Note on the title of this post: “Sah-tein” (Sa7tein) is the Lebanese equivalent of bon appetit. When you drink, one says “sa-ha,” (sa7a) and the dual form ending (ein) is applied to the word for eating; double saha.
It’s no surprise to y’all that I love Middle Eastern food.The standards are common in the States: tabbouleh, hummus, fattoush, kabob, pita bread, and (my favorite), waraa’ einab (grape leaves). Since many are familiar (and yes, so good here) I want to share with you some food discoveries I’ve made while in Lebanon. Links to recipes are included for the curious.
Makdous are small eggplants stuffed with walnuts, red pepper, garlic and salt, cured in olive oil (some people add chili powder also). I don’t think I’d ever heard of them prior to coming, but they are so delicious. They’re probably a little to elaborate for me to attempt to make on my own, but you can buy them like you would pickles or olives in many markets. They can be eaten them alone, or (I like them) as the filler of a pita bread sandwich, with labneh.
Labneh is yogurt strained with muslin, and is similar to Greek yogurt (but better!). Not to be confused with laban (which means plain yogurt), labneh is thick, and similar in consistency to cream cheese. It is ubiquitous and delicious, commonly eaten as a breakfast food, drizzled with olive oil and served with pita bread, but is also frequently used as a condiment, etc. Other common variations include adding garlic, olive oil, cucumbers, or other various spices (pictured with sumac, below). I eat it with just about everything, as the rest of this post will make clear. The Wikipedia page goes through some of the interesting regional variations of how labneh is prepared and consumed across the Arab world. **Note to the Toledoans reading this: if you want to taste test the difference between labneh and Greek yogurt, commonly known via brands like like Chobani or Fage, they serve it at Poco Piatti, and I’m told you can find labneh at some of the Middle Eastern markets in Toledo proper.
Lebneh is commonly used as a topping on Manouche (plural, Manakeesh, also known as saj for the convex circular griddle on which it is traditionally prepared), which is sometimes called the national food of Lebanon. There are probably as many variations of manouche as there are stands that serve it (minimum one every 2-3 blocks in my neighborhood, I’d guess), but the standard, or starting point is generally a piece of flat bread, spread with a mixture of zaatar (see below) and olive oil, and then baked on a saj. Common “fillings” include cheese , vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, olives, onions, fresh mint leaves, etc.) and sometimes meat. It is then served either folded in half, or rolled up, wrapped in paper. Manakeesh is sometimes regarded as “Arab pizza,” is a common breakfast food, and is often my lunch (depending what you put on it, it can cost between $.75ish and $2.00!) So. Good.
Also commonly known as Lebanese pizza, lahme bi ajeen is actually of Armenian origin, and is basically a flat meat pie made with very thin bread. It has just a litle kick to it, and it’s delicious. You can often find it at manakeesh stands. I also like to put labneh on this to make it even more savory. I have yet to have it prepared, as the recipe linked above suggests, with vegetable fillings.
A Palestinian friend introduced me to zaatar last summer- it is a condiment made up of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. It is pictured above, mixed with olive oil, in the image of the manouche. I did not realize before coming here that there are regional (and familial) variations to zaatar- I had a Syrian variety that was almost black in color, many are forest green-ish, and others which have a higher ratio of sumac are reddish.
My friend Joe introduced me to a simple, healthy dish that I’ve seen called either hindbe or khobbeizeh bel zeit. The second name defines the dish: khobbeizeh being the word for dandelion leaves, zeit being oil. The leaves are boiled and served with oil, garlic, lemon juice, and fried onions on top. You could eat it with a fork, but it’s even better just scooped up in some pita bread. I also feel like you could do this dish with many varieties of leafy green (chard, spinach, etc.) (see below), but the use of dandelion is what makes this food authentically and particularly Lebanese.
Varieties of Coffee:
Nescafe is instant and everywhere. I have it most every day.
Turkish or Arabic coffee came to Lebanon through Ottoman rule (someone check me on that?) Thick, strong, and bitter, it is served in very small cups. You see old men on the street, everywhere, drinking it out of what are essentially plastic Dixie cups. The founder of my organization is Turkish, and we’ll often have it in the office, mid afternoon.
White coffee is hot water with a few drops of orange blossom or rose water (and I like to add a sugar cube or two). I first had this at Coptic Christmas with my family last January; it is fragrant but mild, and very soothing. My aunt told me stories of my great-grandmother harvesting baskets and baskets of orange blossoms (back when the family had property outside of Cairo), and created a device to acquire the orange blossom water in one of the bathrooms of the family apartment! A nice respite from the other highly caffeinated hot beverages, I like to have a cup before bed.
Known in Lebanon as bakleh, purslane is an incredible green, rich in antioxidants and omega 3s. Its 16 calories per 100 g, and
besides all that its yummy and incredibly versatile, and can be served fresh or cooked. I was at a supermarket attempting to find spinach (haven’t found any outside of restaurant dishes yet) and I spotted this thing that looked like it could be a cross between spinach and arugula, so I thought I’d take it home, and give it a shot. It grows all over the world, and is commonly found in Latin American and South Asian cuisines, but has yet to really trend in the States. So far I’ve used it sauteed alongside some fried eggs, in a curried rice and lentil dish, in an orzo dish with yogurt sauce, and in a fatoosh salad… it’d be great to throw in as a green on a sandwich or in a stew, or steamed with some lemon juice.
In addition to purslane and dandelion (above), I’ve discovered many other types of produce, including these white blackberries (really bizarre and perhaps a bit unsettling to eat, tasting a bit like honeydew with the texture of a blackberry) , and these mysterious yellow fruits which are either plums or kumquats (the jury is still out, but they grow on ULYP’s Dibbiyeh campus and are nice and tart) ; pictured below.
I think it goes without saying how amazing the beef and chicken schwarma sandwiches are, but I feel like the post is incomplete without mentioning it. Seriously unreal.
ADDENDUM re: street food :
Recently I was hanging out with two Lebanese guys. We were hungry, it was late, and we were trying to decide what to go get. This, verbatim, is the exchange that followed:
Lebanese-Canadian dude: Lets go get McDonalds
Tess: No, that’s disgusting, I’m in Lebanon, I’m not going to eat shitty American food.
L-C dude: Fine, lets go get hotdogs.
True story. Our incredulous stares prompted his defense, sputtering, “they’re totally different here!!”
My guess is that hot dog stands come in a close 3rd for most common street food behind man’ouche and schwarma places. They often don’t open until at least midnight, some are open 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., you get the gist. These are no Ballpark Franks though. Almost always halal and made of beef, the most common topping, as with many things here, is mayonnaise. Gross. Like manouche, you can pick from a number of toppings, including melted cheese, onions, tomatoes, jalepenos, ketchup, mustard, etc. Hotdogs as a food were no culinary discovery of mine, but their popularity here certainly was.