Lebanon is probably not at the top of your vacation-destination list right now. And maybe it never was. But until civil strife broke out in the 1970s, the capital city of Beirut was known as the “Paris of the Middle East,” attracting visitors from around the globe to its shores. Looking eastward from Beirut, the Lebanon Mountains rise steeply, the highest peak reaching 10,131 feet.
The fertile Bekaa valley, fed by the Litani and Orontes Rivers and home to some of Lebanon’s best vineyards, lies between that range and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The combination of coastal plain and mountainous interior gives visitors lots of options. You can surf in the morning, then take a few runs at a ski slope that afternoon. And always, there is fine food and wine.
Despite recent outbreaks of fighting, Lebanon is at the top of my travel-destination list. You wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at me—I don’t have the traditional dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin—but my heritage is Lebanese. My grandfather was Lebanese and immigrated to Detroit in 1935, where he met my grandmother, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon at the turn of the century.
All I know of Lebanon, aside from what I have read or heard from those who have lived there, is the food. Over the years my “aunties” have taught me how to make the specialties that their mothers and grandmothers taught them to make. I’ve spent the day rolling grape leaves with Aunt Elaine, assembling the ingredients for my favorite potato salad with Aunt Yvonne and working my way through my first pot of mjadra, a simple dish of lentils, onions and rice or bulgur, while on the phone with Auntie Ang.
Recently, my Uncle Tony introduced me to Sameer Eid, chef-owner of Phoenicia in Birmingham, Michigan. Sameer, born in Lebanon, came to the United States in 1961. He saw a tiny restaurant for sale and bought it. “Did I know anything about the restaurant business when I started? No, I did not. But I knew good food,” he told me over lunch one afternoon.
He had spent summers on his grandparents’ farm, picking vegetables fresh from their garden. “People in villages plant their own crops, store what they can and cook what they grow.” Farmers even process their own bulgur—the staple grain of the region—by parboiling then drying wheat berries before the bran is removed. “Everything we made was right from the garden and picked right before it was cooked. They didn’t use pesticides—everything was organic. It all tasted wonderful.”
The summer of 2006 was the first time Sameer hasn’t returned to Lebanon for a vacation. He has a home there and his brother and sister still live there. “It’s a sad situation that Lebanon is in,” he said wistfully. “The Lebanese should at all times think of Lebanon first, not other countries. This is the problem right now.” Both siblings live in what historically have been considered “safe” parts of the country. Both were hit hard by the war this past summer. “I hope the Lebanese will wake up and start working for Lebanon instead of working for everybody else.”
I may never make it to Lebanon. But I’ll always have the aromas and flavors of the food I’ve grown up with to feed my soul.
A staple grain of Lebanese cooking, bulgur is made by parboiling, drying and coarsely grinding or cracking wheat berries. Don’t confuse bulgur with cracked wheat, which is simply that—cracked wheat. Since the parboiling step is skipped, cracked wheat must be cooked for up to an hour whereas bulgur simply needs a quick soak in hot water for most uses. Look for it in the natural-foods section of large supermarkets, near other grains, or online.
The tart berries of the sumac bush add another element to many Middle Eastern dishes. Find them whole or ground in Middle Eastern markets or online.
Tahini is a thick paste made from ground sesame seeds. Look for it in large supermarkets in the Middle Eastern section or near other nut butters.
Tool: To hollow out the squash for Kusa Mihshi you will need to use a flexible paring knife or the tool that is designed just for the task: a zucchini corer.