HISTORY & FOOD
A unique cultural history has helped to make Lebanese food the most popular of all Middle Eastern cuisines. For most of its past, Lebanon has been ruled by foreign powers that have influenced the types of food the Lebanese ate. From 1516 to 1918, the Ottoman Turks controlled Lebanon and introduced a variety of foods that have become staples in the Lebanese diet, including olive oil, fresh bread, baklava (a sweet pastry dessert), laban (homemade yogurt), stuffed vegetables, and a variety of nuts. The Ottomans also increased the popularity of lamb.
After the Ottomans were defeated in World War I (1914–1918), France took control of Lebanon until 1946, when the country won its independence. During this time, the French introduced some of their most widely eaten foods, particularly treats such as flan, a caramel custard dessert dating back to the 1500s, and buttery croissants.
The Lebanese themselves have also helped to bring foods of other cultures into their diet. Ancient tribes journeyed throughout the Middle East, carrying with them food that would not spoil easily, such as rice and dates. These foods slowly became part of the Lebanese diet. As the tribes wandered, they discovered new seasonings, fruits, and vegetables that they could add to their everyday meals. Exotic ingredients from the Far East (east and southeast Asia) and other areas of the world were often discovered by these early tribes.
The Lebanese diet focuses on herbs, spices, and fresh ingredients (the Lebanese rarely eat leftovers), relying less on heavy sauces. Mint, parsley, oregano, garlic, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon are the most common seasonings.
Bread, a staple food in Lebanon, is served with almost every meal, most often as a flat bread, or pita. It is so crucial to the Lebanese diet that some Arabic dialects refer to it as esh , meaning “life.”
Fruit, vegetables, rice, and bread out-weigh the amount of meat eaten in the average Lebanese meal. However, the most commonly eaten meats, poultry and lamb, make up some of the country’s most popular dishes. The national dish, kibbeh (or kibbe ), consists of a ground lamb and cracked wheat paste, similar to paté. Kibbeh was originally made by harshly pounding the lamb and kneading in the spices and wheat. Those who were unfamiliar with this practice often found it quite unpleasant, including the English food writer George Lassalle, who described it as “frightening.” Some rural villages continue to prepare it this way.
Mezze , a variety of flavorful hot and cold dishes, is another important part of the Lebanese diet. As many as forty small dishes are presented at once as either appetizers or as a meal itself. Hummus (chickpea, sesame seed, and garlic paste), rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves, mashed beans, hot and cold salads, grilled seafood and meats (including kebabs , cooked cubes of lamb, peppers, and onions), and pickled vegetables are most popular. Lebanese meals are rarely served in courses, but presented all at once. Tabbouleh (a salad made with cracked wheat) and mujaddara (a lentil and rice dish) are also widely consumed.
FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
It seems as though the Lebanese are always participating in holiday celebrations, especially religious holy days. This is because Lebanon is home to two main religions: Islam and Christianity. Despite bitter disagreements between them, the people of both religions continue to enjoy their own traditional festive celebrations, which often include large feasts among family and friends.
Muslims (believers of Islam) celebrate several holidays throughout the year, though probably none are as important as the holiday of Ramadan. During the entire ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims avoid all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. In some villages, a man beats a drum through the streets, attempting to wake people before the sun rises so that they may enjoy an early breakfast. A typical pre-dawn breakfast might include grapefruit, pita bread with olive oil, a boiled egg, a cup of laban (yogurt), and tea. After the sun sets, Muslims gather with friends and family to share in a delicious feast.
Eid al-Fitr , meaning “festival that breaks the fast,” marks the end of Ramadan and food is generously shared with loved ones. The Feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha , is also celebrated with food and festivities. During this time, a sheep is killed and eaten after returning from the hadj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). Many families donate a portion of their sheep to the poor.
The most widely celebrated Christian holidays are Christmas and Easter. Visiting friends and family at Christmas has become tradition. Prior to a large chicken or turkey lunch, most guests are offered sugarcoated almonds to snack on. Dessert is commonly bûche de noël , a French Christmas cake shaped like a yule log. Homes are decorated with tinsel, and Christmas trees are often adorned with orange peels cut into various
Lebanon’s variety of fresh fruits makes them popular after-dinner desserts. Melon, apples, oranges, tangerines, persimmons, grapes, and figs are great treats. Baklava , a sweet, flaky pastry, is usually associated with Greek cuisine. However, the Lebanese have embraced the dessert and normally prepare it with pistachio nuts, drizzled with rose-water syrup (the Greeks use walnuts and honey). Ahweh (strong, thick Arabic-style coffee) and the country’s national drink, arak (a colorless alcoholic beverage made with anise, also called “Lion’s Milk” because it is white), are most commonly served with dessert.
Arabs have a reputation for hospitality towards guests that come to visit, even if the visit was not planned (which most are not). Food is almost guaranteed to be delicious and filling.
A rural family will often pick fruit and vegetables from their own gardens. If they do not have what they need, a souk (street market shop) can provide them with any food from eggplant to mint leaves. Because bread is essential with almost every meal, rural women travel to the village bakery, called the foorn , to bake their breads and pastries for the day, as well as to catch up on gossip.
Lunch, the largest of the three meals eaten each day, is usually served around 2:00 p.m. Mezze , several appetizer-like dishes, are served first. Warm bread, hummus (chickpea paste), and olives, cheese, and pistachio nuts are commonly served. Kibbeh , the national dish, is frequently the main meal. Kebabs (cubes of cooked meat on a skewer) and kefta (ground meat mixed with herbs and spices) are popular too. Baklava or a fresh bowl of melon will likely make for a sweet dessert. Most children nap after such a plentiful afternoon meal.
Unlike in the United States, milk is rarely drunk with meals. Adults will often enjoy beer, wine, or arak (licorice-flavored liquor). Children enjoy limoonada (lemonade), fresh fruit juices, or jellab (a soft drink made from raisins and served with pine nuts). International restaurants are widespread throughout the country. French, Italian, German, Austrian, Scandinavian, Greek, Chinese, American, and Indian food are readily available. In addition, U.S. fast food chains are often bustling with people.
POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
The World Bank reports only about 2 percent of the Lebanese population is classified as undernourished, which means they do not receive sufficient nutrition in their diets. About 63 percent has adequate access to sanitation, and 100 percent to safe drinking water. Ninety-five percent of the population has access to health care services. Of children under the age of five, about 3 percent are underweight, and 12 percent are stunted (short for their age).
War and violence during the 1980s and 1990s has had a significant impact on the development of many Lebanese children. Between 1982 and 1990, there were over 144,000 deaths due to an Israeli invasion. As a result, many children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders. According to law, children over the age of eight are allowed to work a maximum of seven hours a day, which also contributes to childrens’ stress.