“Everything is better in Lebanon”

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Almonds, Lebanon House, Amman, Jordan

The Lebanese table offers a compelling blend of exotic ingredients, subtly combined. Its seasonal food choices and earthy flavors offer inspiration to professional chefs across the world. The epitome of the Mediterranean diet, Lebanese cuisine combines herbs, spices and fresh ingredients in an almost limitless array of robustly flavored dishes. From aromatic nibbles like these almonds, to mains, and most of all, mezze, or “small plates”, the cuisine seems perfectly engineered for happiness at the table.

I’ve never been to Lebanon, so how do I know this? Well, chalk it up to a trip last year to Jordan, where I met an exuberant Lebanese entrepreneur named Hebah.

Everything you need, right here

My fiancé and I visited Jordan in the run-up to our wedding day, and had decided to buy our rings while on holiday there. After much to-ing and fro-ing, we found ourselves before the window display of a jewelry shop not far from our hotel.

The door opened, and an ample woman with a smile to match stepped onto the sidewalk and motioned us inside. “Here you will find everything you need!” she exclaimed, with a wag of an impressive head of hair.

We spent more than an hour in Hebah’s shop. In perfect English and with superb salesmanship, she provided us with exactly the rings we sought:  elegant and simply styled, not at all like the lacy gold bangles fancied by locals.

Mint tea, Amman, Jordan
While our rings were being sized, Hebah served mint tea.

One thing led to another, and then, as often happens, to food.  “Have you tried fattoush, made the Lebanese way?” she asked, “real Lebanese food?”, then introduced us to her husband. Before we knew it, we had been invited to dinner at their home. It would be a spread of mezze.

Do you know mezze?

We welcomed an opportunity to try mezze from a Lebanese home kitchen. On the appointed evening, Ibrahim picked us up at our hotel, and drove us down streets lined with elaborately decorated fences.  We turned into a drive between columns topped with statues of Saint George, and I was soon in the kitchen helping make fattoush.

We sampled mezze to a running commentary from our hostess. Hebah sources much of the family’s food from Lebanon—from lemons to za’atar and sumac—“Everything is better in Lebanon!” she insisted.

Fattoush (without pita bread)
Fattoush, a Lebanese salad of mixed leaves, tomatoes, onions and cucumber, tossed in a vinaigrette and liberally sprinkled with tannic sumac—but served without the characteristic base of toasted pita bread.
Tabouli
Minty tabouli vibrant with parsley, tomatoes, scallions and lemon juice—a perfect blend of spice and citrus.
Kibbeh
Fried kibbeh balls of bulghur, onions and ground beef, and rounds of flatbread with a pizza-like topping accompany the salads.
Spinach with onions, Amman, Jordan
Spinach topped with fried onions is ready for a spritz of lemon—soft, crunchy, slightly sweet with a tart finish.
Hummus with sumac
Satiny hummus is topped with olive oil and decorated with leaves and sumac. Chickpeas and fruity oil marry well with a delicate sprinkle of citrus.
Serving artisanal wine from Lebanon
An artisanal rosé from the Lebanese vineyard of Hebah’s father. After she poured the wine from a bottle hand-painted with an image of St. George, she offered a toast. “To Lebanon!”

New reasons to visit Lebanon

Our mezze evening closed with tea and fancy cakes from an Amman patisserie. Throughout, food was a principal topic of conversation, and we received culinary travel advice aplenty: “You should sometimes try a rosé from the Chateau Ksara!” “Order shish tawook with ‘toum’ when you go!” and “Don’t forget to try za’atar on slow-roasted lamb!”

In retrospect, we did not learn much about the finer points of Lebanese cuisine—that is for another time. But one thing is certain: an evening with this self-assured ambassador for Lebanon made us long for the real thing. Quite unexpectedly, while visiting Jordan’s capital, we spent an evening in Lebanon—no visa, no travel required.

Is everything better in Lebanon? I would love to find out!

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This post is my entry for the Taste Lebanon Food Trek Giveaway, with stay at the Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut.

 

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