Interesting facts about Lebanese culture

My name is Christy, I am Lebanese and have been living in Aix-en-Provence since August 2021. I studied journalism, and worked as a food editor, then editor in chief of one of the leading food websites in the MENA region.

A foodie at heart and a strong advocate of cooking from scratch, I will be presenting a Lebanese cookery class as part of Delicious Origins’ experiences.

But before we cook together, I’d like to introduce to you some of the interesting and unusual aspects of our culture and our culinary traditions, so you get to know me a little bit more and have a better understanding of the Lebanese’s relationship with food.

Lebanon: Food as a way of life

Lebanese people have always been famous for their hospitability and generosity. Most of us grew up in families where overfeeding guests is the norm.  And by guest, we mean anyone that would come to our house whether we know them or not, whether they are here to see us, paint our walls or fix our sink, or simply stopped by to ask for directions.

Don’t say no to a Lebanese

You really can’t say “no” to a Lebanese when you’re in their house. They would never understand that you’re so full you can’t try what they’re offering you. They will probably take it as a personal offense.

The same goes in refusing the huge bag of cherries (that they sent their little one to freshly pick for you while you were having your coffee and 10th cookie), or this carton of 30 freshly laid eggs, or even the 10 “Zaatar manoushe” (Lebanese pizzas topped with thyme) that they are giving you just in case you feel hungry on the way back home.

It’s not unusual, especially in villages, to finish lunch with your family and then head to neighbors who are having an extended lunch or barbecue and start over. You will be invited to try all the starters, even if everyone is finishing their mains. And be prepared, a lunch in the village can last for many hours.

Food is for sharing…

This can be explained through understanding Lebanese’s relationship with food. We don’t eat only when we’re hungry. To us, food is a lot more than a way to survive. It’s the core of our family and social life.

Sharing food is very natural so it was common for our neighbor to send us a big plate of stuffed chard leaves every time she made them, because she knew I loved them, or she would very informally invite my dad every time she had prepared fried eggplants and marrows.  

… And the preps as well

But this aspect of sharing is not limited to food consumption, because the preparation of the food is also a shared task.

Daily visits between neighbors are very common in villages, to enjoy a chat and a cup of coffee. To be more efficient, it’s not uncommon to see someone bringing zucchinis to core, or grape leaves to roll with the help of the neighbors who have gathered together.

In the building where we lived, we had two neighbors, each famous for a dessert they used to prepare. The first one was a “lazy cake” prepared using ready-made cookies and a chocolate sauce then left to harden in the fridge. The second dessert was called Aysh el Saraya, and consisted of stale bread soaked in sugar syrup and topped with milk pudding and pistachios. Whenever my sister and I celebrated our birthdays, they would prepare these desserts for us. My mom would prepare some jelly and order a cake, and voilà! Ready to celebrate! 

Forty kilos of cookies for two families

As for celebrations, “kaak” and “maamoul” are the best examples to showcase this sharing mentality that we have. Kaak and maamoul are small biscuits that Christians prepare for Easter, and Muslims prepare for Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. 

In our family, my grandma would prepare twenty kilos of each, ten for her and my aunt’s family, and the remaining cookies for us. We would share some with family, friends and neighbors, and keep the rest to offer to people coming to wish us a Happy Easter (another tradition of ours). But how do you prepare forty kilos of biscuits in only two days?

Well, all the neighbors and family would come to help us, and there were usually a minimum of ten persons splitting the tasks. On the days that followed, it was our turn to help the neighbors and the rest of the family. And we would in return get some of their cookies as a gift, to taste and compare. 

Tasting of Lebanese food on the cultural festival organized in May 2022 in Aix-en-Provence

Generosity or extravagance?

Lebanese food is usually described as generous and abundant.  And I can’t agree more. In addition to the hospitability of the Lebanese described above, it’s interesting to think a bit about the food itself.

Lebanese food is mainly about mezze. Whenever we’re eating, there should be a variety of dishes on the table. You will almost never see one dish offered alone. There has to be appetizers or sides: normally, bread, a small bowl of olives, some pickles, some raw veggies (cut and ready to eat), a small seasonal salad and some hummus or Labneh…but when we had guests, it needed to be extravagant. This is where I see our generosity sometimes went over the top.

Let me tell you about my grandparents. They had a big family in Mexico. Grandpa’s cousin had travelled and settled there. Every couple of years, there were big groups visiting Lebanon. My grandparents would host a big lunch or dinner every time, and invite all the group, whether they were family or not. Sometimes there would be more than forty people to feed, in addition to all the family in Lebanon.

I remember there being more than thirty varieties of mezze on the table, in addition to many mains and numerous desserts! They would start preparations maybe 2 months before, and freeze everything to be ready for the big event. Basically, it was like hosting a wedding every couple of years!

But the most ironic part was they could not afford it financially, so they would borrow money to do it. This kind of shows how strong theeLebanese need for abundance and hospitality is.

A room for special guests and events

Now that you have a better understanding about our food sharing customs, let me introduce you to some of the unusual (I would say weird) characteristics of our homes.

Every house had its biggest room reserved for guests and special events, the famous “Salon”.

My grandmother’s house (now we’re talking about my second grandma) had three rooms. Instead of having proper bedrooms for everyone, they would rather have the kids (and later my grandparents) sleep in the living room, and keep a room “untouched” and ready for whenever these very special guests showed up. 

In addition, most houses had a dining room even though the families usually ate in the kitchen. Even if there was no room in the kitchen, they would have a small foldable table to put in the living room where they would eat on a daily basis. The dining room was only for big celebrations and very important guests. Neighbors and close relatives would eat in the kitchen. 

Fancy dinnerware on display

What about the porcelain dining sets, expensive crystal glass sets and silverware? For a long time, these were the preferred gifts for newlyweds. They were on display in every dining room, but guess what? By the time you left your parents’ house, you would have used the porcelain plates for Christmas dinner or Eid celebrations, the crystal glasses for your or your siblings’ weddings, and the silverware? Well, never, because they’re very hard to clean, even though you were forced all your life to help clean them, twice a year!

By Christy Abou Farah

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