Lebanese people have a knack for good food. This is no exaggeration. The fact of the matter is we have a rich cuisine that demands only the finest, freshest produce and meat. That kind of fussiness at the table forges a very discerning palate, which is why wherever we go in the world, we stick out like sore thumbs. Only we’re not writhing with pain. We’re happily lapping up at the table of good and plenty.
So how do you spot a fellow Lebanese gourmet? Here are five very telling actions that immediately expose us.
Your day always begins with labneh and zaatar. Lactose-intolerant? Well, admittedly, most Lebanese are, but that’s never stopped us from enjoying the tart, creamy strained yogurt taking the culinary world by storm. Spread labneh generously inside pita bread, pack it with slender slices of cucumber and tomato, and release a river of olive oil before bundling it up and bringing it to your salivating boca. On days when you’re not licking up labneh, you’re in cohorts with the trusted duo of zaatar and olive oil. Didn’t Mama tell you zaatar makes you smarter?
Lunch is your biggest meal of the day, and it’s never just a main dish. It’s not merely about eating; it’s about sensually indulging in and appreciating every taste and flavor. Familiar with the Arabic verb “mazmiz”? It actually derives from mezza! You give importance to every element, from the appetite-whetting cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and roasted mixed nuts, to the vibrant salad comprising seasonal greens (purslane, spinach, rocket, thyme) massaged with olive oil, lemon, and mashed garlic. By the time the hot main descends on the table, you’re ready to pounce, equipped with a loaf of fresh pita and/or vermicelli rice.
Any dish can be drastically improved with lemon and garlic. Is that moudardara rice-lentil pilaf too salty? Squeeze a wedge or two of lemon over it. The lahm baajin excessively spicy? Nothing some lemon juice won’t solve. How about that bland fattouch? It’s resplendent with color, sure, but does it lack oomph? Mash a few cloves of garlic. And the grilled chicken? It won’t wash down without garlic paste, no matter how much marinade you doused it in. Heck, even a prominently un-Lebanese concoction like guacamole finds you busting out the garlic and lemon for good measure.
You worship knefeh, even if you profess to not having a sweet tooth. In fact, that’s exactly why you enjoy it profusely, because it’s not cloyingly sweet. Knefeh’s main constituents are white Akkawi cheese and semolina; it’s the syrup packing in sugar, orange blossom and rose waters that formally classifies it as a dessert. And to make your case even more compelling, you’re happy to stuff knefeh inside a sesame-studded kaakeh. Now tell me, what sweet tooth would ever agree to diminish the saccharine profile of dessert with bread?
The trusted trio in your liquid arsenal is olive oil, pomegranate molasses, and Arak. Everything, and I do mean everything, could use a splash of that deep green elixir, from the chunky hummus to the foul mdammas. And by the way, a petty diet is not going to prevent you from ingesting olive oil as if it were water. It’s a lubricant, it’s healthy, and it’s indispensable. Pomegranate molasses gives your salads a tangy kick; you also cook lean cubes of meat or chicken liver in it for flavor. And Arak is the ultimate palate cleanser. Where the Italians rely on a lemon sorbet drink, we sip on murky Lion’s Milk to subdue the unrelenting garlic and to aid our digestion.
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.