Emerging Cuisines: Lebanese

The Mediterranean countries of the Middle East share a rich culinary heritage based on many of the same indigenous ingredients and preparations—fruits, vegetables, herbs, olive oil, bulgur or cracked wheat, yogurt, seafood and lamb. But connoisseurs believe that Lebanese cooking ranks as one of the most refined and sophisticated. Turkish, Armenian and French influences all come into play in the Lebanese kitchen, infusing the dishes with richness and complex flavor.

“The time has come for Lebanese cuisine to take its place among the world’s greatest,” believes Philippe Massoud, executive chef-owner of ilili, a stylish New York City restaurant that is “a laboratory for authentic cooking.” Massoud feels that years of war and turmoil in his homeland prevented Lebanese cooking from evolving to a higher level—something he and his team at ilili strive for everyday by “pushing the envelope a bit and sourcing the highest quality ingredients.” The cuisine is naturally on trend with its healthy focus on small plates and sharing.

While ilili’s menu features Middle Eastern classics, Massoud infuses them with a playfulness. For example, baba ghannouj, the roasted eggplant spread, is blended with Lebanese tahini and pomegranate and offered straight up as a “mezze” or starter. But it’s also spiced with wasabi and served with Sashimi of Kona Kampachi ($13). Chicken Livers, prepared in Lebanese homes with a broken butter sauce, are elevated at ilili with a French-style emulsification and accompanied with lemon, pomegranate molasses and sumac ($8). And Rouget (red mullet) is typically a dish of small, whole fried fish served with the head and tail intact; Massoud can only source larger mullet from his suppliers that are then filleted for guests. “We do all the work—scrape off the cooked fish, put it on pita chips and squeeze the lemon and tahini on top,” he explains.

New York City’s Al Diwan takes a slightly more conventional yet still contemporary approach. Signatures include Fried Kebbeh, the signature dish of minced lamb mixed with bulgur, onions and pine nuts; Fattoush, a Lebanese salad of crisp pita bread tossed with cucumbers, tomatoes and mint; and Samkey Harra, a traditional whole roasted sea bass in Lebanese Hot Sauce composed of garlic, lemon, fresh green and red peppers and ground red pepper. “We focus on the quality of the food rather than fancy presentation,” says owner Jamal Kawwa. “Perfecting the plate is more important than decorating the plate.”

Essential ingredients are relatively simple to source. “There’s a huge Middle Eastern community in the U.S. and many suppliers,” Kawwa adds. He relies on Al Noury, a distributor that specializes in Middle Eastern foods. While some of the products are interchangeable—grape leaves from Greece and Syrian peppers can be used to make authentic Lebanese dishes—others are more distinctive. Lebanese tahini, for example, is lighter in color and texture and sets Lebanese hummus apart from its Mediterranean cousins.

Throughout the Middle East, dining on “mezze” (a.k.a. mezza, meze, and mazza) is a way of life that traces its roots far back in history. According to the Tannourine Family, owners of Tannourine restaurant in San Mateo, California, the word itself means “middle” as in “middle of the day” or between meals. But in Lebanon, mezze are small, flavorful plates of food that are shared before or during dinner and can even comprise the whole meal. They make for a convivial, healthful dining experience.

At Tannourine, the mezza are listed as “Hot” and “Cold.” The more popular include Tabouleh; Kebbeh served with a refreshing yogurt sauce; dips such as hummus and baba ghannouj; and savory fillo pastries, including Cheese Burak (filled with haloumi cheese and mint) and Sambousek (stuffed with ground beef, pine nuts, onions and spices).

So what do the Lebanese drink with these Middle Easter “tapas?” Lebanese wines are perfect partners. The country’s French influence imparted a strong winemaking tradition and both whites and reds are more readily available in America today, notes Kawwa. Two examples are Chateau Massaya Classic Sauvignon Blanc and Chateau Ksara, both a label and a winemaking family in the Bekaa Valley. Many Israeli, Spanish, Greek, French and American bottles are also included on Lebanese-American lists and pair well with the food.

More adventurous diners might go for a glass of Arak instead. This high-alcohol “national drink of Lebanon,” infused with mint and anise, “acts as both a digestif and relaxant; it washes the taste buds and refreshes the palate for each new dish,” claims Massoud. This potent potable is never drunk straight; instead it’s mixed one-third Arak to two-thirds water and poured into a carafe. Then a special glass is filled to the brim with ice and the Arak mixture is poured in. The filled glasses are set on a tray and delivered to the table. “The first glass is for medicinal purposes, the second glass makes you happy and with the third, you eat the wind,” the ilili menu explains.

Most of the fresh meats, fish and vegetables, as well as dried fruits, olives and other pantry staples used in Lebanese cuisine can be sourced from American distributors. Cuts of lamb, yogurt and fresh herbs might be a bit different, but restaurant operators usually can adapt. Sometimes the choices are better. At ilili, the beef and lamb are prime, grass-fed meats and softer lamb tenderloin stands in for the chewier leg for kebabs. Other times, compromises have to be made. “I can’t find the varieties of purslane and thyme I want,” laments Massoud, “but I’m now partnering up with growers to supply these and other herbs.”

Grocery products can be more challenging. There’s a lack of variety and consistent quality in the supply chain, says Massoud. He cites zaatar—a distinctive seasoning that shows up in many dishes—as an example. “Sometimes I have to recalibrate recipes because there is no consistency or standardization of the product I get.” At ilili, items like Lebanese olive oil “with just the right balance of acidic notes,” tahini and spices are either imported directly from Lebanon or sourced from Middle Eastern purveyor Sahadi Fine Foods in Brooklyn, N. Y.

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