I must confess this post is partially driven by the love for falafel and hummus. These are not specific for the Lebanese cuisine, since they can also be found in e.g. Israeli cuisine, but Lebanese eateries are more common here (in Western Europe) I really enjoy Lebanese food, with its different textures and flavours.
As someone that likes to eat and to travel, I have always been interested in the food eaten in other countries and regions. (Of course, as a vegan there will be many dishes I will not eat, and that is okay) The food in restaurants here has often been “Westernised” to a certain degree. This is partially due to availability of ingredients and adaptation to local tastes, creating a fusion rather than the authentic experience. That is not a bad thing! But that does makes it more difficult to experience the real deal. Especially when it comes to Middle-Eastern food, so often it is just fast-food-type places, serving kebab sandwiches and shawarma with fries. While those are for sure elements of Middle-Eastern cuisine, it is just a part of this amazingly rich cuisines. There are several common elements in Middle-Eastern foods, but all the different countries and regions have their own specialties, ingredients, spices, etc. However, access to authentic food from all these regions here is limited.
I found that Lebanese restaurants do in fact offer actual Lebanese food, and a wide variety of dishes. At a market in my city, a Lebanese family sells authentic, home-made food, and it is actually similar the stuff you get in restaurants like Le Cèdres du Liban and Homous & co. Therefore I decided to focus on Lebanese cuisine. Many of the dishes that are found in Lebanon are also in nearby countries, such as Israel, Syria and even Cyprus. Of course, I haven’t traveled to Lebanon (yet!), so I cannot completely vouch for authenticity.
So that was quite a story! But I find it important to give a bit of background when talking about these things and to acknowledge my Western-European point of view:)
The history of Lebanese cuisine is a rich and ancient; Western civilisation is said to have started here! The roots of some dishes can be traced back thousands of years. Due to its geographical location, it has been influenced by, and influenced the Middle East and the Mediterranean, which can be seen in the overlap with certain Greek dishes.
There have also been some specific influences from occupiers, such as the Ottomans, who occupied Lebanon for 400 years. They brought strong coffee and baklava. After the First World War the French came, and introduced specific pastries such as flan. When the French left after the Second World War, times of turmoil and stability have alternated in Lebanon, but the country is once again rising as a tourist destination.
The ingredients used in Lebanese cuisine are diverse; grains such as rice and bulgur, fresh fruit like melons, grapes and figs, vegetables such as eggplant and cauliflower, lentils, chick peas, onions, and fish. Red meat is not very common, except for lamb (due to the Ottoman influence), poultry is used more often. The national food is kibbeh, a paté of lamb and bulgur wheat.
When it comes to dairy products, cheese and yogurt (labneh) are used often. Butter however, is rarely used, except in desserts. Garlic and olive oil are ubiquitous. (Good to know for vegans, for grilling or sautéing food, olive oil is used rather than butter)
Sauces are not commonly used, for flavour the Lebanese dishes depend on a variety of spices and herbs. A typical spice mix used in Lebanese food is za’atar (thyme, sesame and sumac) Other herbs that are used a lot are parsley, nutmeg, cinnamon and mint.
A very important part of the meal is the bread, or pita, a type of flatbread, which is used to scoop up food instead of cutlery. For dessert baklava or fresh fruit such as melons are served. Baklava in Lebanon often contains pistachio nuts and rose-water syrup, rather than the honey-walnut variety found in Greece.
Food is often served as several small dishes to accompany drinks. This style is called mezze, and is similar to Italian antipasti or Spanish tapas. Mezze can be a meal in its own right. It is such a great way to have a meal if you are a person that cannot choose!
When it comes to beverages, there is of course coffee (strong, and sometimes spiced with cardamom), but also jalab (a fruit syrup with rose water), ayran (a yogurt drink) and wine ( Lebanon is a large exporter of wine). The national liquor is arak, an anise-flavoured distilled drink. This drink apparently came into existence to replace the illegalized absinthe.
Likely vegan dishes
In the places where I have eaten Lebanese food, the following dishes were almost always vegan. (Still it won’t hurt to check, I once saw a place that used milk to prepare their hummus)
Pita – flatbread, served with every meal. The standard version is vegan
Hummus – chickpea and tahini (sesame paste) dip
Baba ganoush – roasted eggplant and tahini dip
Moutabal – similar to baba ganoush, but slightly differently spiced
Tabbouleh – bulgur and parsley salad
Dolmas (can be vegan) – grape leaves stuffed with rice
Fatoush (sometimes) – Bread salad made with pita bread
Falafel – chick pea balls
Foul Mudamas – fava beans (also eaten as breakfast)
Maghmour – eggplant, tomato and chick pea stew (sometimes called musaka)
Fatayer (sometimes) – dough triangles with stuffing, e.g. spinach
Mudardara – lentils with rice, sometimes served with yogurt
Loubiah Bzeit – Green beans with tomatoes
Shakshuka – Bell pepper stew (not to be confused with the egg dish!)
Strong coffee, fresh fruits. Baklava is usually not vegan (butter and/or honey is used) but sometimes there are some vegan ones.