While we have only been here two weeks, many if not most of our eating has been in restaurants. The school has treated us to several meals; once at a restaurant in the reconstrtucted Solidere section of Beirut, a second time at the home of the Head of School. We were also treated to restaurant meals upon our arrival in Beirut by members of the school’s Welcoming Committee and we have eaten street food. We have cooked at the apartment a few times, but given the lack of AC there it’s known to us as “Hell’s Kitchen”. We don’t like heating the space more so the result is many dinners in restaurants. We have purchased a few items at local stores as well. So here is an introductory description of the food we have enjoyed to date.
Several of the meals were iftars; feasts at the end of the day of a day of fasting for devout Muslims. It is the holy month of Ramadan. These meals began with either a soup or a mezze , which is number of small, cold or hot dishes. The cold dishes include hummus, babaganoush, labneh, which is a thickened yogurt with garlic and olive oil, a variety of breads for dipping, fresh vegetables which are often arranged in and around the bottom half of a head of Romaine lettuce, stuffed grape leaves, nuts, olives and fruits. It is not uncommon to get ALL of these dishes in a true iftar meal. Also in the first course is tabouleh. The tabouleh is very heavy in parsley, with very little bulger wheat. This makes the dish light and refreshing. One learns to not overdo the mezze courses as there are many more dishes to come.
We have tasted our first fresh dates and figs. (The attached picture is of fresh dates, w/ a partial clove of garlic for size comparison.) The dates were very interesting. They are somewhat hard on the outside, but easily bitten into. The first sensation is dryness, followed by moistness and a hint of sweet date flavor.
Next came a variety of hot mezzes. These included kebabs of several types, including beef and chicken. These can be dipped in tum, which seems to be whipped olive oil with LOTS of garlic in it….very delicious. Also in this course were chicken livers and several types of sausages. By now, one is beginning to get a bit full. But wait….there is still more to come. Soon a large platter is brought to the table on which the diner will find meats of several kinds; kebabs, sausage type meats and roasted vegetables. Fish might be included. By now you are picking at the food. The picking will last for some time as it is tasty and there is certainly plenty of it.
Finally, what we Americans call desert arrives, which always includes fruit of some sort, usually watermelon. At one meal we had an interesting Turkish dish. It had three layers; in the middle was a cream that was not at all sweet. The bottom and tops looked like straw and were crunchy and light, probably a very thin toasted pasta. A slightly sweetened rose water syrup was poured over the slice. It was not my favorite, but it certainly was new and interesting. Of course, Arabic coffee topped off the meal.
Mint is used widely here. It is often in garden salads, and mint lemonade (with lots of mint) is common and very good. The mint makes whatever it is in refreshing, which in this hot climate is always appreciated. Olive oil and lemon are ubiquitous.
The most common street food is manaeesh, which is a pizza like dish. It consists of a flat bread, on which is spread olive oil, cheese and any variety of toppings, then folded and wrapped for easy handling. We have also had falafel sandwiches from street markets and have yet to try crepe type sandwiches. While most restaurant meals are similar in price to what one would find in the states, these falafel sandwiches were large and less than $US 2. Very tasty. By way of clarification, street foods are not sold by sidewalk vendors with mobile stands. To date, we have seen only one of these in Beirut. The stands are small shops, usually with no seating.
From what the locals say, the people of the Middle East consider Lebanon its food capital. Works for us!