The Right Way to Eat Lebanese


The Right Way to Eat Lebanese

Lebanon is often called the cradle of civilisation and it's easy to see why when you visit. A vast history stretching back thousands of years and a strong sense of who they are as a people stay with you long after you leave.

The one thing you remember most is the hospitality and welcome you are extended, the positivity that people show, and the willingness to 'give it a go', whatever 'it' may be. But in the evening everybody goes out and has dinner with friends and colleagues. Some nights you may be only 4, and on other nights other folks drop in and you could be a dozen or more, but on every occasion, you all share a huge variety of Lebanese food which varies depending on the region you visit. In the mountains, it is more meat based, on the coast more fish and seafood oriented, but it always about variety and coming together to share the meal between each other. There are some very specialised local delicacies which you won't find in the UK, including fig birds and sheep brains, but the group just orders less of these depending on who wants them, and more of everything else. Eating is by consensus! There is never an occasion where one person says "I'll have the steak."

And this is where Mezze comes in. Mezze is an array of small dishes creating an array of colours, flavours, textures and aromas. This style of serving Lebanese food is less a part of home life than it is of entertaining and eating out (in part because mezze is time-consuming and fiddly to make). Mezze may be as simple as raw or pickled vegetables, hummus, moutabbal and bread, or it may become an entire meal consisting of grilled marinated seafood, skewered meats, a variety of cooked and raw salads and an arrangement of desserts eaten in successive waves. Lebanese flat bread (khobez or pita) is a staple to every Lebanese meal and can be used in place of a fork.

The essential ingredient in all of this is that the array food is shared by all the guests at the table. Eating is by consensus!

In Lebanon, this is the only way you can eat when you go to a Lebanese restaurant.

In the UK (and the West in general) the culture is very individualised where each person has their own starter and their own main course. The two styles don't fit well together and it can get very disjointed if one guest wants to eat individually while the others want to eat traditionally and share. When do you serve the individual's starter and main course if the rest of the group are only having a dozen-or-so mezze for their whole meal? And how do you manage this when everybody else in the restaurant is ordering lots of mezze? There are only so many places on the stove to produce all the food and the chefs are busily producing dozens of dishes for dozens of guests simultaneously. Unfortunately, it's usually the individual who lucks out as a result. From the kitchen's point of view, they might as well be on a separate table!

Here's a great intro to Lebanese food made about a year ago in the USA, and while it only shows a handful of the dishes you can enjoy at Meejana, you'll get the idea that it's all about joining in and enjoying the smorgasbord of dishes for everybody. In real life, dishes arrive as they are prepared and you'd usually get the cold dishes and salads first, then the hot mezze, and finally the grilled meats if you want them. Usually, the waiter would ask you after you've been served your mezze if you'd like any grilled meats, and, if you do, these will then show up while you're finishing off the mezze. It's a lot more fluid than we're used to in the West, but incredibly relaxed and extremely sociable.