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Tue 1 May 2007 01:09 PM

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East meets West

Embracing Mediterranean flavours flanked by time-honoured Arabic specialities, Lebanon's eclectic cuisine has stood the test of time.

Located along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea and spanning across 10,452km², Lebanon has long existed as a mosaic of diverse cultures. Borrowing recipes from its conquerors over the years, Lebanon has infused the gastronomic innovations of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Syrians - among many others - into its food.

Between 1516 and 1918 for example, the Ottoman Turks controlled Lebanon, with Turkish food items like olive oil, fresh bread, baklava, laban and stuffed vegetables still staples of the Lebanese diet, while after World War I, it was the French and Mediterranean cuisine that began to take prominence.

Although the Civil War and recent conflicts may have marred the Lebanese infrastructure, the 16 million-strong Lebanese population that are scattered worldwide has meant the number of Lebanese restaurants opening in the region has grown rapidly.

And according to the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafés, Night-Clubs and Pastries in Lebanon, 10,000 Lebanese restaurants are operating across the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, Australia, Japan and Russia.

Lebanese immigrants through the centuries have also influenced the proliferation of traditional dishes such as kibbe nayye, to Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, as well as sfiha and tabouli.

"We guarantee validity in our cuisine with a vast selection of hot and cold mezze and authentic Levant dishes. Like Lebanon though, we have to please other nationalities in Dubai by offering Mediterranean and Continental flavours," comments Joseph Deeb, chef de cuisine of Lebanese restaurant Al Qasr, Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa.

With balanced recipes based on grains, pulses and fruit and vegetables, chef Joseph says Lebanese cuisine allows flavoursome ingredients that can be used in a multitude of ways.

"If you look at our cuisine, you can see strong Greek and Turkish influences, with dishes often sharing the same names. Meanwhile, different parts of Lebanon put their stamp on the cuisine by using different spices in the preparation, with Mount Lebanon undoubtedly the best area for restaurants," chef Joseph explains.

Due to the climate in Lebanon, with the Mediterranean on one side and the eastern sun on the other, the country also prides itself on its fresh ingredients, as it has more cultivable land than any other Arab country.

In the village of Mish Mish, which is located in the Akkar district of North Lebanon for example, inhabitants produce their own olive oil, cheese, yoghurt and pickled olives, while communal wood-fired ovens allow people to make their own bread.

Attributing the ongoing success of the restaurant to the authenticity coming from the kitchen, and its steady commitment to live entertainment, chef Joseph says Al Qasr currently has more than 200 covers per day, comprised largely of guests from other hotels as well as an influx of Lebanese, Syrian and European diners.


Maroun Lahoud, restaurant manager at Al Qasr, explains that the restaurant has remained successful in the market over the years, due to authenticity of its menu, staff and surroundings, and the elaborate spread of mezze dishes and generous portions presented to diners.

Comparable to the tapas of Spain and antipasto of Italy; mutabbal, kishkeh, muhammara and tabouli are just a selection of mezze, which is one of the most world-renowned Lebanese specialities. Other famous appetisers include baba ganoush, kibbeh, shanklish, tabouli, fattoush, and artichoke salad.

Mezze-style dining is also popular in Europe, with Greek mezedes consisting of small seafood dishes such as grilled octopus; Serbian mezze including cheese and ham; and Montenegrin-style platters featuring prosciutto, salami and roasted capsicums.

"Making the effort to suit European palates has reaped dividends for us. We opened in 1993, and were recently crowned Best Lebanese Restaurant at the
Time Out

Awards, which shows our continued success," says Lahoud.

With a sense of communality among the Lebanese, this has also permeated into the dining experience, with Chef Joseph describing dinner as a theatrical performance. Beginning with waiting staff bringing a selection of nuts and platters of fresh vegetables to the table, this is followed by hot and cold mezze like pastries stuffed with vegetables, and then the main course that mainly consists of mixed grills.

To end the meal, the availability of fresh fruits has seen the popularity of desserts in Lebanon soar, with melons, apples, oranges, persimmons, grapes and figs taking centre stage, alongside the traditional sweet, baklava.

In Dubai, the success of long-established restaurants like Al Qasr, has led to the opening of a vast number of Lebanese outlets, with the most recent offering being Mint Restaurant & Lounge in Bur Dubai.

"We are witnessing up to 160 covers per day with new faces constantly appearing. Rotating our dishes of the day and offering entertainment has been key to repeat business, while other details such as the saj oven, open kitchen and shisha pipes have proved crucial to our opening," comments Ismail Salameh, head chef, Mint Restaurant & Lounge.

Although seafood dishes have proved to be unsuccessful on the menu at Mint, mezze dishes are its big sellers; with the restaurant's successful debut prompting plans to introduce tents for outdoor seating in the summer, in order to meet demand.

Sourcing produce for the outlet's Lebanese cuisine has been simple though, and the wine on offer in the market has also matched this.

Positioned as the 47th largest producer of wine in the world, and producing 15,000 tonnes of wine annually, chef Ismail says Lebanon's beverage selection should also be a central consideration for restaurant managers, as increasing the bottom line can be achieved due to diners arriving in the late evening for dinner and drinks.


Wines from renowned vineyards in Lebanon includes Chateau Ksara, Chateau Musar, Domaine des Tourelles and Massaya, and are exported to most Lebanese restaurants worldwide, while Arak, a clear unsweetened anis-flavoured liquor and Arabic coffee are faithful additions at Lebanese dinner tables.

In Bahrain, the Gulf Hotel celebrated its 15th annual Lebanese Food Festival last month in its Zahle restaurant, which promoted the culture with entertainment from belly dancers, singers and folklore dancers, coupled with a wide assortment of traditional Lebanese food.

Hussein Faqih, head chef at Zahle echoed the sentiments of chefs Joseph and Ismail by highlighting the need for authentic Lebanese cuisine. Using a lot of olive oil, salad and vegetables, rather than butter, cream and heavy sauces, chef Hussein says there a lot of health benefits to Lebanese cuisine, with sumac, a dark red berry grown in the Middle East, as well as mint, cumin, allspice and lemon juice all vital components to their diet.

And with other Lebanese dishes proving popular, including the parsley-based tabbouleh and kibbeh - pastry stuffed with minced lamb - the wide variety of Lebanese dishes makes it a popular cuisine throughout the region.

Food facts

Mezze:

One of the most world-renowned Lebanese specialities is mezze, a selection of appetisers also known as muqabbilat. Popular mezze dishes include baba ganoush, kibbeh, tabouli, fattoush, artichoke salad and shanklish; a type of cow's milk cheese made in Syria and Lebanon.

Saj:

Saj refers to both the flatbread found mainly in Arabic cultures, and the dome or convex-shaped griddle used to cook it on. Typically placed over a source of heat such as a wood fire, the dough is flattened and kept very thin prior to cooking. Pizza saj, salami saj and hamburger saj are more recent additions.

Za'atar:

Heralded as a source of strength for the body and mind, za'atar is a strong aromatic herb with soft, dark green leaves. Native to the Middle East, this amalgam of marjoram, sumac, thyme and sesame seeds is typically mixed with olive oil and salt, and is drizzled over hot bread or used as a dip.

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