A Day in the Life of a Lebanese Kitchen

Pastirma with Lebanese pesto

Food really is the universal language, so, seeing as I don’t speak Arabic, I figured the best way to communicate was to cook. My Lebanese food host and cooking genie of sorts, Kamal Mouzawak, told me the talented Chef Joe Barza was doing a guest appearance at Beirut’s progressive Tawlet restaurant, so I got in on the action. I knew Chef Barza, though we had never met, because he cooked for the CIA’s Worlds of Flavor conference a few years ago.

Barza’s food is rooted in traditional Lebanese cuisine but has a modern Mediterranean touch. A testament to that is this first dish I helped with, a pesto sauce made with herbs common in Lebanese cuisine wrapped with Armenian cured meat, pastirma. Here are few of the other goodies we cooked together:

White fish kibbeh with eggplant puree

This eggplant puree would be baba ganoush to the unwise, but strictly speaking it’s not as there was a ton of tahini in this eggplant puree, which made it distinctly more sesame flavored than baba ganoush. I wasn’t sure I’d be into the raw white fish kibbeh, but they went surprisingly well together. The fish dish was one I helped out with and though it may not look like much, those guys are packed with flavor including cumin, lemon, and herbs and topped with sumac for a citrus punch.

Chickpea and tomato salad

Though you’d never guess it from looking, this salad was totally thrown together last minute to ensure that there was enough food for the close to 50 people that were expected for lunch. Chef Barza really let the freshness of the produce sing here — I’m thinking of making my own take on this the next time I’m in search of a good picnic salad.

Kidney bean puree with cumin

With flavors that even Joe admits are akin to Mexican food, this bean puree may look ho-hum but it was a silky puree of slow-simmered kidney beans with ground cumin and herbs. The Lebanese olive oil he finished it with really brought it all together.

Couscous risotto with caramelized shallots

For years now, I’ve been playing with the element of bitterness in food, be it from bitter greens of a hoppy beer reduction. Turns out the Lebanese have been at it longer as they take all their garnishes from pine nuts and almonds to onions to a deep toasted, bordering on burnt place that gives straightforward dishes like this couscous risotto a whole other meaning.

Olive-oil mashed potatoes with lamb confit

My Dad would’ve been happy with this dish as it combines two of his favorite things, lamb and mashed potatoes. And this dish is what I dig about Lebanese food as it takes ingredients used in so many cuisines but combines it in a way, by making olive oil-mashed potatoes and topping it with a yogurt and lamb confit sauce, that’s so uniquely Lebanese.

Vermicelli with farmer's cheese, fig jam, and pistachios

Usually when someone talks vermicelli, I glaze over as it seems like nothing substantive. But, in this dessert, the vermicelli is fried crisp and then is topped with a fresh Farmer’s cheese mixed with jam, which softens and melds everything together nicely. The topping of pistachios really pulls this dish together and it elevates the straightforward dish of few ingredients into the perfect a finish to the meal.

After cooking together, it was clear Chef Barza and I are cooking brethren as we both cook food that is globalized and contemporary but rooted in each of our respective cultures. The highlight of the day was when my family came and joined me for lunch and they declared it the best food they’d eaten on our whole trip. So, while I may not speak Arabic any better than when I arrived, I think my universal language skills are helping me communicate in the tastiest way possible.