Classic Lebanese Street Fare That Never Goes Out of Style
Around the world, Lebanese cuisine is renowned for its
compelling health benefits. Indicative of the Mediterranean diet, our dishes
incorporate the bountiful produce of the season, pulses, grains, yogurt, olive
oil, and herbs such as thyme, sumac, and mint. No wonder we’ve managed to
attract everyone’s attention in this age of the health-conscious.
But we also know how to live a little, to satisfy that urge from time to time to “nokhbossa,” namely in the form of indulgent street food. If you’re ever hosting guests from abroad, make sure you expose them to the wealth of our tantalizing fast food fare.
Shawarma. What’s not to love about strips of meat stacked in cone-like formation roasting on a slowly-revolving vertical rotisserie or spit? Welcome to the world of shawarma, one that in recent years has received an injection of innovation. It used to be all about lamb or mutton, drizzled with tahini dressing and garnished with chopped parsley and minced white onions dusted in sumac. These days you can have shawarma in beef, lamb, chicken, fish, and soujouk. Bread is available as white or brown pita, French bread, and even tortilla wraps. Vegetable fillers span tomato, parsley, onion, lettuce, pickled cucumber, pickled horseradish, and fries. You can dress your sandwich in tarator, hummus, garlic paste, guacamole, tartar, or mayonnaise. Too many combinations and permutations, right? Hint: keep it simple and classic.
Falafel. Occasionally dismissed as the food of paupers, fried falafel balls pack in a blend of fava beans, chickpeas and cumin. Line them inside Arabic pita before dousing with tahini and garnishing with pickled horseradish, parsley and tomatoes. Be sure you order a few extra falafel spheres on the side to snack on as your sandwich is being prepared.
Taouk. Prefer the fairer flesh? We’re talking about white chicken breast, chopped into cubes, threaded onto a skewer, and grilled over an open flame. Once cooked, deposit inside pita bread slathered with intense garlic paste, pickles, fries, and shredded romaine lettuce. Warning: avoid consuming on a date, for your pungent breath will almost certainly precede you. And burping will prove inevitable.
Manakish. Pizza is to the Italians as “manakish” is to the Lebanese. It’s all about fresh-baked, pillow-soft, wood-fired manakish made before your very eyes. If you’re visiting a Lebanese “furn,” or bakery, never, and I mean never, settle for reheating a “mankouche” (singular form of manakish) off the rack. The extra few-minute wait will be worth every second. The classic, of course, is smeared with a blend of zaatar and vegetable oil. You can upgrade to a “cocktail,” which marries zaatar and cheese: dried thyme, sesame and oil on one half of the pizza, grated Akkawi cheese on the other. Once heated, the oozing cheese is allowed to cool before olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and mint can be added as garnish and the pie wrapped into a sandwich.
Kafta. Where Americans have burgers and ground beef patties, the Lebanese have pita wraps and kafta. This minced meat – lamb or beef – is typically blended with parsley and onions and seasoned mildly with salt and pepper. Here’s the recipe for a perfect kafta sandwich: start with one side of an Arabic round loaf (“2ab3a”); line its center with thinly sliced beefsteak tomato; scatter “bouwaz,” or chopped onions and parsley, as a cushion for the meat; and spread hummus and a lick of hot sauce before piling on the kafta. A pinch of salt and sumac will enhance the flavor profile, so be sure to inhale the aromatic spices wafting into your nose between each bite.
Danielle was born into a Lebanese household in Southern California. Growing up, she constantly found herself living between two realities: outwardly, she was an American girl who loved swinging on the monkey bars and reading The Baby-Sitters Club. Inwardly, she was Lebanese, speaking Arabic at home and forbidden from attending sleepover parties.
With age comes awareness and self-confidence, and Danielle learned to embrace these differences. She accepted that she'd forever be suspended between two worlds, and that she'd be like a tapestry, one culture woven into the other. As she grew older and worldlier, Danielle promised herself she would one day settle in Lebanon.
And here she is. Three college degrees and a few consulting gigs later, she is now in her parents’ homeland, working in strategy management, fleshing out her blog Beirutista, and contributing to Bitfood. Danielle gets her hair coiffed several times a week, like any proper Lebanese girl, and she loves the traditional mezze. But she still prefers peanut butter to Nutella. And her American accent is unmistakable.