“Lebanese food culture” is a strange phrase, but the term makes perfect sense if you’ve ever been to Lebanon. Lebanese food — the choice of ingredients, the way it’s presented, and the order in which it’s served — is a significant and vital part of Lebanese culture.
Lebanon, or sometimes “the Lebanon,” is one of the smallest Arabian peninsula countries (about 4,000 square miles), located on the west coast just above Israel and below Syria. The population is just over 6.8 million, with over a third based in the capital city of Beirut. Incredibly, the country recognizes at least 18 different religions, all with their own community, culture, and cuisine. Over the years, many dishes have been borrowed and adapted by neighboring communities, resulting in the rich Lebanese food culture that we enjoy today.
Over the next few minutes, we’ll introduce you to some of our favorite Lebanese cuisine, and we’ll explain some of the religious and cultural significance of each dish as we go. So please take a seat and enjoy a complimentary glass of arak as we serve you a traditional slice of Lebanese food culture. BTW, it’s considered a great insult to refuse food offered by a Lebanese household, so we hope you brought your appetite!
A Quick History of Lebanese Food Culture
To the Lebanese, food is one of their greatest loves, the key to their excellent health, and central to family life. The history of Lebanese cuisine is as old as it is intriguing; here is a brief look at its evolution.
Lebanon has historically maintained good relations with most other regions of the world, which is why the ingredients they use are so diverse. Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, was once regarded as the “Paris of the Middle East,” and nomadic tribes who passed through brought with them all sorts of exotic delights.
The tribes brought dried fruits and spices from the Far East, ideal foods for transport as they didn’t spoil easily in the hot sun. The influence of tribes from ancient Levant — a region that includes modern-day Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Israel — is reflected in many Lebanese traditional dishes, such as hummus and man’oushe.
By far the most significant impact on Lebanese cuisine has come from the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Lebanon from 1516 to 1918. Under the Ottoman influence, lamb became the meat of choice, stuffings made of minced meats and vegetables became very popular, and ahweh — Turkey’s strong, dark coffee — was introduced. The Lebanese can also thank the Ottomans for their delicious baklava, as well as a wide range of nuts, fruits, and bread.
In Lebanon, mezze (or meze) is often a meal in its own right and can comprise up to fifty individual dishes, similar to Spanish tapas or Italian aperitivo. Most often, mezze dishes are grilled, baked, or lightly cooked in olive oil, although vegetables are often eaten raw or pickled.
Groups of dishes arrive at the table about four or five at a time, and there are usually between five and ten groups. It’s customary to eat mezze along with a very thin flatbread called maneesh, sometimes baked with a pocket as in pita bread. In fact, bread is so important to Lebanese food culture that it’s often referred to as esh, an Arabic word meaning ‘life.’
There is a set order to the dishes: typically, olives, tahini, salad, and yogurt come first, followed by cold dishes with vegetables and eggs. Next come small servings of meat or fish, alongside any special accompaniments, and finally, guests are served more substantial dishes such as a whole fish or meat stews and grills. Although a chock-full mezze table may look overwhelming, the dishes are all chosen to create a perfectly balanced array of colors, flavors, textures and aromas.
There are so many different mezze dishes that it would take this entire article for us to describe them all. So to tempt your tastebuds, here are some of the most popular servings:
- Tahini Sauce is made by grinding sesame seeds into a smooth paste, which is then roasted or left uncooked. Most people prefer the seeds hulled (skinned), but some communities use un-hulled seeds. As well as being a nice light starter, tahini is a rich source of vitamins B and E and essential minerals such as magnesium, iron, and calcium. It’s also completely safe for people with diabetes and surprisingly contains more protein than milk and most nuts.
- Tabbouleh (see picture above) is a salad that mixes finely chopped tomatoes and onion with parsley, fresh mint leaves, and bulger (a whole grain with a light, nutty flavor). Tabbouleh is seasoned with olive oil (as are most Lebanese dishes), and then drizzled with lemon juice. For added flavor, some variations also use sweet peppers.
- Baba Ghanoush is probably the best-sounding name out of all the mezzes — go on, say it out loud right now, we’ll wait! Essentially, baba ganoush is a creamier companion dip to hummus but made with eggplant — “aubergine” to the Brits — that’s been baked or broiled over an open flame to give it a smoky taste. This is then mashed with tahini (see above), lemon juice, sea salt, and, of course, olive oil. Mutabbal is a spicier version made with added anar seeds.
(Fun fact: In Arabic, ghanoush means “spoiled,” and baba means “father.” Some suggest that, in royal circles, this dish was prepared as a special treat for the ruling sultan — literally the “spoiled father”).
Kibbeh is mainly used as one of the mezze dishes, but it’s so popular that we think it deserves a full section to itself. And so here it is! Traditional kibbeh is made by soaking bulger wheat, mixing it with onion, ground beef (or lamb), spices, and a pinch of salt. The resultant paste is fashioned into a type of shell, which is then stuffed with a mixture of spiced beef (or lamb) and toasted pine nuts; sealed and then fried or baked. The art in preparation is getting the balance in textures of the two meats just right.
Kibbeh is always served with arak, which is a traditional Lebanese drink made from grapes and aniseed. Arak is usually mixed two parts water, one part arak, and the high alcohol content (between 40% and 63% proof) kills any bacteria found in the raw meat used in kibbeh.
(Fun fact: Kibbeh is the Lebanese national dish, and learning how to make it is considered a rite of passage for girls aged 15 or 16. In some Lebanese communities, a girl cannot be married until their future mother-in-law has approved their kibbeh skills.)
This internationally famous spread is traditionally made with mashed chickpeas, tahini sesame paste, lemon juice, and garlic. People worldwide love hummus for its tangy flavor and unique texture and the fact that it’s chock-full of nutrients.
Just before being brought to the table, hummus is copiously drizzled with olive oil and is then served as a dip for vegetables or as a flavorful and conveniently sticky filling for flatbreads such as pita. The flavor of hummus is often further enhanced by adding spices such as cumin and paprika. You can garnish hummus with practically anything: some favorites include chopped tomatoes, fresh herbs, especially basil and thyme, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and pine nuts.
We know very little about the original source of hummus. The Lebanese, Turks, and Syrians have all claimed it as theirs, but there’s pretty scant evidence for any theory. The main ingredients have been around for centuries: the chickpea, in particular, dates back more than ten thousand years. A recent theory, gaining traction, suggests that hummus dates back to ancient Egypt, in the thirteenth century.
And now, with your permission, we’re going to take a few minutes to dig a little deeper into the history of Lebanese food culture. Don’t worry; it won’t take long, and there are plenty of other tasty treats waiting!
Fatteh is the quintessential Lebanese comfort dish, probably invented as a way of using up day-old bread. The word’s origin means ‘to crumble,’ which perfectly describes the distinctive bottom layer of toasted or fried bread. (The frying is done in olive oil, obviously). The rest of the dish is built up in layers, starting with a couple of sauces. Next is a layer of lightly-cooked vegetables, and finally, the staple layer of meats.
Any meat can be used in fatteh, but the favorites are ground lamb and finely sliced chicken. Alternatively, eggplant and spinach make a tasty veggie option. The whole creation is then topped with pine nuts seasoned with cumin and a pinch of cinnamon or cardamom.
The history of the original dish has been traced back to Damascus, and the name comes from the Arabic term for breaking bread, which is “futt khobez.” There are various regional versions of fatteh, notably from Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine. Hummus fatteh — a mixture of chickpeas, tahini, and (optionally) ground meat, served on flatbread then covered in yogurt — is considered a Beirut specialty.
Fatteh is usually eaten at breakfast because it takes only a few minutes to prepare. For the same reason, fatteh traditionally served at large family gatherings, especially at Ramadan, where it’s usually served for iftar: the first meal used to break the fast.
Man’oushe (or Manoosh)
Manaqish (which is the plural of man’oushe — confusing, isn’t it?) are often referred to as “Lebanese pizzas” by foreigners. They’re similar to a pizza in that they can be sliced or folded, but the similarity ends there. Traditionally made from odd portions of left-over dough, the fingertips press the round base to sculpt little “dips” to hold the toppings. (The name manaqish comes from the Arabic naqash, which means “to sculpt.”) The Lebanese version has one of three toppings: minced lamb, cheese, or a mixture of olive oil and za’atar spice.
The last item, za’atar, is a blend of dried herbs including oregano, thyme, and — most importantly — sumac, with toasted sesame seeds and a touch of salt. And although there are many tasty and healthy Lebanese meat dishes, it’s the za’atar manakish that are the most popular. They are often served warm for breakfast, along with feta or any other white cheese to complement the slightly bitter za’atar. Olives, along with fresh garden tomatoes, cucumbers, and radish, complete the meal.
Along with falafel and ful (a stew of cooked fava beans), manakish is considered a “poor man’s food” in Lebanon. That doesn’t stop it from tasting incredible, and the fact that one man’oushe costs less than one US dollar means you can try all three Lebanese versions with falafel on the side for less than five bucks!
(Fun Fact: Although some people are used to a sugar-charged, caffeine-injected breakfast, this is not true of everyone. In many parts of the world — including Lebanon — breakfast is a warm, savory meal.)
Regarded as somewhat of a delicacy in commercial centers like Beirut, this Lebanese meal is actually vital to the survival of isolated villagers and country people. Kishk is made of bulgur – cracked, parboiled wheat – mixed and fermented with either goat’s milk or yogurt. (The Turkic people, 200,000 of whom live in Lebanon, prefer to use qatiq, a much heavier type of yogurt, along with red berries as a food coloring.)
Preparation starts in the summer when the overhead sun makes souring and fermentation easier. Once the process has run its course, some of the resulting paste, an edible dough named kishk akhdar, is rolled into small balls and conserved in olive oil for later consumption. But the best part is yet to come.
To achieve the final kishk product, the dough is spread onto large clean white sheets, which are then stretched out on all the village rooftops and left to dry rock-hard in the summer heat. Once the dough is totally dry, all the women of the village join together in a big community event, and rub the rooftop surfaces to extract a fine, white powder. This is kishk powder, one of Lebanon’s most nutritious preserves.
The kishk powder is then mixed with cold water to form a soft sourdough. The more sour the final taste, the higher quality the goat’s milk used, which is a matter of pride to the community’s women. Chopped tomato, cucumber, radishes, onions, mint, and crushed garlic are added to the dough, along with yet another generous drizzle of olive oil (these Lebanese just can’t get enough of their olive oil!).
(Fun Fact: The word “kishk” originates from the Persian word “kashk,” and no, we’re not joking! The word refers to a mix of cracked wheat and cracked barley, although only bulger wheat is used in the Lebanese version of kishk.)
Even though falafel is one of Israel’s national dishes, there is evidence to suggest it originated in Egypt, prepared by Coptic Christians as a substitute for meat during the festival of Lent, when eating meat is forbidden. But, in typical Lebanon fashion, Beirut’s falafel chefs feel they have “perfected” the dish and that no one makes falafel better than the Lebanese.
In the Lebanese version, fava beans are often used instead of chickpeas, and the mixture is flavored with parsley, coriander, cumin, and onions. In some communities, garlic cloves are peeled and roughly chopped before being added to the mix.
Widely regarded as the best falafel in Beirut, the Sahyoun family’s recipe is slightly different from others, as it uses only beans and spices in the mix (the original Sahuyoun, called Mustapha, famously omitted onions as he was concerned that his customers might get bad breath). The result is a falafel that’s crisp on the outside, but moist inside, offering a rich, salty contrast to the crisp radish and juicy tomato that make up the layers inside the falafel sandwich.
(Fun Fact: Actually, the above is very controversial. When Mustapha passed away, his two sons took over the business. They then had a blazing row, and they now run separate falafel shops located next door to each other. One of them certainly makes the best falafel in town, but we’re not sure which one!)
Just Before You Go…
We hope we’ve managed to tempt your tastebuds for some well-cooked and well-presented Lebanese cuisine and given you a better insight into Lebanese food culture. But you don’t need to go all the way to the Middle East to try one of these delicious and healthy meals — most major cities have a Lebanese restaurant. So why not google “Lebanese restaurant near me” and give your local Lebanese a try. It might just convince you to make the trip.
What is the traditional food in Lebanon?
Lebanon is home to 18 different religions, and each has its own traditional foods, with recipes passed down over many generations. The Ottoman Empire had the most overall influence on traditional food in Lebanon. Under their rule, lamb became the favorite meat, minced meat/vegetable stuffing became popular, and the Lebanese started drinking ahweh, a Turkish-style dark, intense coffee.
How would you describe Lebanese food?
Lebanese food is essentially the same as most Mediterranean countries’, with some old-world influences imported by nomadic tribes from ancient Levant. Fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and white fish feature far more than meats, typically poultry or lamb. Olive oil is in practically every dish, and so, to a slightly lesser extent, are lemon juice and garlic.
Is pork eaten in Lebanon?
Some communities in Lebanon do eat pork, but for Muslims, who make up sixty percent of the Lebanese population, pork is considered haram — meaning eating it is forbidden. Therefore Lebanese meat dishes are usually made with allowed (halal) meats, such as chicken, lamb, and occasionally spiced beef.
How healthy is Lebanese food?
Lebanese food is very healthy because of the fresh, natural ingredients and the uncomplicated way in which food is prepared. In fact, the US platform Healthline recently ranked Lebanese food as the tenth healthiest in the world, which isn’t bad out of 195 countries! The use of sesame seeds, chickpeas, and garlic adds plenty of nutrients to the Lebanese diet, and all dishes are free of added sugar, helping to fight the battle against weight gain.