Lebanon is home to some of the finest produce in the world, both wild and cultivated. As a result, the ancient cuisine is heavily ingredient-led. Simple preparations and subtle spicing let the character of the raw materials take centre stage. Bright pickles, wild herbs and spices, dried fruits and nuts, tahini, chickpeas and plenty of lemon juice and top-quality olive oil give Lebanese food its distinct character.
Everyone loves classics like hummus, shawarma and falafel, but most are intimidated by the thought of preparing these dishes at home. But it’s easier than you think. The secret to cooking authentic-tasting Lebanese is in understanding what each of these ingredients brings to the table.
We spoke to Chef Jad Youssef from Maison Libanaise for his go-to herbs, grains and sauces, and useful tips for using them at home. Jad grew up using these ingredients and shares his stories from a childhood spent in the kitchen learning from his mother.
The sumac shrub has bright red berries which are picked, dried and ground into a fine powder. The bush is native to the Middle East, but found throughout the world, especially in warmer climates.
Citrusy and tangy in taste, sumac is often used as a lemon substitute. At Maison Libanaise, we use it for marinades and even for our dressings. You’ll find it in the Levantine Fattoush and as a seasoning on the Halloumi Fries and Za’atar Fried Chicken.
Home cooking tip: A generous pinch of sumac will enliven your homemade hummus, roasted vegetables, fried eggs and pretty much anything else that needs a lemony punch.
Za’atar is a type of thyme that grows wild in the mountains of Lebanon, popular across Syria, Jordan and Israel. It also gives its name to a mixture of the herb itself with sesame seeds and sumac. In Lebanese homes, we use za’atar as a table condiment and sprinkle it on flatbreads or grilled dishes. The nutty accent of the mixture along with the acidic notes from the sumac make it a superbly balanced dry rub.
Home cooking tip: A sprinkle of za’atar on grilled lamb chops adds that unmistakable Lebanese taste.
A popular ingredient throughout the region of Levant (Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean), halloumi is made with a mix of goat, sheep and sometimes cow milk. My mother told me that sometimes an entire village would come together to make a big batch that would be shared and distributed to all the homes. Halloumi, to me, plays the same important role that mozzarella plays in Italian cuisine.
Halloumi has a high melting point which makes it versatile for day-to-day use. Growing up I would eat grilled or fried halloumi for breakfast almost every day. Another favourite was a halloumi manoushe along with baba ghanoush or hummus. Or I would simply enjoy it with a drizzle of honey.
Home cooking tip: Be careful not to overcook your halloumi. It should be charred on the outside but still soft in the middle.
Freekeh is a popular grain in the Middle East that has been a prominent source of protein and fibre for centuries Also known as cracked wheat, it is now emerging as a superfood and gaining popularity in the United States and across Europe. Freekeh is harvested when the wheat grain is still young, which is why it retains its bright green hue. A great substitute for rice, in Lebanon we use freekeh to accompany grilled meats such as lamb or chicken.
Home cooking tip: Cook your freekeh in stock to maximise the flavour of every bite. It’s great tossed into salads complemented by Middle Eastern spices or simply seasoned with salt and served on the side with grilled meats and plenty of fresh herbs.
Pomegranate and Pomegranate Molasses
Pomegranates are a popular fruit in Lebanon and are found all over the coast. They are sweet-tart in flavour and immensely refreshing. The molasses is a reduction of pomegranate juice mixed with sugar. The tangy, sweet and sour taste adds another dimension to salads and marinades and the sticky syrup helps thicken and add body to dressings and sauces.
Home cooking tip: Pomegranate molasses mixed with olive oil, thyme and lemon juice makes a sweet-sour salad dressing (or try it on your newly mastered freekeh). For double the pomegranate fun, sprinkle the seeds over the top of the salad for a juicy pop.
One of the most important ingredients in Lebanon, tahini is the base component of all the dips we love: hummus, baba ghanoush and many salad dressings. Every pantry in Lebanon will be stocked with at least one, if not several jars of tahini.
As I was the youngest sibling, I spent a lot of time with my mother in the kitchen. I still recall how every weekend we would make tahini together in the mornings. The sesame seed paste is essential to Middle Eastern cooking. If you want to try making it at home, simply blend roasted sesame seeds with olive oil.
Home cooking tip: Good quality tahini is made with natural ingredients so there are no additives to keep the oil from separating from the sesame paste and rising to the top. Before use, be sure to give it a good mix to emulsify the oil back into the tahini.