The large cedar trees of Lebanon are of course the country’s best known symbol, but good foods also remain imprinted on the visitor’s memory for their flavor. Among the many delicacies to be found on Lebanese tables, kebbeh is a “must”, wherever you happen to be. The birthplace of the dish is Ehden, the famous mountainous area in the north.
Kebbeh is a mixture of meat (nearly always goat meat) ground in the mortar and fine burghol (crushed wheat), salt and pepper. The purists of Ehden add nothing else to emphasize the flavors of the tasty meat of the goats raised on the high mountainsides. In other areas, in the south or in Kesruan in the center of the country, kebbeh is flavored with marjoram, onion, or a mixture of rose and cumin spices.
To be good, kebbeh has to be made with good quality meat, which was once only available on Sundays and Thursdays. Before the advent of electricity and refrigerators, an animal was ‘sacrificed’ on Sundays and feast days, and the meat had to be eaten on the same day.
Goats survived better than other animals on the steep, rocky slopes of the mountains of Lebanon, heavily populated with oak trees. Goat meat is light, aromatic and tasty, but often lean and tough. So it was better to grind it in the mortar than to eat it in pieces or fillets.
The women ground the meat in jornn, large mortars carved out of hardstone. Before acquiring any other utensil or item of furniture, it was necessary to have a jornn, with its large wooden pestle. Walking through the streets of a little town on a Sunday you would hear the sound of pestles grinding the meat emanating from all the houses.
It is also said that after the Lebanese emigrated to Egypt towards the end of the 19th century, finding homes in the better districts of the towns on one condition only: that they would not grind kebbeh everyday and ‘pollute’ the neighborhood with the regular beat of the pestle! It is superfluous to add that the jornn was the first thing the Lebanese took with them when they emigrated. But these images are part of the past: these days the mortar has become little more than a decorative element in a corner of the home, and kebbeh is ground using electric food mixers. Make way for progress….
The meat is ground, adding a little cool water occasionally, into a smooth paste. The fresher the meat, the better the result. Then fine burghol, washed and soaked in water, is added.
Burghol is a basic ingredient of Lebanese cuisine. It is made from steamed wheat, which is left to dry and then more or less roughly crushed. There are various types: the coarser variety is cooked like rice, while the finer version is added to meat to make kebbeh or to parsley, tomatoes and other ingredients to make the well-known tabbouleh.
It should be mentioned that there are no fixed weight or volume quantities. The only criteria are dexterity, and a good eye acquired with time and experience. This is a tradition handed down from mother to daughter. In Ehden the only seasoning added is salt and pepper, but elsewhere finely chopped onion and marjoram and kamunieh, a mixture of cumin and roses, may also be used. The meat and wheat are kneaded by hand to obtain dough, which must not be too hard.
In accordance with the principle that claims that the best things are the simplest, kebbeh nayied, raw kebbeh, should be tasted with a piece of local bread, anointed with oil and flavored with a hint of fresh mint.
While in the rest of Lebanon only one or two ways of preparing kebbeh are generally known, in Ehden there are at least ten! Kebbeh zghertwiye, for example, are made exclusively in Ehden. These rough, compact balls are made by hand and stuffed with a little fat flavored with cinnamon (although there is also a non-stuffed version) and grilled on charcoal. Every woman naturally claims her version is the best. Then there is kebbeh bel sonnyieh, shaped like a cake, and baked in the oven in a plate called a sonnyieh in Arabic. The success of these dishes is in their thickness: if too thin, the kebbeh will be hard and dry; if too thick, it will be soft and undercooked. Good kebbeh must be crunchy on the surface and smooth on the inside. It must be perfectly cooked as well, and this is never done in the home but in the nearest baker’s oven. On Sundays, all the women take their sonnyieh of kebbeh to the baker who cooks them in a few minutes. This tradition survives in Ehden and Zghorta. Today the women pay in cash to cook these dishes, but once they paid in orress, balls of kebbeh that the baker then sold.
Another version of the dish is kebbeh mtabab’a, which is prepared with two layers of kebbeh: a filling of chopped onion, ground meat softened in samen (ghee) and pine nuts is spread on the bottom layer, and then covered with another layer of the mixture.
A third version is kebbeh bassal we snouba with onions and pine nuts. A layer of finely sliced onion is placed on a well-oiled sonnyieh (in this land of olives only olive oil is used), sprinkled with pine nuts and covered with a layer of kebbeh. The dish is generously dressed with olive oil and taken to the baker to be cooked. The kebbeh mixture can also be used to make balls which are cooked in a sauce based on yogurt or diluted sesame paste (tehini) or citrus fruit juice (orange, lemon, sour orange etc), especially in the coastal areas where such fruits abound.
Last but not least, there is so-called ‘lean’ kebbeh. Since they are unable to do without the stuff, the Lebanese even decided to adapt it to the Lent period, replacing the meat with boiled potatoes, cooked pumpkin, lentils or chick peas. Sometimes just enough flour is added to the burghol to make a dough. Anything goes in the name of the beloved kebbeh.
Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.