An introduction to the varied ingredients of Lebanese food, as taken from our second cookbook.
Middle Eastern spice mix that vanes according to the country and to the cook—each has their own and many argue endlessly over the precise balance of spices. In Morocco rosebuds are added to the mix…
You can buy Baharat at some specialist supermarkets in the UK, but It’s easy to mix it yourself at home too: 1 1/2 teaspoons of paprika with 1 teaspoon each of ground black pepper and cumin, 3/4 teaspoon each of ground coriander, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, and 1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom. Store in a jar and use within 3 months. Baharat spice is excellent mixed with yoghurt and used as a simple marinade on meat before grilling or baking. You can also combine mixed spice with paprika, cumin and black pepper for a similar flavour.
The most popular cured meat in Lebanon is this cured beet similar to the Italian bresaola or the American pastrami, though with a much stronger, more distinctive spiced flavour. Its made by salting the meat, then squeezing out any liquid before rubbing it with a paste of spices. Basturma has a deep rich flavour that suits son, mild-flavoured cheeses and pickles so will most commonly be served as part of a mezze spread.
Basturma Is quite hard to find in the UK and although you can substitute it with bresaola or pastrami, you could also make something more akin to it yourself by sprinkling slices of cooked beef with a mixture of ground cumin, fenugreek, chilli powder and paprika, and leaving them to sit for 1 hour in the fringe before serving.
No Lebanese cook would consider serving their meal without some type of bread. Bread is the backbone of our cuisine. So, whether it be pitta bread as a vehicle for scooping up copious amounts of dips cc sauces, saj bread as a vessel for soaking up the juices of a pile of sharwarma or koftas, warm cheese and lamb-topped man’ousha, or simply served warm from the own spread with a simple topping of za’atar mixed with olive oil for breakfast, bread will be on the table at every time of the day.
The problem is that the word “flatbread”, which is what most Middle Eastern breads are, makes it sound as though they would be simple to make. Not at all. Indeed, if ever you get the opportunity to watch these breads being made — seize it. The skill required to make the paper-thin expanse of dough is extraordinary, and watching the baker fling the bread In the air to stretch and massage it without breaking it is Incredible.
Saj, another type or flatbread cooked on a domed griddle over which the dough is stretched and baked, is equally technical and requires years of practice to perfect the technique.
And while even in the Middle East, making bread isn’t something cooks do at home —the bakers’ versions are just too good to pass up — it is possible to have a go yourself.
In Arab countries we call these beans ful (pronounced fool) and they’re simply dried broad beans. There’s a famous Egyptian dish that you find everywhere in the region, even in tins, called fat medamas or pot-cooked beans, that are served very soft and mixed with oil or butter, tomato, spices and seasoning. It’s a popular breakfast dish, which might sound strange, but is it really any different to opening a tin of baked beans? Served with some warm pitta it makes a nourishing and warming start to the day. When dry the beans look a rather unappetising shade of brown, but cooked they have the most rich and complex flavour. Often they’re used soaked and ground to a rough paste with chickpeas to make falafel, as they have a starchier texture and hold the falafel together better.
This grain, what we call burghul (pronounced ‘burgle’), is made from durum wheat that has been cooked, dried and cracked. It’s a village food and when l get invited to people’s homes I’ve tasted it cooked different ways. In the old days the husked wheat grains would be washed by the edges of the river and left to dry in the sun on woven mats, the same ones we’d place under trees to collect the olives or dry grapes on. Then it would be boiled until the grain doubled in size, drained and left to dry again in the hot sun. Finally the bulgar would be placed in sacks and carted to the local mill where most would be ground either fine or coarse, with the remainder milled into bulgar flour. Being pre-cooked and dried means it is very quick to prepare, like couscous. Fine bulgar is used for kibbeh, while the coarse type is good for pilaf or salads.