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Learning Lebanese

A little of this, a little of that, some dancing, some music -- in Lebanon, that's the recipe for healthy meals and lasting friendships.

By Bill Beuttler (Cooking Light, October 2000)

"Fool," she repeated, looking at me across one of the two tables in the cramped Beirut diner. "F-O-O-L." At any other meal, I might have taken offense. But Madeleine Bassil wasn't accusing me of being dimwitted; she was simply reminding me of what we were having for breakfast.

I was in Lebanon with a group of journalism students from Ohio University for a short summer session abroad. Madeleine, who grew up in this once-splendorous but now war-ravaged country, was acting as our guide. She'd brought us here primarily to show me authentic Lebanese cooking. So the two of us drizzled a little extra olive oil over our fool (also spelled fuul or fül) and began scooping it up and eating it with torn pita bread. I could just about taste every ingredient in it, but I had also seen the little shop's proprietor mix it all together with a mortar and pestle: fava beans, chickpeas, garlic, onion, and olive oil. The result was a delicious hummus-like dish served with side plates of pickles, olives, and onion and tomato slices.

This combination of tastiness and healthfulness would prove a persistent theme throughout my five weeks sampling Lebanese food as I guided a half-dozen of my students through their summer session. I was already familiar with the usual benefits of the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on such ingredients as olive oil, onions, garlic, nuts, lemons, oranges, and fresh vegetables (raw and pickled carrots and cucumber slices are especially popular in Lebanon) rather than on butter and red meat.

But more intriguing to me was the Lebanese habit of grazing on various little dishes throughout the day. Breakfast might be a manouchi, a heated burrito-like sandwich featuring goat cheese or thyme filling, tomatoes, and pickles. Lunch would likely feature another sandwich of some sort -- kebabs, shawarma (spit-roasted lamb or chicken slices stuffed in a pita with onions, tomatoes, pickles, and garlic sauce), and falafel being the most popular. Dinner, if I were lucky, would be mezze, a variety of appetizers shared with a group of friends. (For Greek and vegetarian versions of this, see "Where Appetizers Make a Meal" on page 142 of our September issue.)

If it was from Madeleine that I learned about fool, it was from her husband, former Shiite hostage Terry Anderson, that I learned to love mezze. Terry, a colleague at Ohio University, where I was teaching that summer, was in Lebanon to visit relatives -- under much more pleasant conditions that those he'd endured back in March of 1985, when, as a correspondent for The Associated Press, he was kidnapped by the Shiite militia and then spent six and a half years as a captive. But this visit wasn't about political strife; it was about seeing his family and enjoying the freedom to come and go. Especially to come and go to some cherished eating spots.

One sunny afternoon, Terry took the students and me to a mountainside restaurant at Harissa, where we shared lebneh chevre (fresh goat cheese sliced and eaten on pita bread), fattoosh (a mixed herb salad featuring toasted strips of pita, parsley, and a sumac-based dressing), and shankeesh (a crumbly aged goat cheese mixed with tomato, onion, and parsley) -- one of his favorites. For the entrée, Terry ordered me kibbeh kashkash, a tomato-sauced and sausage-shaped version of the national dish kibbeh. Kibbeh is served in numerous ways, including raw (kibbeh nayeh), but all versions are essentially a mixture of minced lamb, bulgur wheat, chopped onions, and assorted seasonings.

But you can really make a meal of mezze -- especially when couple with Lebanese beer, wine, or arak, the anise-flavored national liquor. And often I did just that. One of the most memorable of such feasts took place the night before Terry was due to return to the States. His and Madeleine's friends Rudi and Kamal Hamaidan laid out an incredible spread at their home, inviting the whole lot of us in: Madeleine's mother, sister, and nephew, as well as my students and me. We ate and stayed up late, drinking and dancing. It was a mezze-holic's dream, featuring most of my favorites: a mezze version of kibbeh, rolled into balls stuffed with pine nuts and ground lamb, then fried in vegetable oil; minced-lamb crescents (bit-size stuffed pastries known as fatayer bil-s'banegh and samboosak bil-lahmeh, respectively); and spinach triangles. There was also tabbouleh (a salad of parsley, tomato, bulgur, and lettuce), grapevine leaves stuffed with rice and ground lamb, and the ubiquitous hummus (chickpea purée).

Before the dancing got underway, we watched some grisly video footage from the civil war, which Kamal had shot as a TV cameraman. Terry had witnessed such carnage himself before he was taken hostage, and his imprisonment -- long years of blindfolded terror, separated from Madeleine and a daughter he'd never met (Sulome was born three months into his captivity) -- was more hellish still. And yet his love of his wife's native country has brought him back here more than once since his release. It wasn't Lebanon that mistreated him, after all. And it definitely wasn't its food.

© Bill Beuttler