Located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, between the desert and the sea, between the coastal merchants and the nomadic Bedouins, Lebanon has had a tumultuous history. Over the ages, it has been repeatedly invaded, occupied; it has served as a haven for the oppressed or more simply as a destination for settlers and migrants. All those peoples have blended in and fertilized local culture with their lore and their habits.
Lebanon’s exceptional location and its singular morphology have contributed to making it a hub of botanic biodiversity. It is one of the nuclear centers of genetic species of wheat, barley, lentils and vetch, their cultivation dating back more than 5,000 years. Other agricultural species originating from Lebanon include olives, figs, grapes, pomegranates and carob. Foods made from these plants lie at the basis of the local culinary traditions.
Although tiny in comparison to most of its neighbors (it is just 200 km long and 50 km wide), Lebanon offers great variability in landform. Its two mountain ranges, the Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon, peaking at over 3000m, run parallel to the narrow coastal plain. In the North (Akkar) and the South (Amel), the mountains melt into hills and small plains. Between the two ranges, at an altitude of 1,000m, sits the Bekaa plateau. Beyond the Anti-Lebanon are the Syrian border, the steppe (Badia) and the great Arabian Desert.
The tall Lebanese mountains capture the rain clouds from the sea, endowing Lebanon with exceptional water resources and enriching local biodiversity. The mountains also contribute to creating microclimates that range from the warm Mediterranean to the sub-alpine in the summit region. This results in great floral diversity and in the ability to extend the production seasons of most crops by moving along the altitudinal gradient. The mountains offer the opportunity for effective transhumance of small ruminants (goats and sheep). These can graze on the coast or on the Bekaa in winter, and migrate to higher altitudes in the summer. This has contributed to promoting the rearing of sheep and goats, especially in areas, such as the Anti-Lebanon, where rainfall is insufficient for productive farming.
Wheat and bread, sheep and goat milk and cheeses, grapes and carob are foods that originate from the interaction of history, ecology and geography. They form the cornerstone of the Lebanese food traditions. They are the alimentary expression of the landscape.
Lebanon is home to a large number of local wheat species—an exact enumeration and collection and characterization has not been carried out. Many of the traditional bread wheat varieties are becoming extinct. This is due to the invasion of the local markets since the 1950s by cheap wheat dumped by Australia, Canada and the US. Only the varieties used for the production of burghul, or crushed wheat, have survived.
Salamouni wheat is one of the land species of wheat still grown in Lebanon, especially in the Bekaa. It is a soft, low yielding variety but, in spite of these shortcomings, it has survived because it is the raw material for burghul. The original species is still found growing in the wild, a fact of great significance to its history and genetic background in this area, where it continues to be intensively cultivated.
Burghul, or cracked wheat, is believed originally to have been a Kurdish product. It has been found in the Middle East since 1300 AD and has been traded by the Arabs along the Mediterranean coast since 1600 AD. Burghul is still part of the regular diet in the Levantine countries, but since WWI it has been frequently supplanted with rice. Due to its minimal processing, burghul conserves most of the vitamins, minerals and essential elements found in wheat.
To make burghul, whole wheat is boiled for several hours in large pots and then sun-dried. The processing procedure, specifically the boiling, takes place at the end of the summer after harvest. It is a communal activity that brings families together.
Freekeh, freek, or roasted green wheat, is a specialty of certain Arab countries, especially Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. In these countries freekeh can replace rice, to which it is nutritionally far superior. The word freekeh comes from the Arabic word al-freek meaning ‘what is rubbed’, in reference to the process of manufacturing freekeh, which involves rubbing the wheat grains to rid them of their shell.
To make freekeh, the green wheat stalks are harvested and gathered in bunches, then roasted in the fields over an open wood or charcoal fire for approximately 10 minutes, until the spines of the wheat grain are burnt off. When cool, the grain is separated from the chaff and left to dry. It is either kept whole or ground into coarse particles. The color of the final product is greenish and its shape, if not cracked, is similar to that of rice as is its texture, although it tends to be somewhat chewier. The flavor is nutty and smoky. It is cooked like rice to accompany meats or vegetables.
Markouk is a thin flatbread baked on a hot plate called a saj, which resembles an inverted wok. It was originally called Roukak bread by ancient Arabs, but in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine it was later called Markouk. This is the simplest bread that can be manufactured, the original rural bread of Lebanon. It is still commonly sold and some modern bakeries produce it semi-industrially.
Markouk can be made in various thicknesses, ranging from fractions of a millimeter to one millimeter. The diameter of the round loaf can reach up to 70 cm. Each loaf is baked individually, usually by women, who flip the dough on their arms until it is fully stretched and then place it on a round pillow before transferring it onto the hot plate. Baking takes 30-45 seconds.
Mishtah el jreesh is a type of bread specific to South Lebanon (Jabal Amel). It was traditionally produced during the pilgrimage season and consumed over the first few days of the journey to Mecca. It is today associated with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and is eaten with labneh and olive oil when the fast is broken.
The word mishtah derives from the Arabic word ishtah or to flatten and refers to the characteristic flatness of the bread. It is thought to have originated in Iran. The product reached Lebanon from Persia and across the Arabian Peninsula and was adapted by southern Lebanese who developed many new variations of the basic recipe and added their local spices. The specificity of the mishtah al jreesh is due to the use of cracked soft wheat flour, and to the addition of whole aniseed, sesame seeds and mahlep, the tiny dried fruit of the wild cherry. Each region of the south uses a slightly different spice mix.
Traditionally this bread, like all old breads, was baked in a furniyeh oven, a wood-fired clay oven. Today’s gas ovens have replaced these traditional methods but can’t reproduce the distinctive flavor of the original wood burning ovens.
The processing of milk first started in the Middle East for the purposes of preserving it for long periods of time. Milk yields different products with increasing shelf lives: fresh milk yields yoghurt (laban) then labneh, then cheese. Milk can also be further processed into drier cheeses such as shankleesh. Labneh, since it contains less water, represents a later stage of processing than yoghurt.
Labneh is characterized by its white/cream color and its soft and smooth paste. It is easily spreadable and has a clean and slightly acidic flavor. In households throughout Lebanon, labneh is consumed on a daily basis. It is most commonly eaten fresh drizzled with olive oil and scooped with pieces of pita bread. It is also used as a filling for sandwiches.
Labneh can be made from cow, goat or sheep milk. It contains around 10% fat, 10 % protein, 5 % lactose, 15 % milk solids, and 25-35 % total solids. It has a pH ranging from 3.5-4 (Bodyfelt, 1988).Good quality labneh requires a starter culture consisting of strains of Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. These bacteria are crucial to a fermentation process that transforms lactose to lactic acid and thus makes labneh more tolerable to lactose-intolerant consumers.
Shankleesh is the only mold-ripened cheese native to the Middle East. It is believed to be of Kurdish origin. Shankleesh is essentially concentrated, skimmed milk yoghurt which is hand-molded and given a smooth outer surface, then ripened and coated with thyme and other herbs. It can be consumed after ripening for a couple of days or it can be stored in containers (traditionally clay jars) at ambient temperature. It will then be colonized by yeasts including Debaryomyces hanseni and Penicillum. It is this development of this micro-flora that gives shankleesh its distinctive taste and increases its shelf life while decreasing the risk of contamination by pathogenic organisms. High salt and low moisture content also contribute to the preservative effect. This was especially important under conditions where refrigeration was not available.
Shankleesh can be made from cow, sheep or goat milk. The type of milk will affect the taste of the final product. Milk is fermented into yoghurt, which is then shaken to extract the ghee. The remaining protein rich liquid is heated until it solidifies. The coagulum is then salted and hand-molded into fist-sized balls. It is sun-dried and then fermented in a clay pot for a month. The resulting product has a moderately pungent and somewhat musty flavor with a perceptible bitter note. It is also naturally very low in fats (around 5%) and constitutes a very healthy source of proteins and calcium. Shankleesh is usually eaten as an appetizer (mezzeh) broken into small pieces, mixed with finely cut onions, tomatoes and green peppers and drenched in olive oil.
Molasses is a practical way to preserve fruits by concentration and pasteurization. Grapes and carob are the two main sweet molasses processed in Lebanon. Dibs el inab, grape molasses, is typical of the mountainous regions where sweet white grapes are produced in large quantities. It plays a central role in the Lebanese winter-stored food, the mouneh. Its production is associated with the festivals that accompany grape harvests. It is manufactured by the women of the household, usually the eldest.
Grapes are juiced and the decanted clear liquid is then heated until it thickens and starts sticking to the spoon. It is left to cool, and then vigorously blended to aerate it which will also thicken it and change its color from maroon to tan.
Dibs el inab can replace sugar in any recipe, but it is most commonly used as a drink syrup concentrate. Usually a tablespoon of grape molasses is added to a cup of chilled water with a few drops of orange blossom water and crushed ice to make a thirst quenching drink.
Dibis el kharoub, carob molasses, is derived from concentrating the marinade produced after soaking milled carob beans in water. The carob beans used in this process are produced by the carob tree Ceratonia siliqua, an evergreen shrub native to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus.
Dibis el kharroub is made by grinding the carob fruits, and extracting them with water over several days. The juices are then concentrated by boiling for several hours until the desired viscosity is achieved. Its color at this stage is very dark brown, almost black. It is then cooled and transferred to containers for storage.
Carob molasses is generally used as an alternative for sugar and can be mixed and served with a Lebanese product called tahina, or sesame paste. It is eaten as a traditional desert called debs bi tahina.
Terraces of olive trees bordered with grape vines, wheat fields swaying in the wind, flocks of sheep and goats dispersed on the hills, and here and there a few carob stands offering shelter from rain or sun. This landscape is common to most of the villages of Lebanon. It has sustained its people for generations and continues to do so today. In spite of the rapid urbanization of the country, most Lebanese are still attached to their culinary traditions, and continue to consume local products. In recent years, a ‘return to the land’ movement has emerged, mostly originating from civil society groups. While the efforts are still uncoordinated and of limited scale, the impact of the grassroots is starting to be felt. Shops selling traditional products are increasing in number and producers’ markets are emerging in the major cities. In the absence of governmental policies in agriculture, this movement is still the best bet for preserving food culture, landscape and rural livelihoods.
Ramy Zurayk is a lecturer in Ecosystem Management at the American University of Beirut.
First published in the Italian magazine Slowfood no. 32.