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Food For Thought

Few places match the customs and hospitality linked to Lebanese food.

Few countries can match the customs and hospitality linked to the food of Lebanon. There, the table is always a generous one and once the feast is laid, there is no sign of a tablecloth.

It is this Lebanese gift for the presentation of cuisine that first greets the eye of the diner. Dishes of chickpea and garlic or the drab-to-look-at but delicious also known as are enlivened with chopped parsley, sprigs of fresh mint, slices of crunchy radish or a toss of pomegranate seeds bursting with crimson juice. The expression “too pretty to eat” could have come straight from a Lebanese kitchen.

In Lebanon, hospitality is a duty. It embodies centuries of culture, art and tradition. But this hospitality is a two-way street. The ultimate goal of both the host, and the guest, is to please – and there is always room for another person at the Middle Eastern table.

Some ancient but still-in-use soup recipes note that water can be added should an unexpected guest arrive. To persuade someone to stay for lunch is both a triumph and an honor. When the meal is over, plenty of food should be left as a sign that no one has walked away hungry.

For foreigners, learning Lebanese cooking and the rules of hospitality often results in mistakes – some are taken lightly, others are almost regarded as sins.

One foreign woman who tried making stuffed grape leaves had everything right until she rolled the leaves inside out. The guests smiled, saying, or, the inside has come to the other side. Funny, but forgivable.

For one Norwegian woman, her first attempt at Lebanese hospitality caused her and her husband great embarrassment. Unaware of a local custom, she broke the “three times” rule. When she offered her guests something to eat, they politely said no. Observing their wishes, the woman took the food away. As a hostess, she was disappointed. But the guests were shocked.

In Lebanon, no polite person would accept food on the first or even second offering. Additionally, no hostess would take food away after the first no. Coaxing, and a little firm insistence, are important ingredients when serving food.

Lebanese largess is found even at the Turkish bath. When women gather at the bath – admittedly a fading custom – everyone brings something to share.

And picnics in Lebanon are a far cry from what is standard fare in America. These alfresco feasts require hours of work as full meals are transported from home to the countryside.

When a place for the meal is selected, small grills are set up, coals are lighted and meat is skewered. Overflowing basins of and bags of bread appear. Chairs and blankets, babies and grandparents are arranged. Hammocks are rigged for the youngest and water pipes are stabilized on the uneven ground. Boom boxes get cranked up and the picnic takes off.

Also, very unlike Western custom, no attempt is made to be apart from other picnickers. On the contrary, the Lebanese love proximity and, as any picnicking foreigner can tell you, trying to keep your distance simply does not work.

– the bon appétit of Arabic – means “two healths” – and Arabic food is healthy enough to merit the expression. Although you can list the essential ingredients of Lebanese cooking on the fingers of two hands, the variations and combinations are beyond simple arithmetic. These 10 ingredients are: wheat, olive oil, lemon juice, rice, onions, yogurt, garlic, (sesame seed paste), lentils and chickpeas.

Every vegetable and every fruit has its season. Lebanon’s varied climate guarantees fresh produce all year long while greenhouses coax tomatoes, cucumbers and beans into maturity.

Following harvesting, the local wheat becomes bread, and bread is a daily purchase. During the war, there were many curfews but doctors and bakers were excluded. An increase in the price of bread often triggers civil unrest in the Middle East. Give us this day our daily bread is not only a line from the Lord’s Prayer, it is a cry for action.

Bulgur wheat (crushed wheat) is used in the meat dish and in tabbouleh. Oil always means olive oil. Other oils are lumped together and called . The quality of each year’s olives and resulting olive oil is an annual concern and always good conversation. To know someone who can get you a bottle of olive oil from the first pressing is like knowing someone who can give you gold.

Coffee is a household essential. It is served if a visitor has stopped by just to say hello and it is also served following a meal. The serving of coffee signals “time to leave” so gracious hosts delay serving it. And no guest would leave before receiving it.

At weddings, coffee is served sweet, but it is also served unsweetened at funerals to show grief.

When at home, guests are asked how they prefer their coffee – the answers reflect the amount of sugar to be added. For the sake of ease, the Lebanese will often serve a pot of unsweetened coffee and include a tiny sugar bowl on the tray as cups are passed around to the guests. With the last sip, guests will put down their cups and say, which is a very short version of the above proverb.

Excavations in Beirut have unearthed coffee cups that date to the 16th century. The Arabic has been westernized to coffee and the word comes from the Red Sea port of Mocka, in Yemen.

Coffee still plays an important role in trade and business in Lebanon. There is no such thing as a business meeting without coffee being served. The big brew in the little cup accompanies the exchange of pleasantries that kick off the meeting.

In times past, it was considered disrespectful to refuse a cup of coffee. It was like refusing a handshake. There are Lebanese who do not drink coffee, but it is still considered good manners to give an explanation for one’s refusal. There is no decaffeinated Lebanese coffee, so refusing coffee in the evening is acceptable.

Also accompanying coffee drinking is the custom of reading the coffee cup. Turned upside down, the sediment slowly runs down the inside of the cup leaving expressive patterns. Valleys and peaks suggest travel or trouble, other patterns promise money or romance. Readers speak with confidence about these possible events and even the most doubting of Thomases will listen.

Each housewife has a preferred butcher whom she trusts to save her the best meat, a greengrocer who stashes away the choicest tomatoes, and a cousin whose orchards will supply her with perfect oranges.

Housewives do not spare their tongues if vendors sell them less than perfect produce. Snobbery knows no limits when it comes to food. Food is such an important part of life in Lebanon that quite often the man of the family helps with the shopping. His place of work may put him in a neighborhood with an exceptional market or a good fishmonger. If business takes him out of town, he will return with whatever specialty that town offers. Tripoli is famous for a sweet called while Sidon in the south is known for a cookielike sweet called

Ramadan and Lent are periods of fasting but also of creative cooking. The Ramadan sundown meal is carefully balanced to gently reintroduce food to the stomach after the all-day fast. Lenten fasting goes from midnight to noon. Members of the Eastern churches will abstain from all oils, all meats and all dairy products for the entire 40 days.

During Ramadan, flocks of sheep make their appearance and much like the pursuit of the perfect Christmas tree, Muslims set out to buy the best sheep for the big celebration at the end of the monthlong fast.

At Christmas, Christians stock up on nuts and candied fruits. Many Lebanese who had lived in the United States have adopted the tradition of the Christmas turkey.

Olives rule. They are present at every meal. Talk of their harvest is serious stuff. In spite of the demands of today’s life and the fact that many women work outside the home, preserving olives remains a standard domestic chore. Once treated, the olives keep well for at least a year.

Cultivation of the olive started more than 6,000 years ago at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The olive and its oil were in high demand throughout the ancient world for food, fuel, medicine as well as ritual practices, such as coronations, ordinations and burials.

This is said of someone who is always in a hurry. Lebanese cooking takes time and a watchful eye. But trying to get a Lebanese cook to give you exact measurements usually ends in failure. Recipes are centuries old and require loyalty and respect, but there is room for improvisation. Hummus can be varied by the amount of lemon juice, garlic or olive oil, but a Lebanese cook would never stray into the varieties of hummus sold in American delicatessens.

Western appliances have appeared in Lebanese kitchens, making some of the work less tedious. But there are some traditions that remain sacred. No self-respecting cook would use a garlic press – a mortar and pestle is essential. Sea salt added to garlic as it is pounded forms a paste that blends easily with other ingredients. Parsley and mint are chopped by hand. For the Lebanese cook, no invention can substitute for deft fingers and a sharp knife.

Chopping parsley and mint for stuffed squash and eggplant and rolling grape and cabbage leaves takes time and patience. Lentils require a good going over before washing to remove little stones and bits of plant caught up in the harvesting. Cooking is rarely done alone. It is a time-honored means of social interaction for the Lebanese.

The first mouthful of a Lebanese feast is often something raw. The that well-known layout of little oval dishes each filled with a culinary treasure, is often crowned with hearts of romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green onions, mint and radishes.

Lettuce leaves serve as edible spoons for the tabbouleh, an essential ingredient of the mezze. Nuts and pickles, olives of course, hummus and mutabbe, greens of all kinds, raw lamb similar to steak tartar, all make up this feast. A modest mezze has no fewer than 15 dishes. If allowed to get carried away, a mezze can run to 50 or 60 or more dishes.

Drinks are served during this portion of the meal. A wise rule followed at home and in restaurants is that alcoholic drinks are never served without food. Lebanese wines, made from indigenous grape varieties but in the French manner, are excellent but usually drunk in restaurants. Local beer can be offered at meals eaten at home but the standard drink is water. a strong anise drink, is traditionally served with fish.

If a meal is eaten at a restaurant, the waiter assumes the role of host. He coaxes, advises and spoils his guests. He fusses over the dishes and hovers during the meal, quick to remove empty dishes or a saucer full of olive pits.

This proverb is a wonderful example of how Lebanese hospitality covers all situations. A guest is never to be embarrassed. A guest is a blessing. And, any guest that utters the words or, may the food of hospitality ever be in your house, will always be welcomed back.

For recipes click here.

Marilyn Raschka, our Beirut correspondent, is well-versed in the rules of Lebanese hospitality.

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