Recently in Middle East category

A Visit to Abu Kassem Za’atar Farm

za'atar pita

One thing you learn quickly if you travel to, or somehow explore otherwise, the various cuisines of the Middle East, is that every country, and seemingly…every single person, has their own idea of what za’atar is. And they’re very (very) attached to it. So much so that a chef in a restaurant in Jerusalem rolled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo of what he told me was hyssop, a name for an herb that’s used in some places to make Za’atar, one of the world’s great seasonings.

fresh za'atar

Za’atar consists of herbs, sesame, and sumac, varying them by proportions depending on culture and country. But I can say that Abu Kassem of Za’atar Zawtar makes the best za’atar I’ve ever tasted, anywhere.

fresh za'atar plant

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Lebanon

meat pastries

The Middle East is a pretty fascinating place, and on this visit – as well as others – I am constantly surprised by what I experience there. Although we often see snippets of it, our images of the region are usually negative; people are fighting or yelling or demonstrating. Glimpses of people going about everyday life aren’t especially easy to come by outside of these countries. Because situations change seemingly daily, it’s not always possible to go to certain places when you want to travel to them. But fortunately, the time was just right for me to go to Lebanon.

Lebanese woman with fruitlamb
green almondsLebanon beach

The first thing you notice in Lebanon is that the people are quite friendly and as I started writing this post about my trip, two young boys are playing around me at the airport while my flight home is delayed (for nine hours!), gingerly saddling up beside me, touching my computer screen with curiosity. In western countries, we are afraid of people and we’re told not to talk to strangers. And if someone came over to you in the airport and touched your computer screen, you might have a coronary. Or deck them.

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Al Bohsali: Middle Eastern Pastries

arab pastries

It’s too bad that so many people are only familiar with Middle Eastern pastries that aren’t so well made. If you sample them far from where they originate, often they’re made with old or stale nuts, they’ve sat around too long in plastic packages, or the cheeses aren’t exactly fresh. While it’s true that some of them can be a bit sticky-sweet for Western tastes, but when they’re made correctly, they’re just as lovely to look at as they are to eat.

semolina pastry

At Al Bohsali in Beirut, all the pastries are made on the premises. As you get ready to sip your coffee, you can gaze at all the lovely pastries resting in a shiny glaze, presented in wide stainless-steel trays on the counter. Then make yourself a little plate to try a few, which I was happy to do.

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The 12 Year Old Lahham

12 year old butcher

(Just a note: This post contains a somewhat graphic image of meat being prepared which some folks might not wish to view. For that reason, I’ve placed it after the jump and near the end of the post so you don’t have to see it. If images like that are challenging to you, I recommend that you don’t scroll further and perhaps that you not read this post. As regular readers know, I share and aim to respect diverse cultural and gastronomic issues, and am presenting this aspect of life in rural Lebanon because I was fascinated watching his talent and skill. That said, I promise the next post will be about Lebanese pastries : ) -dl)


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Lebanese Meze

labne with olive oil

The Lebanese are real “snackers”, a point brought home by Mazen Hajjar, the owner of 961, Lebanon’s first (and only) craft brewery that told me if I went into someone’s home in Lebanon and they offered a drink – but no bowl of nuts or seeds, “You should go…just get up and leave immediately.”

961 beer in Lebanon

Fortunately I never had to, because true to his word, each and every place in Lebanon where I was offered a drink, a generous bowl of bzoorat – some tasty combination of peanuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, etc. – were offered. And I always seemed to have my hand in a dish of them.

arak White Lady (gin cointreau lemon juice)

So it’s no surprise I went nuts, so to speak, at Al Rifai, considered one of the best nut roasters in Beirut. When I walked in, I was immediately drawn to the glowing glass and stainless-steel bins, radiating with the heat coming off the piles of freshly roasted nuts.

nuts

I picked up a few bags to bring home and it’s fun to choose your own from the dozens of nuts and seeds they offer. Some are plain, other spiced or glazed. And it’s fun to mix ‘em up. Showing true Lebanese hospitality, as I selected each one, the woman at the counter plunked down a little bowl of them for me to snack on while weighing and filling my bags. Good thing they didn’t weigh me on the way out, because I’m pretty sure I ate as much as I bought.

nuts, pistachios, etc

And now, I’m officially just as hooked as the Lebanese are. So it was a good thing Al Rifai has a large kiosk at the airport where I stocked up on even more bzoorat, along with all the locals, who also wanted to be as certain as I that we would have plenty of nuts and seeds while outside of the country. (Either that, or they were also looking for a way to pass their time when their plane got delayed for nine hours, too – oof.)

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Saj, Flatbreads and Lebanese Pastries

thin lebanese bread

Since a number of people have been asking, whenever I ask the bakers who are making flatbreads in Lebanon, specifically what their formula is for they breads they are rolling out (or tossing), I’ll get the same, vague response; “Flour and water..oh, and a little olive oil.” And that’s it, as they continue with their busywork.

Heloui stretching lebanese bread

While I suspect if I pressed them further, they might admit “Okay, and some yeast or leavening, and perhaps a pinch of salt.” But more than any recipe or baker’s formula, the most important ingredient that goes in to all the marvelous flatbreads I’m discovering in Lebanon: technique.

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How to Eat a Falafel in Lebanon

falafel abou rami

Pull up at roadside stand.

falafel menu

Be happy you’re with people who speak Arabic.

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Another Lebanese Breakfast..and Two Lunches

Making sandwiches at Ichkhanian

Unbelievably, I was able to fit in not just two breakfasts, but two lunches on my first full day in Beirut. After za’atar croissants and puffy khobz, we headed off to Ichkhanian, to watch the bakers rolling out and baking L’ahm b’ajeen.

Ichkhanian sandwich bread dough at Ichkhanian

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