For most of America, taste in the 1950s was epitomized by iceberg lettuce and Wonder Bread. For Linda Sawaya, growing up in California in a family of Lebanese immigrants meant food backed by centuries of tradition, prepared with fresh, homegrown herbs and healthy doses of love.
6 Tasty Lebanese Recipes
• Sumac-Marinated Onions Bassle ou Summaq
• Lebanese Salad
• Lebanese Omelette Ihjee
• Wheat Berry Porridge Ammah
A guide to Lenbanese Foods
• Glossary of Foods
Remember spring, summer, fall, and even winters in Los Angeles when my mother and Sitto (Grandmother) Dalal pressed a pair of scissors into my small palm and lightly nudged me out the back door toward our backyard mint and parsley patch. “Jibbe na’na wa ba’doonis! Rouje!” (“Bring mint and parsley! Hurry!”) By the age of nine, I knew how much they wanted me to pick for our big family’s tabbouli or fattoush dinner salads. And if it weren’t enough, surely I would be sent back out to pick some more.
It was an adventure to go out in the late afternoon sunshine to the narrow space behind our garage. The garage had a cool, dirt-floored basement that was large enough for the annual winter curing of olives from our olive tree and for the baking of Mother’s Arabic bread, savory meat pies, and lemony spinach pies redolent of parsley and mint. The antique Wedgwood stove that Mother purchased was perfect for baking the flat loaves that were essential to our meals. The village baker of Douma, my parents’ hometown in Lebanon, and her tannour oven were not to be found in Los Angeles, nor was pita bread sold in the A & Ps of the 1950s.
Most Lebanese American families who could had their own backyard mint and parsley patch, because the curly-leaved parsley found in America was used only for garnish, and if you could find it in the stores, wilted it would be. The flat-leaved variety we favored has much more flavor. Na’na (spearmint) also was unavailable in groceries. Fresh or dried, its refreshing flavor embellished our salads, spinach pies, mashed potatoes, lemonade, and our delicious Lebanese omelette. And, as in American restaurants, Mother and Sitto used both parsley and mint generously to garnish their dishes.
The area behind the garage also held our precious loquat tree, our indispensable lemon tree, one of the ten fig trees that my father planted and tended with love, and our requisite grapevine, which we cherished for its leaves rather than for its grapes. Apricot, avocado, orange, fig, and olive trees stood on our back lawn with strawberry plants that Mother and I nurtured at their feet. Fragrant sweet peas climbed both sides of a classic white trellis that screened the garage parking area from the backyard.
Food from Another World
Having a garden and eating foods in season were part of our tradition of living gently on the Earth, using its resources respectfully, and preparing and sharing food with love. Mother and Sitto made some adaptations to that tradition in their new homeland. Our stove in Los Angeles, for example, had four burners and two ovens instead of the typical single-burner charcoal stoves or open fires that led to a tradition of one-pot meals in Lebanon. Certain spices and herbs were impossible to come by in America, but friends shared the packets of za’tar or special vegetable seeds that occasionally arrived from the village in the old country.
Our backyard baqleh (purslane) patch may have arisen as it does now in my garden in Portland, Oregon: randomly appearing all summer long. Americans consider it a weed, but we delighted in its crisp, succulent texture and lemony flavor . Although restaurant salads of the 1950s typically consisted of a wedge of head lettuce with pink Thousand-Island dressing flowing lethargically down it, our salads were from another world: mint, parsley, celery, purslane, tomatoes, Romaine lettuce, scallions, and cucumbers drizzled with a dressing of garlic, lemon, and olive oil that perfectly accented their varied flavors and textures.
Food and Friendship
My friends in elementary school made fun of my school lunches, but my high school girlfriends, the daughters of European, Central American, and Canadian immigrants, always wanted to be invited for dinner. We of bilingual families who grew up eating ethnic foods were comforted by this common bond even though we were descended from different traditions. We all had unpronounceable names, strange languages spoken at our homes, and most of all, strange foods lavishing our tables! Occasionally, my four sisters and I asked Mother to cook hamburgers or spaghetti for dinner, and although she accommodated us, somehow even these ended up with parsley in them.
Tabbouli and fattoush, both made with parsley and mint, competed as my favorite salad. The primary ingredient of our classic tabbouli was finely chopped parsley, followed by spearmint and scallions and made zesty with lots of lemon juice and a dash of cayenne pepper. Red tomatoes gave it a splash of color contrasted by the light sprinkling of bulgur. Fattoush made use of crusty Arabic bread croutons that soaked up the seasonings, making it ever so tasty.
Many American versions of tabbouli have the proportions in reverse: a lot of bulgur with a smattering of parsley. This we would call safsouf, a winter version of tabbouli, made when parsley and mint were not plentiful in the garden. It takes a meditative frame of mind and a parsley-chopping team, a sharp knife, and a good grip on the parsley held tightly together in a bunch to make real tabbouli for a big extended family that loves eating so much parsley in this healthiest of salads.
Lebanon owes part of its rich and elegant culinary tradition to its location, at the heart of the spice trade routes between the East and the West, and its perfect Mediterranean climate. Peppers, cumin, anise, cinnamon, allspice, cardamom, paprika, sumac, thyme, oregano, parsley, mint, za’tar, chamomile, cilantro, fennel, onion, garlic, sesame seeds, basil, bay leaves, scented geranium leaf, savory, oregano, cloves, caraway, rose water, and orange flower water were essential elements in our cuisine.
Many of our most commonly used herbs are native to the Eastern Mediterranean. Yensoon (aniseed) flavors our holiday cookies and a delicious tea, is the primary flavoring of the traditional Lebanese liquor arak, and seasons a hearty winter breakfast. Ammah, (wheat) is a hot cereal made of whole wheat berries boiled until tender in water perfumed with aniseeds, sweetened with sugar or honey, and garnished with raisins and walnut pieces. Ammah is served at Easter and at memorial services, a tradition going back to ancient Egyptian mourning rites. Symbolizing the resurrection of the dead as well as spring renewal and growth, it is also served to celebrate births, New Year’s Day, and the fall feast of St. Barbara, which coincides with Halloween.
Traditional Lebanese cuisine is composed of a little meat, almost always lamb or chicken, and lots of fresh vegetables, grains, and aromatic herbs and seasonings. Eggs, cheese, and yogurt in small amounts complement the proteins in mjuddarah, a combination of lentils and rice or bulgur, and hummus tahini, the garbanzo-and-sesame-seed dip.
The secret to our delicious lamb dishes lies in the use of cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice, which enhance the meat’s flavor, and the elimination of the fat, which can impart an unpleasantly strong flavor. Every part of the animal was used in the old country; nothing was wasted. American offspring squirmed when Mother and Sitto served village specialties such as tripe or tongue for dinner, but the immigrant adults relished the delicacies that warmly recalled their childhood days in Lebanon.
Made with Love
In our house, there was always an abundance of food. Besides our large extended family—my parents, grandparents, uncle Edmond, and five kids—visitors were always welcome at our table. At dinner, seconds were obligatory. If you refused, even after the customary third offering, Mother still slipped another helping onto your plate. It wasn’t because she didn’t want leftovers—we loved leftovers—it was because of her and Sitto’s tradition of generosity and their genuine desire to satisfy everyone. Sharing food was the greatest gift one could give.
Linda Dalal Sawaya, an artist, author, and children’s book illustrator, adapted this article from her self-published cookbook, Alice’s Kitchen: My Grandmother Dalal & Mother Alice’s Traditional Lebanese Cooking. After living for twenty-one years in Portland, Oregon, Sawaya has returned to California and lives in San Rafael. Her book is available for $20 through her web page, www.teleport.com/~sawaya, or by writing to PO Box 150878, San Rafael, CA 94915.
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