Marvelous Mezze Part II – Vegetarians Beware

Hummus, tabbouleh, calamari, chicken wings – love ’em! Other favorites I didn’t get to in my last post are kibbeh, which are like deep-fried meatballs, and rakayek, filo encased deep-fried cheese sticks (and Americans are criticized for our love affair with the fried food!). What’s not to love about Lebanese mezze?

Or so I thought.

Then I heard about asfour. Little birds that you crunch through whole. The brain is supposed to be the best bit, as it pops through the crunchy head. That’s what is said at least.

I remembered a boss of mine, back from my days as a professional fundraiser. She had organized a fundraising meal with a fancy French chef, and told with relish the story of his bringing ortolan into the US for the dinner – tiny birds to be eaten whole, that are illegal to import, but apparently could be brought in if they are for personal consumption. (I don’t remember which charity she was fundraising for, but clearly it wasn’t the likes of the Sierra Club.) What I remembered her telling me, was that in accordance with tradition, when the birds were served at dinner each guest (including my boss) donned a cloak with an oversized hood, to be cast over their face and their plate of birds, so that no one would witness the shame of eating those tiny but delicious birds. Some French tradition I guess, that seemed very strange, and slightly revolting to me at the time. (Crazy, right? Read about it here if you don’t believe me.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adventurous eater. I’ve tried alligator and sheep’s brain, and thanks to my Sicilian in-laws, I’ve eaten fritters of neonati — euphemistically called whitebait in English – newborn sardines that look like fingernail-long tiny white eels. Little birds were on every menu in Lebanon, and no shame was involved. My curiosity was piqued. But I’d seen them raw in the grocery store. I wasn’t ready to commit to an entire plate of them.

I so appreciate that butchers remove the heads of chickens before trying to sell them to me.

I waited until I was with a group of friends, and the one Lebanese in the party waxed enthusiastic about asfour. Together with another curious friend, a newly-arrived Brit, we agreed to share a plate of them. They are normally served deep-fried (again!), but this restaurant only offered them barbecued. “Is that okay?” asked the Lebanese. Ummm…. What do I know? “Sure, it’s fine.”

The kids were drawn to our table like cats to their prey when the asfour arrived. Eight little birds, three willing adults and three curious children. Maybe we’d finish them in a flash, and even have to order another plate!

For the record, they were served headless. But I still wasn’t sure how to approach it. I picked up a little bird with my fingers, and started by nibbling on what must be the breast. Then I crunched through the leg. The meat was dark, about the color of cooked liver. Its taste? I was expecting gamey perhaps, but it was… bitter. “Rather nasty,” said the Brit. I had to agree. The three brave kids who tried the birds proclaimed them “alright,” but didn’t polish off what was already a small snack. “They’re better fried,” said the Lebanese.

I’m not sure if I can muster up the interest to give them another shot.

Another mezze plate that I just can’t get excited about is kibbeh nayeh. Don’t confuse it with the “kibbeh” mentioned above – this one is served raw. Raw meat, rather like steak tartare, but made with lamb instead of beef, more artfully arranged on the plate. Perhaps it’s a legacy of the French colonization – or maybe the French got their passion for raw meat from the Lebanese. Because raw meat products are certainly considered a delicacy – as my husband found out when visiting a village outside of Beirut.

He’d arrived for a work-related ceremony, and the locals had prepared a special feast. He was presented with a plate with three types of…. unidentifiable chunks. Some were pink, others white, and others dark red. It was one of those occasions where refusing food would have been offensive. He tried each. The pink? The usual kibbeh nayeh.

The white?

Raw fat.

The blood-red?

Raw liver.

My stomach churns just thinking about it. And apparently his was churning the entire two-hour ride back to Beirut as well. “I just couldn’t finish the whole plate,” he confessed. I don’t blame him. Maybe I’ll stick to the asfour after all.

I don’t want to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth though…. Here’s one more image – of a fruit plate offered by a water-front restaurant after we stuffed ourselves with first-class seafood one day. Complete with a glass of arak, the national anise-based liqueur. (A serious digestion aid – the kind needed after a plate of raw meat.)

And for anyone interested, here’s a recipe for those delicious cheese rolls. I can buy them frozen at the grocery store and just fry them up at home, but for those of you that don’t have that luxury, they’re pretty darn easy to make from scratch.

Marvelous Mezze – Part I

We’re in the midst of the holiday season, and it’s time to talk about food (since it’s all I’m thinking about these days….)

Food was one of the things I most heard about when I told friends that I was moving to Lebanon. “Oh, the food!…” “Let me recommend a restaurant to you!…” “The food is amazing!….” Frankly, it got me pretty excited about Beirut. (Whoever says the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach obviously hasn’t met me yet.)

In fact, the very first evening we arrived, after twenty hours of travel, we got to the hotel around 9pm, and decided to step out for dinner: mezze along the sea.

Clockwise from top right: sautéed dandelion greens, fried calamari (although you can hardly see it behind the bowl of aioli sauce in this picture), garlic octopus, grilled eggplant puree (similar to baba ghanoush, but with a distinct smoky flavor). Oh, and French fries for the kids – which I’ve since discovered are a staple on mezze menus (can we attribute this to Lebanon’s former colonization by the French?…). Fantastic.

Of course tabbouleh and hummus are on every mezze menu, and they are infinitely superior to the versions sold in tiny plastic tubs in U.S. supermarkets. Lebanese tabbouleh is made with the freshest parsley, local olive oil, a few tomatoes, and only a small sprinkling of bulgur.

This picture of Lebanese-style tabbouleh comes from the blog of Fair Trade Lebanon – and they have a recipe for it too. I was eating it happily with pita until my Arabic tutor came to find out. She was scandalized. Apparently here in Lebanon it’s eaten with lettuce or cabbage leaves. I tried it afterwards. It’s good that way too.

Hummus here is always exceptionally creamy, and comes in variations like spicy, or “Beiruti” – studded with pine nuts and chopped beef. There’s even a hummus rivalry between archenemies Lebanon and Israel, over whose is bigger. No, it’s nothing crass — it’s about the biggest plate of hummus. The world record is being fought over between the two countries, with Lebanon currently the title-holder, after doubling Israel’s previous record back in 2010, with a 10,452-kilo plate of hummus . (That’s nearly 23,000 pounds.) I just hope someone ate it and all that food didn’t go to waste. Maybe next time the competition shouldn’t be for the biggest, but for the best-tasting. I volunteer as judge!