In almost every corner of the world we sing Christmas songs in celebration of the season. The opening line of one popular French song is:
‘Il est né le divin enfant’ (the Christ child is born). Here in Lebanon, we can say quite literally: ‘the Christ child was born right nearby here!’.
Lebanon, and all of the regions that compose it, are considered sacred ground for Christians – and also for other religions. It is a land with a rich ancient history and many ancient uses. Christmas, the New Year, the Epiphany as well as other local festivals, such as Sainte Barbe (Santa Barbara) fill the nights and days of the month of December.
The preparations for Christmas began the 4th of December on the occasion of St. Barbara’s day, when the seeds of grain, lentils, and chickpeas are planted in a bed of moist cotton perfect for sprouting. By the evening of the 24th, the seeds have burst into dense bunches of green that are used to decorate the Christmas crêches. This tradition could well come from the pre-Christian era, in fact, these simple decorative elements are called ‘gardens of Adonis’.
Adonis was the lover of the beautiful Venus and was killed by a boar. Our ‘gardens of Adonis’, that shine with brilliant green and are destined to wilt in the space of a few days, remind us of the brief and brilliant life of Adonis. His yearly return evokes the seasons, the cyclical nature of life, the seasons, and day and night.
The celebration of Saint Barbara also coincides with the local carnival, when children dress up and run around from house to house to frequent the various parties and celebrations. There are many typical sweets and desserts from these holidays, and I will tell you about the best-known: quattayef, rolls of soft dough in the shape of a half-moon and stuffed with walnut cream; and the awwamaat, balls of yeasted dough soaked in sugar syrup. A few weeks later we celebrate Christmas as a holiday of family reunion. Christmas is usually celebrated at the grandmother’s house…or, more precisely, near the stove of the grandmother. If the turkey, the buche noel, and other classic international dishes have become the ‘must haves’ of the holiday season, I must say that these are new additions to our Christmas tables, and that they have been a part of the Christmas tradition here for less than a century. Christmas eve is passed alongside a laden table, at which the place of honor is often reserved for a delicious oriental stuffed chicken: filled with rice, chopped meat, almonds, walnut, pine nuts, all of it tossed with pepper and cinnamon. Another dish often prepared for the holidays is stuffed chicken neck.
Once, all of the typical sweets were all fried in oil. All of the family gathered around the stovetop where a pot of oil boiled constantly– that was used to fry the awwamaat (soft yeasted dough balls, fried and imbued while hot with sugar stìyrup), the zlebyieh (long strips of soft yeasted dough, fried without sugar), and the maakrun (‘fingers’ of dense dough, fried and immersed in hot syrup). These same sweets were prepared for the Epiphany and it was a habit – between Christmas and Epiphany – to fry them up every evening. These nights were named for the culinary activity – very appropriately – the ‘nights of frying’…
And speaking of nights, that of the Christmas mass is truly memorable: the bells cry out in a joyous carillon, and the people crowd the well-lit churches. Even though the crêches have been decorated for days, the final touch of the Christ child is only added at midnight on Christmas eve…baby Jesus appears only at the moment of his birth!
Today, Christmas occurs on December 25, but according to the ancient liturgical calendar, Christmas day coincided with the Epiphany, on January 6. Lebanon’s Armenian community still celebrates Christmas according to the ancient calendar. The New Year, then, is the festival of ‘good morning’….on the morning of January 1 we wish a good morning and a good year to all…and then we move on to the bestryineh: the exchange of gifts. For children, there are coins and money, for the grown-ups, there are delicious and good things to eat: things that probably satisfy more than the children’s money!
Christmas Eve is spent at the table, first eating, and later playing games. In fact, it is popular to play with fate a bit at the close of the year– when we gamble at this time, the results are viewed as portents for the upcoming year…
Continuing in the theme of auguring a good year, it is very important to ensure a plentiful supply of water – the fountain of life. To this end, the women go to the local fountain in the morning, bringing with them water jugs and a handful of seeds, dried fruit, or nuts – all offerings to the fountain to ensure its gushing water supply in the coming year.
Today, the tradition of thanking the water supply is somewhat diminished, although the tradition of the ‘white dish’ still lives on strong. To begin the year on the right foot, it is important to eat a plate of pure white food – plates of yoghurt and sauces based on tahini (sesame paste).
Here is the recipe for kebbeh arnabyieh (rabbity kebabs), a typical Lebanese dish., which is a mix of meat chopped in the mortar and burghol (crushed wheat). Arnabyieh is the adjective form of arnab, rabbit, but in realty, rabbit meat is not used at all in this dish. Perhaps the name comes from the pale color the meats take on when they are prepared in this dish.
This is a typical winter dish, prepared in the season of the orange harvest, and the bitter oranges are the secret of the dish’s delicious sauce. This recipe was prepared by Georges Rayess, the author of L’art culinaire libanais (The Art of Libanese Cuisine), the gourmet guidebook of our mothers and grandmothers.
Serves 6 people:
600 gr. Of meat (beef or mutton) finely ground in a mortar
300 gr. Of fine burghol * (crushed grain)
For the sauce:
1 hoof of sheep or ram cut into large chunks
400 gr. of tahini
400 gr. of chickpeas (left to soak overnight)
400 gr. of peeled onions (cut into pieces)
juice of four bitter oranges
salt, cinnamon and pepper
To prepare the kebbeh:
Rinse the burghol in running water, squeeze it out well to eliminate all excess water, mix it with the meat (already chopped) and with the chopped onions. Season with salt and pepper and mix by hand or with the electric mixer, until the mixture is dense and well-blended. Form this mixture into rounded balls with a dented impression. This is rather difficult (especially after a heavy lunch of sweet fried dough balls) and for first-timers it can be difficult…the balls must be slightly pointed at each end, and each ball should be a bit smaller than an egg. To make the meat balls, take a small quantity of the meat mixture and roll it well between your palms until the ball is well-formed and compacted. Then, holding it in the left hand, use your right index finger to round out the inside. Then, reclose the ball, retaining the empty space inside the ball. This is easier if your hands are moist. Mission accomplished! Put aside the raw balls, being careful to not let them stick together.
Change the chickpea water, and bring the beans to a boil. Soften onions in vegetable oil.
Cook hoof in abundant water, skimming off the broth, and adding the chickpeas and and lightly-cooked onions. Add salt and pepper to taste, and let cook for 40 minutes.
Mix the tahini together with the bitter orange juice, beating it well to cream in the sesame paste. According to your taste, or to add more flavor, you can add lemon juice, orange juice, mandarin juice to bump up the flavor.
Before the meat of the hoof falls off the bone, strain the pieces of meat and keep warm separately. Add the warm tahini mixture to the broth, mixing it well. Cook the balls of kebeh in this liquid for 10 minutes, add the pieces of hoof directly before serving. Serve this dish very hot, accompanied by white rice.
* Tahini and burghol can be found in organic and macrobiotic specialty stores.
Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor to Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.
Photo: the Great Omayyad Mosque, Damascus
Translation by Anya Fernald