Friday, April 8, 2016


Lebanon has an incredibly rich food culture, far beyond what I could hope to describe in these pages. It has been an agricultural center since antiquity; wine, olive oil, and grain were exported by Phoenician traders. Like much of the Mediterranean, it’s a bountiful climate for growing produce. And the local produce, of course, is in large part what has shaped the cuisine.

One of the best paths toward understanding a region’s food culture is by starting with the raw materials: the ingredients and their sources. And because there’s that thing about pictures being worth a thousand words – and also because if I write too much prose I will never actually finish this piece and get it online – I’m going to try to let the images do most of the talking.

This is the village where my mom grew up, and where my dad spent summers as a kid, and where my maternal grandparents and much of my extended family (on both sides) still lives:


The main part of the village (city hall, shops, etc) are on the crest of the hill, and most of the residential buildings are down in the valley.

Main street of the village

The valley, with houses and the village church

The hillside facing the village is covered by a pine forest. You might run into a local farmer taking his goats out there to graze. The local honey is as dark as molasses, since the bees like to frequent the pine trees. (Oak and cedar honeys, of similarly rich hue and deep flavor, are produced in other parts of the country.)

View of the forest from behind my grandparents' house

The descent into the valley is steep, and so nearly all the arable land is terraced. Some people keep livestock, too, although that is becoming less common. When I visited for the first time as a little kid – over twenty years ago – my grandparents still kept some chickens and turkeys. We would collect the eggs for breakfast, and for me those eggs are still the nostalgic ideal against which every other egg must be measured. The milk, meanwhile, came from a neighbor’s cow, and in my grandmother’s kitchen the cream was skimmed off for use in desserts; a little fresh milk kept for drinking; and the rest transformed into yogurt and labneh. These days no one’s got the time or inclination to keep animals and the old henhouse is long gone, but my grandfather still presides over an abundant garden and orchard.

Fruits and veggies are grown in every available space.
So many grapes! None of these are wine varietals, though; the ones that aren't eaten fresh
become the best raisins you have ever tasted.

In a few months this pine cone is going to split open so the seeds (pine nuts) can be harvested.It's slow, painstaking work, which is part of why pine nuts are so expensive.
Ever wondered how chickpeas (garbanzos) grow?
Well, now you know!
A few weeks ago I found fresh chickpeas at a local market and made them into hummus.
Check out that color!
Sweet melon
Bitter melon?

So many eggplants!

Sumac trees

Sumac, just harvested. The seed pods are left to dry thoroughly in the sun, then the dried seeds are ground.
The spice is a deep burgundy color, and has a sharp, lemony taste. Delicious.

The figs get made into jam flavored with aniseseed and served with fresh walnuts.

The fig tree is on the property that belonged to my great-grandparents.
Not pictured: walnuts, pomegranates, almonds, peaches, plums, apples, pears, olives, and probably some other kinds of trees I'm forgetting. Also tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, herbs, etc.

For those who live in bigger cities or don’t have the space to grow food, there are the markets. These range from roadside farm stands:

Local oak forest honey, plus syrups and fruit preserves.

To outdoor markets in tourist areas:

Vegetables in the old souk (marketplace) in Sidon.
Spices, grains and beans in Sidon. Those hanging strings are dried okra!

To upscale supermarkets:

Freshly baked kaak
Fresh dates!

Amidst all this green goodness, there was one crate of perhaps the saddest vegetable I have ever seen. Where I live, this vegetable is king. It is on every restaurant menu, in every takeout salad, in every grocery store, staple of the juice bar and much-touted superfood. Yet here, the lone crate of wilted, yellowing leaves was sloppily labeled in English only and without a price, slouched in a back corner as if hiding in shame behind the proud pumpkins.