Syria, Lebanon, Jordan

Syria, Lebanon, Jordan

Tess Mallos
67 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alan Benson

In writing this book I was faced with many a dilemma. This chapter was one of them. Should I treat each country separately, or place them together? So many dishes, though different in name, are basically the same, and are claimed by each nation. In the interests of avoiding repetition it seemed best to put them together. You will find a mixture of Arabic dialects in the names because recipes were given to me by Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians.

The area which is now Lebanon, Syria and Jordan has played a significant part in history for thousands of years, a trading link with East and West and a melting pot of Arabic cultures and creeds. Their dishes have been developed through the wide variety of foods available and the diverse nature of the people in the cities, towns and the remotest desert areas. Collectively this has produced a cuisine that epitomises the Arabic people, adopted by other nations in the region, and that has in turn adopted dishes from its neighbours.

The flavour of Arabic foods

In my time I have tried many a kibbeh, some excellent, others good, and an occasional disappointing one. The excellence of an Arabic cook is measured by their kibbeh, and in trying to find out how a cook goes about making an excellent kibbeh or a kibbeh bil sanieh, I was left thoroughly bewildered, since no two cooks seemed to agree. Keep the mixture cold, I was told; it doesn’t matter, said someone else. Use only hogget, not lamb, for cooked kibbeh; lamb is fine if it is not too young. Bake it for a long time; bake it for a short time. What confusion! Try my kibbeh bil sanieh and you can start on the merry-go-round of kibbeh-making! I am dizzy!

One modernisation that will probably have traditional kibbeh-makers throw their hands up in horror is the use of the food processor. But try it before you condemn its use. Though I enjoy using a mortar and pestle, I lack the stamina to use it for making kibbeh. Furthermore, I doubt if many cooks do use one away from their native home, as even the hand-operated food grinder makes light of the task in comparison.

Following kibbeh in popularity is tabbouleh, the delicious parsley and burghul (bulgur) salad of the region.

Parsley, mint, the understated spiciness of cinnamon and allspice, the somewhat acidic flavour of yoghurt, the refreshing tartness of lemon, the fruitiness of olive oil, the earthiness of burghul, tahini, eggplant (aubergine), dried beans, rice — these are the flavours of the cuisine of this region. Never overpowering, subtly blended, a delight to the palate.

Arabic hospitality is frequently expressed with the offering of meze, a variety of appetisers only limited by the availability of ingredients and the capacity of the cook to prepare them. hummus bi tahini, baba ghanoush and bakdounis bi tahini are three bread dips that are almost always on hand for meze as they keep very well in the refrigerator. With the food processor, these dips can be prepared very quickly and efficiently.

More time-consuming in their preparation, but nevertheless prepared frequently, are mihshi warak enib (stuffed grape vine leaves). Recipes for these most popular morsels are found in the chapters on Armenia and Cyprus; these are similar to the Arabic versions.

A diligent cook prepares pastries and stores them in the freezer, to be reheated at a moment’s notice. Fatayer, sfiha and lahm bi’ajeen — delicious spinach pies and flat or shaped lamb pies and rolls — are piled on platters and served with yoghurt or lemon wedges. Khoubiz bread dough, a kind of shortcrust pastry, or the fine fillo pastry can form the basis of the pies and rolls. You can take short cuts by using frozen bread dough for some of them, if it is available in your region, and the advantages of fillo pastry are already well known.

Other mezes include labneh makbus (yoghurt cheese balls,); tabbouleh, a good salad to have on hand for any situation; falafel (dried bean croquettes,), and fried or baked kibbeh balls. All these can be prepared ahead: store labneh and tabbouleh as directed in the recipes; falafel and kibbeh balls freeze well and may be defrosted and heated in a 180°C oven. With modern refrigeration, freezers and food preparation appliances, the Arabic cook has a much easier task entertaining than their predecessors had, even in their native land.

All meze are served with khoubiz, the Lebanese flat bread now so widely available to the Westerner. Even if your local store does not keep it in stock, you will find the recipe given quite easy to follow, particularly if you bake bread. The Lebanese khoubiz sorj, and the Palestinian and Jordanian shirak are one and the same. The same dough is rolled and stretched as thinly as possible without breaking it, and baked on a large metal dome called a sorj. The sorj is heated curved side up over a fire until very hot, and the bread draped over it. Cooking time is short — about 3 minutes — and after cooking the bread is wrapped in a cloth to keep it soft. The sorj is available in varying sizes, but I have found that a good iron Chinese wok inverted over a charcoal fire works very well, even if the breads are not as large as they should be. Bread sheets, as they are commonly called, are cut into squares and rolled up with grilled meats and salad ingredients for an Arabic-style hamburger. Khoubiz bread has a convenient pocket for the same kind of filling, or anything you would conceivably put between two slices of bread.

Tahini is a most important ingredient in the Arabic cooking of the region. It is a paste made from toasted sesame seeds; sometimes a little experimentation is required to find a blend to your liking, as they do vary in quality. I have found considerable variation between tahinis, though they all separate to some degree. Store the unopened jars upside down for some time before use; this way the blending usually required is minimised considerably.

The making of yoghurt is an art handed down from mother to daughter and is almost a daily occurrence in traditional homes. Instructions have been given in the introductory chapter of the book, with two methods detailed. It is through the cooking of this region that I learned how to stabilise yoghurt, and for those who might be watching their saturated fat intake, cooked skim milk yoghurt, laban mutboukh, is an excellent substitute for sour cream. The people of the region never, ever, serve yoghurt with fish. I really do not know why; the different reasons I have been given have varied considerably.

The pastries of the region are renowned worldwide: every Western city now has Lebanese or Syrian pastry shops. I have always made it a practice to patronise such shops as I have found their pastries superb. My favourite version of baklava is the Lebanese baklawa be’aj. In my quest to find and develop this recipe for the home I had a problem finding a name for it. Though to me the shape resembles the petals of a flower, it seems that the Lebanese or Syrian is reminded of a cloth-wrapped bundle called a be’aj, and this is the name they give this pastry, though it is generally referred to as baklawa. The other version of baklawa I have given, kul’wa’shkur, has a delightful translation, which describes the pastry admirably — ‘eat and praise’.

Eating in the style of the region

With such a diverse group of peoples, it is difficult to give a general method of serving a meal, as the meal could be taken in a city home, a village dwelling or a desert tent. As I describe the traditional Arabic feast as served in a tent in the Gulf States chapter, I shall concentrate on the city or village meal service.

Once again foreign influences have been felt widely in the area and Beirut is considered a very Western city, though still with an essentially Arabic character. The meal is likely to be set on a conventional table spread with a cloth, or it could be set up on a large, low, brass table, depending on the atmosphere that the hosts wish to create. The one single feature of any meal is abundance, with a large variety of foods served at the meal. There could be kibbeh prepared in one of the many ways, tabbouleh, perhaps a fish dish, rice, a vegetable stew, crisp cos (romaine) lettuce, and other salad ingredients, khoubiz, pickles, olives and fresh fruit. Individual serving plates, cutlery and glassware are part of the table appointments. The setting could be as refined as any Western dining room, or colourfully Arabic in flavour. After the meal, coffee is taken in a separate room, perhaps with sweets, though these are more likely to be eaten at a later time. With coffee comes conversation and sharing the narghile, the water pipe of the area.

Cooking methods

The jorn and madaqqa, the mortar and pestle of the region, is a necessary piece of cooking equipment. The mortar is usually very large and made of stone for kibbeh-making, with smaller versions in stone or brass for hummus and other purées, and for pounding spices. A sanieh — large, round baking tray — is an ideal cooking utensil for the oven and readily available at Middle Eastern food stores. For shaping ma’amoul, a tabi can also be obtained from such stores, though I have given a means of shaping using equipment you will have on hand. Coring zucchini is an art that requires an implement more slender than an apple corer, and zucchini corers are also available.

For general cooking, standard pots and pans may be adapted, though I recommend heavy-based pans, particularly for thick soups and dishes containing yoghurt.

Ingredients for Arabic cooking

Stock up on fine and coarse burghul, tahini, dried beans, chickpeas, dried mint and a spice mix called za’tar, used as a topping with oil on khoubiz bread before baking. Flat-leaf parsley is used in abundance, and it is worthwhile having a sizeable patch in your herb garden. The favoured fats are olive oil and samneh (clarified butter), though substitutes can be used in many recipes. Where a recipe’s flavour is dependent on the right oil or fat, no substitute is given.

Rosewater and orange flower water are required for flavouring syrups and pastries; and you will need walnuts, almonds and pine nuts, with the occasional use of unsalted pistachio nuts. Salted nuts, and toasted and salted chickpeas and pumpkin seeds, are favoured for nibbling with arak, the potent aniseed-flavoured spirit of the region, and no Arabic household of this region would be without them.

Dibs (carob syrup) is also very much part of the cuisine. It is mixed with tahini and spread on khoubiz.

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