar and olive oil or labneh.
- Kafta, also known as kofta outside of Lebanon, these oval-shaped, grilled kebabs will be familiar to meatball lovers: Seasoned with herbs, onion, and spices, kafta are most commonly made from ground beef, though they can also be made with chicken or lamb. Kafta can be served in a pita with all the fixings, over rice pilaf, or as a part of a mezze spread.
- Kibbeh is a combination of cracked bulgur wheat and a seasoned mixture of kafta. These stuffed meat croquettes can be fried or baked and served alongside a yogurt or tahini sauce, and an assortment of salads and side dishes. Nicknamed Lebanon’s national dish, there is also a beloved raw version, kibbeh nayeh, a dish in the same spirit of steak tartare that’s served with flatbread.
- Shawarma is one of the most popular dishes in Middle Eastern cuisine. The ingenuity of lamb or chicken shawarma is famous worldwide; slow-roasted on a rotating, upright spit, shawarma (the progenitor of Mexican al pastor, thanks to the wave of Lebanese immigrants who arrived in the country in the late nineteenth century) is sliced thin to order and served as a sandwich with a variety of fresh toppings.
- Mujadara is a blend of lentils and rice (sometimes bulgur wheat), topped with lightly caramelized onions. Variations of mujadara are a common sight across the Middle East, and it’s considered a basic comfort food; in Lebanon, it’s traditionally served with a dollop of yogurt.
- Baba ganoush, also known as baba ghanouj, is a Lebanese roasted eggplant dip served as an appetizer, or mezze, in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants all over the world. The cooked eggplant is combined with tahini, olive oil, and other seasonings like garlic, za’atar, and sumac. (Eggplant is a central ingredient of two other mainstay Lebanese mezzes: Mutabbel, mashed eggplant with tahini and pomegranate seeds, and makdous, oil-cured stuffed eggplants with walnuts and red bell peppers.)
- Arak is an opaque anise-flavored distilled spirit known as the national liqueur of Lebanon. Arabic for “perspiration,” arak is diluted with two parts water and served on ice alongside traditional mezze.
- Baklava is a pastry made from layers of thin, flaky phyllo dough brushed with clarified melted butter and baked, then soaked in hot sugar syrup (either simple syrup or honey syrup). One of the most well-known and beloved Lebanese sweets, the crisp dessert is commonly made all over the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkans, with each region putting its own spin on the treat.
- Kanafeh: Another popular Lebanese sweet is kanafeh, which is made with shredded strands of phyllo dough (giving it a vermicelli-esque texture) soaked in a similarly fragrant sugar syrup and layered with soft cheese.
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