Having just hosted the immensely successful Boisdale Jazz & Cigar Club Beirut Jaunt 2017, Michael Karam gives us the inside track on the ancient and unsurpassed traditions of Lebanese food and drink. Michael is the author of ‘Wines of Lebanon and Arak and Mezze: The Taste of Lebanon’
Picture if you can, a village butcher’s in Mount Lebanon. It is early morning in November. The butcher, who has been up for hours, is standing at his counter, finishing a breakfast of raw, pureed mince, blended with herbs and drizzled with olive oil. On another plate, sit diced chunks of raw liver and fat. Before serving me, he makes a scoop with the bread and rounds up the last bit of meat, washing it down with a glass of milky white liquid. He wipes his hands on his apron and smiles. How can he help me?
Robin Fedden, in his 1965 book, Syria and Lebanon: An historical appreciation, gives a beautifully succinct description of that milky white liquid. “Arak, the local aperitif, is very good. Made from a grape basis and flavoured with aniseed, it is vaguely reminiscent of Pernod, and has, further, the advantage of being something of a specific against the intestinal troubles which so commonly beset the traveller in the Middle East.”
But what Fedden fails to mention is that Arak could also claim to be the one of the world’s oldest drinks. Araq is simply Arabic for sweat, literally that which is sweated from the still. And while the jury is still out on who first perfected the distillation process, it is the Arabs that first used it to make alcohol, another word that comes from the Arabic al kohol – itself derived from kohl, the eyeliner favored by Arab women and purified by the same process. The alembic, the pot still used to make arak, is also an Arabic derivative, while the term eau de vie is a literal translation from may al hayat water of life.
That aniseed-based drinks can be found around the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe is no coincidence. The habit filtered across Europe via the works of the Arab scholars, while as far as China and Indonesia and all stops in between, Arak is the word used to describe local grog. The French have their Pastis, the Turks, Raki and the Greeks, Ouzo. Similar aniseed-based liqueurs are produced in Syria, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, but Lebanese Arak, like Lebanese food, is considered the finest in the Middle East.
My grandfather enjoyed three glasses a day: one at breakfast, one at lunch and one in the evening. But never two at any one time… so they say. And so when we talk of the Lebanese table and Lebanese food, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, we cannot ignore Arak. Yes, Lebanon makes fabulous wine but if we are sitting down to a table groaning with mezze dishes, it is the aniseed’s palate-cleansing qualities that allow us to enjoy the dazzling array of flavours like no other.
Arak is part of mounie, the rural Lebanese tradition of preserving food for the winter. Mounie also includes mincemeat that is cooked, spiced and stored in glass flagons. Reheated and served over fried eggs in a clay pan, bayd b’awarma (literally eggs and meat) is the Lebanon’s full-English, as is ful medamas, cooked fava beans in oil, served with chopped parsley, garlic, onions and tomatoes and kishek, wheat porridge, served with garlic and onions, sometimes with meat. All are eaten with the ubiquitous flatbread, fashioned into a scoop that acts as “cutlery” for many Lebanese dishes.
You don’t have to travel to the mountains, to enjoy these. All good Lebanese hotels, and especially the Phoenicia InterContinental in Beirut with its spectacular breakfast buffet, serve a mean ful and kiskek. Those brave souls wishing to seek out genuine bayd b’awarma, should visit Le Chef, Beirut’s finest greasy spoon, on Rue Gouraud in the district Gemmayzeh. Owner, Charbel, will guide you in your choice of arak – Brun, Massaya, Rif, Musar, Touma, Kefraya and Ksarak are all excellent – should you fancy a real breakfast for champions.
For those with more modest appetites, the Lebanese breakfast table also includes Manouche (a wrap made with thyme, mint, and tomatoes) Labneh (strained yoghurt) served with a dash of olive oil and a sprinkling of milled thyme with a side of fresh mint and cucumber, again eaten with Arabic flatbread. In the summer, figs and thick, pungent Arabic coffee will, as you might imagine, will kick start the system.
Lunch and dinner follow a similar simple but brutally effective formula as an array of vegetarian and meat dishes is thrown on the table. Some – humus, mtabal (or Baba Ghanouj), stuffed vine leaves, tabbouleh, fattoush and a range of white cheeses – will be well known to European diners, but there are over a dozen others with regional Lebanese, Armenian and Syrian influence: Basterma, Sojok or Maqaneq (assorted spiced sausages), Ras Asfour (diced lamb cubes), whole quails, liver cooked with pomegranates, fatayer (pastries with assorted fillings ranging from cheese, to spinach to meat and pine nuts) and Shanklish (dried goats cheese mixed with mint, onions, tomatoes and olive oil).
Then there is Kibbe, a style of food made with bulgur as its base, minced onions, and ground beef, lamb or fish and spices. Kibbe can be cooked in an oven pan and eaten with Laban, a yoghurt, milkier than Labneh, and fresh mint, or made into stuffed balls. There are also vegetarian Kibbes made solely with bulgur, tomatoes and potatoes.
But Kibbe can also be eaten raw in a dish reminiscent of steak tartar. Go to any decent Lebanese restaurant and ask for kibbe nayeh, mince, pureed with bulgur and spices and served with the Holy Trinity of olive oil, mint and onions and washed down with Arak. It is the “money shot” of the Lebanese dining experience.
The best Beirut restaurants will have a man sporting a huge moustache in a Fez, or Tarboush to give it its proper name, an elaborate waistcoat and baggy trousers or sherwal, to pour the coffee. If it’s infused with cardamom, the portions will be very strong and so don’t be bemused if the cup is less than half-filled. Lebanese sweets are famed throughout the region. Apart from Baklava, which everyone knows, cream-based dishes such Halawet el Jiben and Usmalia are very popular, as is the quaint tradition of squeezing a mini doorstop of Turkish Delight between two sweet biscuits similar to a Rich Tea and being ten-years-old again.
A word on pacing. The novice is often defeated, especially if they are a guest at a top Lebanese restaurant, by not knowing that the ten or so dishes on the table are not the only food at that meal, and that you don’t have to eat everything, however tempting. More food, normally meat and served with rice or the increasingly popular frikeh, will inevitably be on the way. You have been warned.
But while the Beirut restaurant will roll out what I call the “full catastrophe”, an experience that will leave the guest not needing food for the next week, rarely will the typical Lebanese home, prepare such a feast. It is the notion of multiple, shared dishes that is crucial to the Lebanese dining experience. We Lebanese are loud and hospitable with a vast generosity of spirit that is captured in a proud culinary tradition.
Indeed, Lebanon, we must remember, has only been a country since 1943. Before that the French ran the show for 20 years and before that the Ottomans called the shots for 402 years. Go back further, and we were run by the Arabs, the Persians, the Romans and the Greeks all the way back to the Phoenicians. Lebanon is a baby. It may not be around as we know it 10 years from now, but the people and their food will remain. And so, presumably, will the Arak.