Though Lebanon may be thousands of miles from the United States, authentic Lebanese fare is closer (and easier) than you think. This Middle Eastern cuisine, which is influenced by Turkish foods, particularly grilled meats like shawarma and pastry like baklava), is easy to make at home if you stock a few basic pantry staples and spices.
I had the opportunity to talk to Lebanese cooking expert, blogger, and author of Taste of Beirut, Joumana Accad. Here’s what she had to say.
If I wanted to start cooking more Lebanese fare, what are a few of the ingredients that I should stock in my pantry and why?
Pita bread, because it is used daily at every meal, even in lieu of utensils (you can use it to scoop up hummus, for example).
Olives; they accompany every meal including breakfast.
Lemons because they are used for salad dressings, in soups, and to make tarator (the Lebanese “mayonnaise” used to make hummus and other dishes).
You should also stock onions and garlic. Onions are used for all stews, they can be pan-fried, added to salads, or eaten raw, and garlic is the most common flavoring (it’s often made into a paste and incorporated into most dishes including dips, stews, cilantro pesto, mint pesto, and any kind of sauce).
Keep cilantro on hand, too; it’s used to make cilantro pesto and to flavor many side dishes, soups, and stews.
Similarly, keep mint in your pantry. It’s used to make mint pesto and to flavor many dishes in lieu of cilantro pesto. Fresh mint is also dried and ground. The powder is then used throughout the year in a number of dishes.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to see that you book suggests simplifying your spice rack. Can you talk about which spices are most important to Lebanese cuisine and what they're used for?
Salt, for obvious reasons.
Ground allspice is used to season the majority of Lebanese dishes (such as kibbeh, soups, and stews). Some people even use it to season tabbouleh instead of black pepper.
Ground cinnamon is used in tandem with allspice and mostly in savory dishes. The allspice and cinnamon duo is found in all kibbeh dishes, vegetarian dishes, and stews.
The other spice to stock is sumac. Sumac is foraged locally and is an excellent substitute for lemons, especially in mountainous regions where lemon and other citrus can’t be grown. Sumac is also used to flavor meat dishes (like kibbeh and stews), vegetarian dishes, and salads (such as fattoush).
Let's say I've never cooked Lebanese food before. What's the first thing I should learn to cook?
Learn to make pita croutons, cilantro or mint pesto, tarator (tahini dressing,) and garlic paste. These are fundamentals in Lebanese cuisine, and are used to flavor most savory dishes.
Any special cooking techniques I should know?
Lebanese cuisine is simple and straightforward. The challenging techniques reside in making traditional bread the old-fashioned way (which most cooks don’t bother learning — they just buy them from seasoned bakers), making kibbeh balls, and in making savory pastries. Kibbeh balls, especially, are a measure of a Lebanese cook’s skills; the best ones have a very thin shell.
Joumana Accad is a blogger, recipe developer, food stylist, and photographer who writes about authentic Lebanese fare. Her book, Taste of Beirut, has more than 175 delicious recipes as well as cooking tips, tricks, and more. For more information about Joumana, visit her blog. Or, click here to buy a copy of her cookbook.
Kristie Collado is The Daily Meal's Cook Editor. Follow her on Twitter @KColladoCook.