Lebanese food culture is one that’s sure to get the taste buds a-tingling. A fantastic fusion of east and west, the dishes here are plumed in aromantic herbs like parsley, sun-dried oregano, and wild mint, doused in rich olive and sesame oils, zested with lemons fresh from the trees and drizzles of tangy pomegranate molasses, and forever brimming freshness and earthiness at every turn.
Tempted? Of course you are! This relatively small nation of just 4,000 square miles that’s tucked into the north-western edge of the Arabian Peninsula packs one seriously hefty punch on the cooking front. Its food has been altered and changed over the course of more than 7,000 years, by everyone from the Persians to the Byzantines, caravan traders on the Old Silk Road, French colonialists, neighboring Levantine peoples – the list goes on and on and on.
In this guide to Lebanese food culture, we’ll go on a whistle-stop tour of the incredible flavors and cooking traditions of the country to highlight nine dishes you simply have to try if you’re heading Beirut’s way. From mouthwatering mezze platters to za’atar-topped flatbreads to creamy tahini dips, there’s all sorts to get through!
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A brief history of Lebanese food culture
Food is nothing short of ritual in Lebanon. It’s considered a central part of the human culture of the country, and a pillar of socializing with friends and family. What’s more, the history of Lebanese cuisine is as old as it is intriguing, and there really are more influences at work in a Beirut kitchen than you can shake your morning mana’eish bread at! Let’s take a look…
Lebanon sits smack dab on a crossroads between the east and the west. That made it a key meeting point between the Mediterranean and Central Asia; a place where the great ancient and medieval powers of Europe – Greece, Rome, Venice – would have come into contact with people from the Far East, India, China, and beyond.
The upshot? The nation was bound to become a literal melting pot of flavors from the off, and the cooking here now showcases the nuances and exoticism of a cuisine that’s been altered and shifted over 7,000 years, by groups as diverse as the ancient Greeks and the Ottomans, Egyptian Arabs and French colonists.
Some of the earliest influences came from nomadic tribes and traders from the east. Said tribes brought dried fruits and spices from deeper into Asia. They were ideal foods for transport in age before refrigeration, 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 also reflected in many Lebanese traditional dishes, such as hummus and man’oushe.
Later, one of most significant impacts on Lebanese cuisine came 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 heavy use of nuts, fruits, and bread.
How to eat in Lebanon: Mezze
Before we get stuck into the top dishes of Lebanese food culture, it’s probably a good idea to touch on one of the most popular formats of serving food in this corner of the Middle East: Mezze.
Mezze isn’t really a dish in itself. Instead, it’s a way of eating that comprises of many small dishes intended for sharing, much like Spanish tapas. Groups of dishes arrive at the table about four or five at a time. The whole lot is often served with a very thin flatbread called khobz, sometimes baked with a pocket like a classic pita bread.
There is a set order to the things that arrive: Typically, olives, tahini, salads, and yogurt come out first, followed by cold dishes with vegetables and eggs. Next come the small servings of meat or fish, alongside any special accompaniments and condiments. Finally, guests are served more substantial dishes like whole fish cuts or meat stews and grilled kebabs if they’re still hungry.
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. It’s also a type of eating that’s specifically designed for sharing, so there should be plenty of fingers ripping those khobz and munching on the olives.
No list of the most important dishes and ingredients used in Lebanese food culture could possibly skip a mention of tahini. This creamy paste is made by grinding roasted sesame seeds that have been soaked in water. The process continues until you have a viscous, beige-colored mixture that’s bitter and nutty, with an oily texture to it.
Tahini can be served on its own in Lebanese cuisine, often alongside a khobz flatbread and some dipping spices like cumin and za’atar. As well as being a nice light starter, tahini is a rich source of vitamins B and E, along with 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.
However, by far the most famous application for the paste is as a base ingredient to other iconic Levantine dips. Tahini is one of the key components of hummus (more on that later) and goes into baba ghanoush (also more on that below!), but it’s also occasionally mixed with light cream cheeses or other oils to create different mezze additions.
Tabbouleh is a salad that mixes finely chopped tomatoes and onions with parsley, mint leaves, and bulgur wheat (a whole grain with a light, nutty flavor). Usually seasoned with olive oil – as are most Lebanese dishes – and then drizzled with a squeeze of lemon juice, it’s a refreshing and zesty side dish that acts to counteract the more powerful flavors of the other mezze staples.
The focus of any good tabbouleh should be in the freshness of the herbs and the tomatoes. In most recipes, they tend to outweigh the bulgur component by a factor of about six to one, meaning this isn’t intended as filling hit of cereal but more of a green side with bulgur there for a touch of extra texture.
These days, tabbouleh salads are served all over the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. The origins of the dish can be traced back to a herby salad eaten in Arabia some six or seven hundred years ago, but the bulgur addition is thought to have come from the Beqaa Valley region of Lebanon itself sometime in the 1800s.
Baba ghanoush is probably the best-sounding name out of all the mezzes — go on, say it out loud, right now, we’ll wait! Cool, eh? Essentially, baba ghanoush is a companion dip to hummus but made with eggplant — that’s ‘aubergine’ to the Brits — that’s been roasted to a pulp over an open flame to give it a distinct taste. This is then mashed with tahini (see above), lemon juice, sea salt, and, of course, olive oil.
The finished product is known for its rich smokiness. That comes from the chargrilling of the eggplant, which can be enhanced by using open coals. Once the eggplant is so well cooked that it’s virtually liquid inside, the chef scoops that out into a tahini mix and whisks it all together with oil and seasoning. Baba ghanoush is usually served with a topping of fresh pomegranate seeds or zingy pomegranate molasses to bring some sweetness to balance out the smoky undercurrent.
Kibbeh is up there with the most popular mezze dishes in Lebanon. Traditional kibbeh is made by soaking bulgur wheat in water, mixing it with onion, ground beef (or lamb), spices, and a pinch of salt. The resultant paste is then fashioned into a type of shell, which is stuffed with a mixture of spiced beef (or lamb) and toasted pine nuts, sealed and then fried or baked in hot oil or a very hot oven. The art in preparation is getting the balance in textures of the two meats just right.
Kibbeh is very often served with arak, 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.
Today, kibbeh is the official 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, not to mention 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. What’s more, 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 actually 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 10,000 years. A recent theory, gaining traction, suggests that hummus dates back to ancient Egypt.
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 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.
Mana’eish breads are one of the most mouthwatering additions to Lebanese food culture. Often referred to as the Lebanese pizza, they’re similar to a pizza in that they can be sliced or folded. However, 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 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 and a central component of Lebanese food culture in its own right. The mix includes oregano, thyme, and — most importantly — sumac, with toasted sesame seeds and a touch of salt on top. And although there are many tasty and healthy Lebanese meat dishes, it’s the za’atar mana’eish that are the most popular by far.
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.
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, rubbing 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. Chopped tomato, cucumber, radishes, onions, mint, and crushed garlic are added to the dough, along with yet another generous drizzle of olive oil – of course!
Even though falafel is one of the national dishes of Israel, 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 actually forbidden. But, in typical Lebanese fashion, Beirut’s falafel chefs feel they have “perfected” the dish and that no one makes it better than them.
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 too.
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!)
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.