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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.


Posted in Cooking, Restaurants, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

On the Nobility of Crustaceans

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 11, 2009

georgedalobsta1Most would say that I’m a pretty liberal person, at least on social issues (on foreign policy those same might say I’m slightly to the right of Atilla). I believe fervently in civil rights for all, that undocumented immigrants are far more scapegoat than problem, that people are inherently good unless they hail from New England and illogically choose to wear their socks on their hat. I believe that many liberal groups are in the right but that the ACLU isn’t of the left but rather a force for neutrality. Hell, I even think that PETA occasionally has a clue and I’m as carnivorous as they come.

This is not one of those occasions.

Apparently someone dropped a dime to the good folks at PETA to let them know of a travesty occurring at City Crab in Manhattan. Now I’ve eaten at City Crab and can personally attest to the fact that several humanitarian tragedies happen there every day, but this isn’t an entry about the quality of the cooking there. No, this is about a very different situation– the plight of George, the 120 Year Old Lobster.

I think that many people harbor some deep seated guilt about lobsters sitting idly in restaurant tanks, rubber bands on their claws and a date with a vessel of water somewhat less commodious than their display aquarium on the horizon. I always chuckle when my kids insist on paying a visit to the lobster tank at our local supermarket to say “Hi” to the lobsters in the same way they want to stop and say “Hi” to the rescue cats up for adoption at the pet store. Many would like to harbor that illusion; we’re societaly uncomfortable with the concept of meeting the meat.

Enter George, all 20 succulent pounds of him sitting on display at City Crab waiting for that special moment in which he can be truly appreciated by some expense account salesman trying to prove to a client that his company isn’t impacted by the economic downturn. George, as I said, is estimated to be 120 years old– he looked up at some point and saw the last of the wooden-hulled schooners pass overhead into New England’s harbors, he saw the WW II convoys form and the days of the passenger liner come to an end. He has struggled mightily to overcome the pollution of his waters, the rapacious overfishing, global warming– but was ultimately betrayed by hunger and was captured by humans, only to be eaten. It’s a tragedy… or would be if George wasn’t an ocean-going cockroach with the awareness of a brick and the brainpower of kelp.

You see, lobsters are alive by all biological tests– they respire, convert energy, reproduce– but so do dandelions, which seem to be a much cannier species as they have developed defenses to chemical warfare that would be the envy of DARPA. Yes, George is a 120 year old lobster… which I guess some think is worthy of respect? We’re not sticking Great Grandma in a tank and then steaming her up, folks– we’re talking about something more closely related to a scorpion than a cow. George can make a bluefish look like Einstein.

PETA, of course, sees things differently– they’d have us revere George and never eat anything that has a face. Upon being informed of the plight of poor old George (informing George of his plight of course being useless), PETA swung into action and talked the owners of City Crab into “liberating” George and then burned fossil fuels enough to drive him back to Maine, ship him offshore, and dump him back into the Atlantic. 10 out of 10 for style, I suppose, but minus several hundred for logically defending the planet’s resources, eh?

So George, venerable George, can now live out his days at the bottom of his Atlantic home chomping on whatever it is that lobsters chomp upon.

At least, in the end, one boon to humanity has resulted from this whole imbroglio– City Crab will screw up one fewer expensive entree. For that, PETA, I thank you.

Posted in Food, Jerks, Just Annoying, Restaurants | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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