Reviving Culture Through Cooking

In anticipation of Camp and its theme—the arts, culture, and environment of Lebanon—I have been reading about this tiny country’s rich cuisine. I happen to find eating and cooking to be one of the great pleasures of life so I’ve found this research to be delightful. But as I read through cookbooks of Lebanese food I am beginning to see that these regional recipes should be read as much more than guides to make food but as cultural artifacts.

For three years Chef Ramzi Shwayri, Lebanon’s top culinary celebrity, journeyed the Lebanese countryside in search of the simple, traditional dishes that demonstrate the handicraft behind Lebanese food and compiled them in a huge book of some 740 pages. Included in the book are specialties from each region such as sfiha (lamb pizzas) from Baalbeck and safsouf (bulgur and chickpea salad) from the Bekaa Valley. Each town, it seems, has its own recipe for kibbe, dumplings with a meat shell and filling. The endless varieties on the traditional Lebanese food that he offers are not meant to be merely a resource for home cooks but to document Lebanon’s culinary landscape.

The varieties of these dishes found across the diverse regions of Lebanon represent the “process unfolding over a certain geography” that Musa Dağdeviren is similarly attempting to record in neighboring Turkey. Shwayri and Dağdeviren have dedicated their lives to keeping food traditions alive, recognizing the cultural heritage that their country’s food represents. For them, collecting these recipes is more than documenting the past, it is taking an active role in resisting the culinary fusion that has come with globalization.

With restaurants moving away from home-cooking, the rustic fare of the countryside is increasingly forgotten. Thus cooking these regional recipes is an act of cultural preservation. So, go celebrate the cuisine of Lebanon by cooking Kibbe Naye (Lamb or goat tartare). This recipe comes from Zgarta in northern Lebanon.

Kibbe Naye
Adapted from Ramzi Shwayri
Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

3/4 cup bulgur wheat
1 pound lean boneless high-quality lamb or goat, ground twice (ask the butcher to do this)
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
Half an onion, finely grated
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil leaves
Salt
Pine nuts, for garnish
Coarsely chopped fresh mint leaves, for garnish
Finely sliced onion, for garnish
Extra virgin olive oil, for garnish.

1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil. Place bulgur wheat in a medium bowl, cover with boiling water and allow to sit for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with water and ice, and set aside.

2. Place bulgur in a fine-meshed sieve, rinse with cold water, and allow to drain. Place meat in a deep bowl. Dip hands in ice water, then knead meat for about 2 minutes. Add bulgur to meat a handful at a time, first squeezing out excess water.

3. Add lime zest and grated onion to bowl. Chill hands again in ice water, and knead mixture until blended. Add cinnamon, pepper, basil and salt to taste. Chill hands and knead again. Cover mixture and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

4. Shape meat into an oval mound on a serving platter. Use tip of a knife to incise a decorative pattern into meat, and insert pine nuts as desired. Garnish platter with mint leaves and sliced onion, and drizzle edges of platter with olive oil. Serve cold. (The mixture may also be rolled into balls of any size and deep fried or grilled.)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

(Photo: The meal that Chef Ramzi was presented with in Deir el Aachayer in southeastern Lebanon.)

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