An introduction to the varied ingredients of Lebanese food, as taken from our second cookbook.
In the West we sometimes think of carob as a chocolate substitute, but in Lebanon it has a much more traditional place. Carob trees are almost as common as olive trees there, and so the use of the seeds from the tree as a flavouring is more typical. You can often find carob powder in health food shops, and it is true that you can use cocoa as a substitute. Harder to find is carob molasses, which is extracted from the coarsely ground seeds that are then soaked and simmered to release the flavour. The strained liquid is then reduced and has a naturally sweet flavour and syrupy consistency.
There are three main types of cheese used in the recipes in our restaurant – halloumi, feta and labneh. These choices do reflect authenticity – all three are commonly used throughout the Middle East – but they’ve also been deliberately chosen to account for what its possible to source here in the UK. The Middle East does not have a strong association with cheese-making. The climate and the quality of the soil has meant that the animals’ diet doesn’t have the same rich flavours of their European cousins so the basic flavour of the cheese is often quite bland, something that tends to be countered by upping the salt content.
Halloumi is a Cypriot cheese that has become popular across the Middle East, particularly in Turkey and the Levant. If you’ve not tried it, personally I think you’re in for a treat, though I admit that its unusual characteristics do divide opinion. Halloumi is very salty and has quite a rubbery texture. It is traditionally made from a mixture of goat and sheep’s milk and is most commonly served grilled or fried to caramelise the squeaky exterior and up the flavour, but you can also serve it plain. Although you might think that the salt would be too dominating, halloumi works well in many different contexts. Its most common herb partner is mint, while it’s as happy being served in a tomato salad as it is alongside sweet figs.
Feta is a crumbly tangy curd cheese made either purely from sheep’s milk or from a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk. EU legislation now dictates that only cheeses made in the traditional may within mainland Greece and certain Greek islands may be called ‘feta’, although variations on the brined salty cheese are made across the Eastern Mediterranean basin, often known simply as ‘white cheese’. Feta is wonderfully versatile — toss it through salads, blend it with thick yoghurt, lemon and seasoning to make a dip, or even serve it in sweet contexts, with honey and figs as a hybrid cheese—dessert course.
The essential ingredient for hummus, since the word humus means ‘chickpeas’ in Arabic. As they’re one of the oldest cultivated pulses they have been always a staple on the Arabic table. In Lebanon, chickpeas are mainly grown in the Beqaa Valley, and at markets in Beirut (only 30km from the valley) you can find different varieties that have been hand-picked and sun dried. Don’t try too many at a time, as their flavour changes the longer they sit in the cupboard.
One of the great misconceptions the West has with Arabic food in general is the expectation that all the flavours will be fiery. Except for a few dishes like muhammara, you most find many chillies in our food, although it’s true that a small amount is often used. When we want to add chilli, the easiest way is by adding a paste. In Lebanon, chilli paste is used as a way of adding heat but typically in a very subtle way. You can make it at home very easily. Traditionally we’d just make a paste of the raw chilli, spread it out, and let it dry in the sun, but you can achieve something similar, even in a cooler climate. Choose long red chilli (the hotness of the final paste will depend on their fieriness), trim and discard the ends, then roast them gently at about 120°C/100°C fan/gas 1/4 for 2 hours. Then discard the seeds and puree the flesh finely in a food processor with a little salt and olive oil. If you’d prefer to buy it, then look for harissa, a north African chilli paste similar to the Lebanese sort but with the addition of garlic, spices and occasionally tomato paste.
Though Italian-style coffee is as popular in Beirut as any other fashionable city, there is another older way to prepare coffee that we call Ahweh Arabi, and it’s usually drunk in the morning. Take a teaspoon of finely ground coffee and a coffee cup of water (per person) and heat this in a small saucepan with a pinch of ground cardamom and — if you liken sweet — a teaspoon of sugar. Bring the coffee to the boil then remove from the heat, let it cool slightly then let it boil and rest again. Repeat this one more time then add sugar to taste and serve black and piping hot. You are left with a thick, strong liquid. Whenever I’m using coffee in sweet dishes, like cakes and ice creams, I like to add a little ground cardamom as a nod to this older method.
A flick through the ingredients lists in our cookbook will show you whets fundamental spice cumin is in Lebanese cuisine and indeed in most parts of the Arab world. You either use the seeds, which should be toasted to bring out their nutty, peppery aroma, or the ground spice, which is more commonly used alongside other spices in blends or to flavour soups and stews.