If you are the type of person for which food is simply food and nothing special, Lebanon is not for you. In Lebanon, food is science. You will be told that Lebanese food is the best in the world and that it is at the very core of a happy and fulfilling life. They might be right…
What I love the most though, at least as much as the food itself, is the social gathering around the table. Food is always to be shared, and is a way of spending time together. It is by the table I have learned the most, heard the best stories and where I truly enjoy my stay in Lebanon. There are differences between food for every day and for celebrations, but it is an understatement that food has a much more central place in life in Lebanon compared to most other places I know.
For example, where I come from, dinners are eaten at 16 PM, takes about 13 minutes to prepare and 27 minutes to complete. Variety is ok, but most often consists of one main dish with a few key ingredients. Whoever comes home first, is the chef of the day. Dinner is for the closest family only. Although there are specialties, making a new dish based on a recipe on some blog is common. Food is getting more attention the last few years, but it still is far away from the Lebanese food bonanza.
A traditional Lebanese dinner starts late and takes hours. It is composed of cold and warm appetizers, a couple of main dishes, desserts and fruits (yes, all in plural). There is not space enough on the table for all of it. It is impossible not to eat a lot, and then I mean a lot. “Eat” was the first word I was taught in Arabic. Your Lebanese friends will keep filling your plate, and they make sure you taste everything (even small grilled birds and frogs). At the end of the meal I always feel I am about to explode, and I have to shout “Enough, dear friends, enough. I am full.”. This is when my friends make the oldest joke in the world – “Ah, you want foul? A foul for my friend!” – making reference to a Lebanese heavy and traditional dish made of beans and fat. (If I got 1 dollar every time someone made that joke, I would be rich by now…) Then, when I kindly decline a plate of foul, they look at me with big eyes saying “Aaah, but you did not eat anything!!”.
I am also amazed by the access to high quality ingredients here. In Scandinavia, we are increasingly willing to pay (a lot) extra for quality food, specially if it is produced locally. Vegetables in the average shop are exactly that – average, selection is limited, and you are positively surprised if it tastes a little bit better than water. In Lebanon, the fruits and vegetable section at the local supermarket is the size of a football field, with the most delicious and fresh products for the price of nothing. I am struggling to buy just one watermelon and bring it home – it weighs a ton! There are millions of local food specialists, and every family has their own private supplier of this and that. Plus, the concept of having “extended family” means that if anyone in your village gets access to something extra good, you will get it too. I was driving with some friends in the north of Lebanon once, and we bought 25 kilos of fresh apples on the street, just like that. Yes, some for the family hairdresser too!
The Lebanese put a lot of pride in preparing and sharing food. Recipes have been in the family for generations, and the mama (and grandmamma too) spends hours in the kitchen every single day. Everything is “special” and “the best of Lebanon”. There are usually guests in the house, so the amount of food available at all times is always sufficient for an army or two, and a horse. Just in case. I dear you to say “no thanks” to a Lebanese mama that is offering you her food – absolutely NOT recommended. Not hungry? Irrelevant. She will not accept no for an answer anyway, so…
…eat, and smile. At home or at a restaurant, it is delicious, and somehow there is always space for more. Just surrender, it is a food festival, every day. It is a luxury to have access to a food safari whenever you want. My best survival tip is to be enthusiastic and do your best to eat SLOWLY, as there is always more food coming. On a diet? Good luck! If your body/speed of digestion starts failing you, the Lebanese have a magical cure: 7Up 🙂