26 Sep 2003

Any excuse for taking a journey—seeing new things, showing others new things, trying new flavors—is a good one.

Mescolanze: popoli e sapori del mondo (Mixes: Peoples and Flavors of the World), a food festival organized by Paolo Bellini in the pretty town of Rovereto in the Trentino—with the prospect of taking part in communal lunches and dinners—is an excellent reason for setting off from home. For me, it is this aspect of communality that is the most important part of the event. Where else can you eat in more enjoyable company? Where could it be easier to get to know the person next to you, his customs and, especially, his eating habits—the real heart of anyone’s background?

This year Lebanon was one of the guest countries at the event and participants, including Sardinia’s excellent cook Maura Vinci Orru, and the young but already renowned chef Jordi Cruz from Barcelona, were joined by its youthful, cheery Joe Karam and Joe Barza (both chefs) plus the ever-present Mamma Tony. This larger-than-life character from the Lebanese highlands even brought his sajj (a typical Lebanese oven) all the way to Rovereto and set it in the town’s small streets where he made his manakrish and his fatayer. If you have never heard of these two dishes the folk from Rovereto are now one step ahead of you. They were even queuing for a taste of this thyme bread and spinach- and pine nut-filled bread during the two days set aside for street food.

However, even though street food was part and parcel of the program, the highlights were without doubt the large dinners: Sardinian on the Monday evening, Catalan on the Wednesday and Lebanese on the Friday. The Monday do featured all the leading Sardinian specialties: pasta, bread, cheeses and other delights. A nouvelle cuisine-style dinner set the scene on the Wednesday, all creativity and inventiveness. Then on Friday came the most traditional Lebanese mezze.

But what are mezze? More than anything it is the way that mezze are served that marks them out, they always come on small plates and are shared by everyone eating. They are, in short, the perfect way to stimulate conversation.

The dinner started, naturally enough, tabule, a salad of borghol (cracked wheat), tomato, parsley, mint and lemon. Then followed tomatoes with summak (sumac) and garlic cream; hoummus (a chickpea and sesame seed paste); fatush (peasant salad and bread); sujuk (spiced Armenian salami); basterma (dried meat covered with a thin layer of a garlic and spice paste); fish kebbeh (a mix of borghol and fish flavored with saffron and orange); squash kebbeh (a mix of borghol and squash stuffed with onion); stuffed vine leaves; labneh (soft cheese in cream) and kenclish: a succession of eleven different dishes which formed just a ‘taster’ of mezze.

Even though the most typical aspect of mezze is the way they are shared, another fundamental element is allowing yourself the time to savor them slowly, while sipping an arak, yet another essential part of the true mezze experience. Arak is aniseed-flavored grape alcohol at 53 percent, which is cut with two-thirds water and served with a few cubes of ice.

The mezze usually come to a close with grilled red meat, chicken or fish but on this occasion we were served tasters of syadyieh (rice with fish) and moghrabyieh (Lebanese couscous).

A further part of the event—a taste workshop that I called “Wheat & Co”— involved exchanging recipes,

To me in the Lebanon wheat is the ‘mother’ ingredient, the one that even today most closely represents the country. Wheat, the vine and the olive originated in this part of the eastern Mediterranean, a corner of the world that is often forgotten, as if the Mediterranean were only Greece, Provence, Italy and Spain. And remember that wheat or other cereals have been the ‘daily bread’ of every great civilization in the world.

Today wheat remains an indispensable part of Lebanese cuisine. It is occasionally used as whole grains but far more often as borghol. This rather odd word stands for wheat that has been steamed, dried and crushed (or ‘cracked’) more or less finely. The coarser-grained versions are used for borghol b’dfinn (borghol risotto), in stuffed vegetables or with boiled meats. Fine-grained borghol is the basic ingredient of tabule and kebbeh, which is borghol paste with finely minced meat, fish, squash or even potatoes.

Kebbeh has been the object of local culinary disagreements from time immemorial. Some sustain that the true kebbeh comes from Aleppo, but they wouldn’t dare say so in front of those from the Zgharta district of northern Lebanon who maintain with absolute conviction that kebbeh just has to be theirs.

There are 60 or so different types overall and during the last Kebbeh Festival I was able to taste a good ten of them.

No one ever dares going against the mountainous people of Zgharta, famous for their courage and extreme touchiness. The joke goes that a youth was moaning to his mother about a neighbor who was getting on his nerves. The mother replied that she didn’t want to be bothered with this sort of thing, “Just kill him and come home. I don’t want any complications.”

The evening dedicated to the Lebanon was brought to a close by a lively debate on the possible comparisons between Lebanese and Arab cuisines. I had already covered similar ground when I met Lilia Zaouali, an expert historian and anthropologist on the Islamic world. I had initially asked myself, and asked her what we mean by ‘Arab cuisine’. When we say “Arab cuisine’, it’s like talking about ‘European cuisine’. Does something of the type really exist?

Absolutely not. I don’t think that you can even talk about, for instance, ‘Italian cuisine’: you have to distinguish between the cooking of the north and south or between one region and another. The same holds true for Arab cuisine. The term is highly generic and is used only by orientalists sui generis—the sort who delight in the fantasy tales of Ali Baba, the Thousand and One Nights, the harem and other bits of exotica.
Arab cuisine is as diverse as the number of countries that the west calls ‘Arab’. But then, does being Arab relate to one’s language, one’s geographical origins or one’s religion? If it’s language, there are many countries where Arabic is spoken, from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa and the Middle East. In that case you can’t refer to place nor even religion, since even though the majority of ‘Arabs’ are Moslem, there are many Christians (in the Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Egypt) and even Jews.
So the definition ‘Arab’ remains somewhat summary and really doesn’t define anything at all. In any event, Arab cuisine, like all cuisines, is to do with local cooking. Hence we have Lebanese cooking, Syrian cooking, Jordanian cooking and so on. But then I could reasonably go on to say that even Lebanese cooking as such doesn’t really exist, but embraces a wealth of various regional cuisines, each typical of a different part of the country. There is, for example, the food of the coast which, with its abundant fresh, varied seasonal produce and plenty of fish, is closer to the food of coastal Syria than to the cooking of the Lebanese highlands. This latter is based on muneh, the traditional way of preserving foods to see the population through the difficult winter months. Then again, inland, in the lands of the Bekaa plains with their continental climate, the cooking is more like that of the inland parts of Syria, such as the region of Damascus.

Cuisine is a tradition of place and time. Which means that the most real, authentic of cuisines is one that has to do with the seasons, the earth and ancestral traditions. At Rovereto there was an attempt to bring us a morsel of this—to taste and to share.

Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor toSaveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.

Adapted by Maureen Ashley

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