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This article featured in Cibus magazine, December edition

I have recently acknowledged the truth that my love for Italian food has left me no eye for other cuisines. So, I have endeavored to widen my horizons and liberate my taste buds for the gastronomy of other countries. And there I was, few days after my declaration, falling in love with Lebanese food, and cooking, and wondering, about their traditional and creative dishes for Christmastime.

Christmas in the land of milk and honey

In search of familiarity with the cuisine and traditions of Lebanon, I headed to meet the devoted chef, of Lebanese origin, Hany Harb. This time, I was not in to dine from the sumptuous feast of mezzes on his menu but to discover the Christmas orientations in the kitchen of Lebanese families.

It all started with a geographical briefing. I did know that Lebanon is in the Eastern Mediterranean but I was not aware that this land is within what is known as the Fertile Crescent – an area in the shape of a crescent where the soil is rich and fertile. Hence, the abounding variety and flavours present in the cuisine of this land, like olive oil, cheese, copious spices and numerous herbs. Moreover, the landscape and climate blessings lingering over their Bekaa valley make this basin the main source of food in the country.

Then there is history. Lebanon has a long past of invasion and foreign rule which left its inheritance in the cuisine. Like, the Byzantine Empire who decided on a no meat, no fish, no milk and no wine policy during Lent. The Islam introduced new religious restrictions indicating the way meat should be prepared. The Ottoman Turks made lamb and bread popular. And the French handed over their sophisticated skills in the presentation of food and elegant quality of service.

So what is Christmas in Lebanon like? From what I compiled, Christian communities celebrate Christmas in Lebanon in similar ways we enjoy in Europe. People go to Midnight Mass. Santa Claus is around disseminating gifts. Seeds of chickpeas or wheat are planted in cotton some weeks before Christmas and then are placed to decorate the manger, similar to what us Maltese call gulbiena. Christmas trees are adorned with shaped orange peels. And of course, abundant food and drink is at hand in every household. Christmas day lunch is usually held in the home of the grandparents or the eldest son and even, the familiar dishes such as roast turkey are present on the tables of Lebanese natives.

But which recipes, of his beloved country, is Hany Harb, with his scrumptious creativity, thinking about? First the national dish of Lebanon, served as a sign of hospitality to guests – the Kibbeh Nayeh – a mixture of pounded lamb and bulgur wheat with onion, cumin and fresh herbs formed into lumps and shallow-fried. Accompanying this customary dish is the Tabbouleh – fragrant finely chopped parsley, bulgur, tomatoes, onions, olive oil, and lemon juice. And three dips: Muhammara – roasted bell peppers, walnuts, garlic, pomegranate molasses, breadcrumbs, and chilli; Baba Ghanouge – smoked aubergines, tahini, garlic, and lemon juice; Homous Awarma – dried chickpeas paste with tahini, garlic and lemon juice topped with pine nuts and corned lamb.

The feast continues. Pan-seared breasts of a month-old domestic pigeon, raised locally served with pigeon broth. Lamb tenderloin marinated in baharat (spice mix of black pepper, coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and paprika), sumac (crushed dried berries), and grain mustard, then grilled. Lebanese rice with ground lamb and Turkish sultanas. Mouth-watering aren’t they? It must have been the look in my eyes as Hany vividly explained the preparation of these dishes that made him stand up, walk to his kitchen and there we go – the recipes for 4 servings for the young pigeon breast and the yellow spiced rice:

Zaghalil as-Saag

Zaghalil as-Saag

  • 2 whole local squab pigeons, deboned
  • 50g frozen butter
  • 1 tblsp honey
  • Extra virgin olive oil

For the marinade:

  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp hand-picked fresh thyme
  • 2 cardamom cloves, crushed
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Mix together all the marinade ingredients. Add the pigeon pieces and marinate overnight.

To cook, take a non-stick pan, melt butter and pan-fry the marinated pieces. Place breasts skin-side down and cook for 1 minute. Turn and cook for another minute. Drizzle with honey and olive oil, swirl pan and serve with the remaining juices.

Lebanese rice with minced lamb

Lebanese rice with minced lamb

  • ½ kg parboiled good quality rice
  • 1 litre water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tblsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 100g ground lamb, pan-fried
  • 100g Turkish raisins
  • 50g roasted pine nuts
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Salt & pepper

Pour some olive oil in a deep pan; add the rice, salt, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon stick and bay leaf. When the rice starts to sizzle add the cold water. Bring to boil and then reduce heat to a minimum for 20 -25 minutes. When the rice is cooked remove from heat; remove bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Add the Turkish raisins, roasted pine nuts, minced lamb, and cinnamon. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Was wondering what’s usually for dessert when Hany, anticipated my curiosity and portrayed the sophisticated Baklava made from fillo dough with rose-water syrup and nuts and the Buche de Noel, a frosted sponge cake in the shape of a log, a sweet marking Lebanon’s history as a French colony. Pity we did not have time to prepare these sweet dishes.

My first-time close encounter with Lebanese food intends not to be the last. As things stand I am tempted to prepare a lavish feast of Lebanese dishes for Christmas.  Off to buy a recipe book! Or will there be one waiting for me under the Christmas tree?! Till then Milad Saeed – Merry Christmas!

I would like to thank Hany Harb for his time and contribution towards this article. Hany Harb is the chef patron of Ali Baba restaurant in Gzira.

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