Lebanese cuisine, right down to your fingertips

In Paris as in the rest of the country, Lebanese restaurants are popular, but do we really know this gastronomy? If the addresses are numerous throughout France, it is clear that connoisseurs of Lebanese cuisine sometimes remain unsatisfied.

A fervent defender of Lebanese culinary heritage, restaurateur Kamal Mouzawak has just inaugurated Tawlet, his first French table, and regrets the ignorance of traditional recipes: ” In the windows of caterers, we often see tabbouleh made with a lot of semolina and prepared several days before. Yet it is the most emblematic specialty of the cedar country; a cheerful mix of fresh herbs, onions, tomatoes and fine bulgur.

Tart, colorful and tasty, Lebanese gastronomy deserves to be celebrated for its plurality. In France, Lebanon is known for its so-called “public” cuisine: that which is eaten on the go, or in a restaurant in the form of mezze – a set of cold and hot dishes that make up a very codified epicurean meal.

Lebanese cuisine, a feast for the senses

This custom of mezze, which combines tastes and demonstrates a sense of hospitality, rises to the rank of art in Lebanon. The anthropologist Aïda Kanafani-Zahar even dedicated the book to it. Big Book of Lebanese Mezze. Anthropology of secular knowledge (South Acts). His research shows that this festive meal ” flatters the eye and the sense of smell to begin with and (continues) with a performance of lavishness “.

A waltz of meticulously studied dishes: tabbouleh or fattouche – a peasant salad covered with toasted bread –, followed by cold mezze, raw meat, hot mezze, before ending with grilled meat or fish.

A moment out of time where everyone composes their plate according to their tastes. Essential ingredients of a successful mezze according to Kamal Mouzawak: the view of the mountains or the sea, as well as the presence of family or friends. Carla Rebeiz, restaurateur at the head of Eats Thyme, agrees: ” The table should be covered and the host shares whatever he likes with his guests. »

As for street food, it does not escape conviviality. Symbol of the cultural diversity of Lebanon, it is revealed on the stalls at any time of the day. In front of the stalls, customers often start chatting with each other while waiting for their falafels – or other economical delicacies – to be ready.

Tawlet, Armenia, Beirut, Lebanon. www.soukeltayeb.com DR

In France, this part of Lebanese cuisine appeals to city dwellers, and there are more and more places to eat a good shawarma or man’ouché on the go.

The taste of everyday life

On the other side of the prism, the “private” kitchen is that which is discovered in the secrets of the families. Very focused on seasonality, it also varies by region. Unless you are invited to a person of Lebanese origin, you cannot really touch the richness of this gustatory grammar – as the writer Ryoko Sekiguchi calls it in her book. 961 hours in Beirut (and 321 accompanying dishes).

This innovative home cooking, Kamal Mouzawak is working to make it known with his teams of outstanding cooks at Tawlet, in Lebanon and in Paris. This is also the case for Joumana Jacob, who opened the successful Maison Joumana table d’hôtes in Bordeaux: ” Customers were sometimes surprised that I didn’t offer mezze and asked me for specialties to which they were more accustomed. »

However, the chef manages to surprise them with her cuisine, which she describes as urban. Attached to the recipes she learned from her nanny, she adapts them to her active life and emphasizes plants and respect for the seasons. One of its specialties marvelously embodies the adaptation of a tradition to the life of a contemporary family: a rice vine leaf cake served in a casserole dish rather than in individual rolls to save significant time.

Homemade Lebanese cuisine requires two things: good products and time. “, she believes. In her apartment in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, Joumana actually takes all the time in the world to prepare the lunch to which she invites us. ” I always keep herbs in the fridge, like carrot tops or parsley, which I then stir into thick pancakes. »

Joumana Jacob.

Joumana Jacob. DR

They accompany an excellent winter tabbouleh that day, made from a little bulgur, a few radishes, lots of parsley, lemon, orange and umeboshi – Japanese salted plums that replace tomatoes in the winter. This is followed by a main course typical of everyday cuisine: a stew of beef, quince, parsley and pomegranate molasses, simmered for a long time. ” It goes well with hummus, by the way. adds Joumana, once seated at the nicely laid table.

For dessert, she cuts slices of persimmon, neither too firm nor too ripe, which she coats with toasted sesame oil, a little salt and lots of lemon. A beautiful tribute to one of the favorite fruits of the Lebanese.

The heritage kitchen

In her book, Aïda Kanafani-Zahar analyzes this ” Lebanese infatuation with their own cuisine as a compelling desire for life and belonging “. This culinary heritage binds the exiles to their native land. Affected by the civil war, the revolution and the recent explosion of the port of Beirut, the diaspora celebrates taste as it celebrates existence.

For Joumana Jacob, being a cook is a way of honoring the memory of her loved ones every day. Ryoko Sekiguchi concludes her portrait of Beirut with the following observation: The kitchen (…) will know no end, as long as there are people to prepare it, in their country or in the land of exile. »

According to the proliferation of tables d’hôtes, cooking classes, grocery stores and restaurants that claim this intangible heritage, Lebanese gastronomy has a bright future ahead of it in France, and we are delighted.

The lexicon of Lebanese street food:

Practical and economical, the specialties of Lebanese street food say a lot about the cultural richness of the country. From dawn to late at night, the stalls reveal delicious promises. Deciphering the essential dishes.

Manouche : traditional Lebanese bread sprinkled with zaatar – a mixture of sumac, thyme and grilled sesame – very present in the country’s gastronomy. Sliced ​​or rolled, it is often eaten for breakfast.

Shawarma : emblem of street food, this sandwich is garnished with fillets of meat – sirloin, for example – marinated in vinegar and spices for hours, raw vegetables, chopped parsley, onion and sumac.

Helen Rocco

Falafel : these fried balls of chickpeas and spices invite themselves into pita bread with fresh tomatoes, mint and tarator – a creamy yogurt and cucumber sauce.

shish taouk : these chicken skewers – marinated in garlic and yogurt for more tenderness – can be eaten on the street as a sandwich or at the end of a mezze.

Jallab : drink made with carob molasses, dates and rose water. The mixture is served in a glass with crushed ice, pine nuts and blond grapes. Something to cool off on hot summer days.

Lahm bi ajin : pizza garnished with minced meat, pomegranate molasses or served plain which can be accompanied by a glass of ayran, a milky drink made from yoghurt.

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