Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

An Overlooked Great Cuisine

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

When we as Americans think of the world’s great national cuisines we are automatically drawn to the “classics”– French and Italian, with a  broader second tier that might include Japanese, New American, Spanish, Chinese, German and Indian. All have their culinary wonders, to be sure, but we tend to fall back on them to the exclusion of some of the world’s other great cuisines, rooted in antiquity but advanced by modern technique.

One of my favorite overlooked cuisines in Lebanese. A subtle blend of Middle Eastern flavors meshed with Mediterranean and North African influence, Lebanese mirrors and places its own mark on foods both east and west, appropriate for the food of the residents of ancient Phoenicia.  A trading people who at the very least roamed the Med and the West Coast of Africa and who may have even made it to the East Coast of North America and around the Horn of Africa to East Asia, the Phoenicians introduced the Hellenic and Roman worlds to spices and foodstuffs from around the ancient world.

Reminiscent of its Phoenician roots, modern Lebanese cuisine takes from cultures all around the Mediterranean rim and adds in flavors and spices from the deserts to the east. Like most of the Med cuisines, they look heavily to the sea and make extensive use anchovy, sardines, octopus and squid.  The warm flavors of lemon, garlic and olive and the coolness of mint are hallmarks of the dishes.

Like truly great Italian cooking, it does not rely on the intricate techniques of haute French or the precision of New Spanish; instead Lebanese food is all about the interplay of fragrant spice and fresh ingredients, cooked in the peasant methods of stewing or grilling and eaten with usually with pita. While not showing the sophisticaton of technique that produces layers of flavor in French cooking, Lebanese cuisine presents flavors every bit as intricate achieved through imaginative combinations of ingredients.

Lebanon follows the pattern of many warmer Mediterranean cuisines by offering a vast array of small plates, called mezze. Analogous to Spanish tapas, a group would generally order two or three hot or cold mezze per person, usually including a hommus or a tabouleh salad as one, and maybe an order of kebobs for the table.

Amongst the homey mezze you’d see on any Lebanese menu are the above mentioned hommus and tabouleh, of course, as well as the salad fattouch (chopped tomatoes, onion, cucumber, radish, pepper, parsley & mint with olive oil and lemon juice), soujok (beef & lamb sausage, mildly spicy), and shawarma, either beef or chicken marinated in lemon, garlic and aromatic spices and then roaster or grilled. Falafel (chickpea fritters) and fried kibbe (beef or chicken dumplings) are omnipresent; if you want to try something more adventurous, go with the kibbe nayeh, which is a Lebanese version of steak tartare– raw ground beef mixed with burghul (bulgar) wheat, mint and onion. I know– sounds awful to the American palate, but trust me, it’s incredible once you get past your aversion to eating raw meat.

I’m proud to be friends with Rabih abi-Ahd, who owns one of the finest Lebanese restaurants in America– Me Jana, in Arlington, VA. We dined at Me Jana again on Saturday with friends, and I couldn’t recommend it more if you live in DC or travel here for business or sightseeing. Rabih’s place serves the kind of ethnic cuisine that foodies go searching for and most often find in a no-ambiance Mom’n’Pop joint that has incredible food and formica tables; luckily Me Jana tampers with that mold by serving the same incredibly good food in a pleasantly sophisticated dining room that works for a dinner with clients or a nice date night but that isn’t a stranger to big groups ordering tons of mezze and drinking too many Lebanese beers. If you come, go for the sea scallops in saffron lemon yogurt. Just trust me.

If you don’t live in DC, find a Lebanese restaurant in your city and give it a go, especially if you’ve never tried the cuisine before. Before long you’ll be addicted to zataar and sumac, craving good hommus rather than the stuff fromt he fridge section in your supermarket and you’ll be thinking kafta rather than hamburger next time you pick up a package of ground meat. It’s that good.

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