`Lebanese Cuisine' By Lebanese / British culinary author Annisa Helau, author of the more recent and more widely popular `Mediterranean Street Food' is a good, if somewhat flawed presentation of an important cuisine of , in the author's emphasis, the `true' middle east.
For starters, this book is much better than some works on local cuisines of, say, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, and Latvia which were written twenty to fifty years ago and may still be lurking on the shelves of your library in rebound, dusty editions with nothing more than one skimpily described recipe after another. One of the benefits of the renewed interest in traditional food is that the bar has been raised for writing about all ethnic cuisines, primarily by the very important works on Italian regional cuisine and works on African and Middle Eastern cooking by Paula Wolfert and Claudia Roden. And, while Ms. Helou obviously has an enormous amount of respect for Ms. Roden's important `The New Book of Middle Eastern Food', Ms. Helou takes issue with Ms. Roden on including Egypt, properly part of Africa rather than being in western Asia, the `true' middle east.
Ms. Annisa Helou begins her book with a brief but nice outline of Lebanese history. The land began as the home of the Biblical Canaanites, who became the great merchants and alphabet inventors, the Phoenicians. Since then, they have been the proverbial welcome mat over which walked the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and French. With all these landlords, the conclusion is that the Lebanese cuisine is one of the most interesting in the region. The cover, in fact, proclaims this as `250 recipes from the most elegant Middle Eastern cuisine'. I confess that it may be one of the most varied, but the degree to which hands are required as cooking and eating utensils tends to keep me from enlisting in this idea. And, while the author claims that the recent 25 year French protectorate of Lebanon laid the typically immense imprint of French cuisine on Lebanese cooking, I cannot easily see if from the recipes in this book. It seems to have much more in common with its Arab neighbors, including Egypt, than with the land of Escoffier.
On reading the first three chapters on `hors d'oeuvres', salads, and soups, I began to think there was simply nothing special going on here. So many things seemed like variations on Italian and Greek dishes such as the bread and tomato salads so reminiscent of panzanella. Things started picking up in the chapter on savory pastries. While any pop food commentator worth his salt will point out that stuffed dough dumplings are found the world around, the fact that we find them in an important niche of Lebanese cuisine is very interesting and a good source of recipes worthy of an earnest foodie conversation. In Lebanon, the roles of Ricotta and pork of Italy are taken by yogurt and lamb. While the author points out that until recently, the majority of the population of Lebanon has been Christian and not Arab or Jewish, there are very few recipes in this book, which include pork. In the index, I count only two, while I count 29 references to lamb, some with occurrences on many different pages.
Then, I got to the chapter on eggs, and I began finding a few genuinely distinctive dishes. Here, I found a style of omelet which is genuinely different from French or Italian models. It is a sautéed egg mixture done in such a fashion that you can easily make several servings in a single pan, in very much the same way as you may make pancakes or English muffins on a griddle. The novelty of this dish is doubly interesting as it makes use of a really unusual ingredient, the liquid squeezed from the pulp in the middle of a zucchini. Most of the other egg dishes are pretty standard combinations of European style scrambled eggs with Middle Eastern ingredients. Be prepared to bone up on your egg technique before trying these recipes, as there is no good instruction on how to achieve light, uncolored cooked eggs.
The real star of Lebanese cuisine appears to be `kibbe' Anglicized from `Kibbeh', which may easily be to Lebanon what pasta is to Italy and cous cous is to Morocco. Like both of these dishes, it is characterized by an extreme simplicity of ingredients, using only bulgar, chopped onion, and lamb, combined in a great variety of ways, with a great variety of sauces and accouterments. An entire chapter is devoted to the subject, but Kibbe dishes pop up in other chapters, just as pasta shows up in soup, salad, and appetizer recipes. Kibbe is baked, sautéed, and braised in balls, cylinders, and circles the size of piecrusts.
After Kibbe, we are back in familiar territory with a chapter on Kafta, the proper Lebanese name for shish kebabs. Next are stuffed vegetables, which seems to be at least as important to Lebanese cuisine as it is to both Italy and my central European ancestors from the banks of the Danube.
The book also covers the classic breads of Lebanon such as pita, although advance knowledge of bread baking and yeast may be needed to work through the recipes.
Other than a family interest in Lebanese tradition, the primary reason to check out this book would be for the rich source of healthy recipes including bulgar wheat, yogurt, nuts, lean meat, and fruits and vegetables. The writing and editing is not that of a scholar. There are many word usages which are simply the result of the author's less than perfect grasp of English and there is disorganization's in parts of the book which detract from a careful study of the volume.
But, this is still a very worthwhile coverage of a truly interesting and rewarding cuisine.