Perspectives #13 - A Taste of Here and Now

Looking at a map of the Mediterranean, one might imagine that it resembles a large pond. It is the centre of the old world, the sea that the Romans called “Mare Nostrum” (our sea) and the link between the different continents; Europe on the one side, North Africa on the other, the Levant, and the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also the beginning of a new world, an inland sea that leads to great empires such as the Persian, the Indian, and the Chinese; a crossroads for people, civilizations, trade, religions, customs, and tastes.

Looking at a map of the Mediterranean, one might imagine that it resembles a large pond. It is the centre of the old world, the sea that the Romans called “Mare Nostrum” (our sea) and the link between the different continents; Europe on the one side, North Africa on the other, the Levant, and the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also the beginning of a new world, an inland sea that leads to great empires such as the Persian, the Indian, and the Chinese; a crossroads for people, civilizations, trade, religions, customs, and tastes.

Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) the historian of the Mediterranean, believes that with the exception of the olive tree, vines, and wheat, which were growing in the region at a very early stage, almost all the plants that we think of as Mediterranean originated miles away from the sea:

If Herodotus, the father of history, who lived in the fifth century BC, were to return to earth and join the tourists of today, he would face many surprises. I imagine him revisiting the places he knew in the eastern Mediterranean. How astonishing it all is! He cannot remember ever having seen these golden fruits hanging on dark-green bushes … orange trees, lemon trees, tangerine trees. Why, they were brought from the Far East by the Arabs! These strange, oddly-shaped spiky plants and flower stalks with their outlandish names; cactus, agaves, aloes and prickly pears - he never saw such things in his life. Why, they are from the Americas! And these tall trees with light coloured leaves, which yet have a Greek name, eucalyptus, he never saw their like. Why, they come from Australia! And the cypresses, which, like the other trees, he has never seen, are Persian. So much for the setting. But the simplest meal brings him more surprises - the tomato from Peru, the egg-plant from India, the pimento from Guyana, sweet corn from Mexico, rice the gift of the Arabs, not to mention the bean, the potato, the peach tree, a native of the mountains of China which became Iranian, and tobacco.[1]

So what do we eat today, and where does it come from? Today, the Levant’s ingredients and tastes are an ideal result of globalization; we all live the same, play, eat the same but many years ago this was not the case. Migrants carried ingredients and spices with them, and had an enormous influence on international cuisine.

Food from There… and from Here: The Phoenicians

Phoenicians were the first navigator-traders between the East and the West. Their trade included grains, spices, dried and preserved foods and wine. The Phoenicians are generally renowned for their famous purple dye but they were just as famous for another product: the garum!

‘Garum and other similar fish-based sauces were the ketchup of the ancient world, mass produced in factories, and sprinkled on anything savory’ (see Oksman 2015). Coastal Phoenician cities had important fishing ports and an abundance of fish, so some was fermented and transformed into the fish sauce which was highly prized in the ancient world.

One of the most ornate sarcophagus in the ancient southern city of Tyre, bears an inscription indicating that it belonged to a garum producer.

The Arabs and the Spice Business

Originally, the Arab spice trade was conducted mostly by camel caravans over land routes but the Arab association with spices dates back to before the birth of Christ. Arabs dominated the spice trade and travelled back and forth to the Mediterranean region and beyond. Their dominance was so strong that Arabic was seen to be the language of traders in the Middle Ages. Arab spice merchants would create a sense of mystery by withholding the provenance of their spices and thereby guaranteeing high prices by telling fantastic tales about fighting off fierce winged creatures to reach spices growing high up on the cliffs.

In Arab cuisine, the supposed medicinal properties of certain spices compensated for the harmful properties of some foods. Spices promoted good and fought evil. There are some scholars who believe that it was the Arabs who first harvested cumin; the name derives from the Arabic al-kamoun or the Aramaic kamuna. Some literature suggests that cumin was harvested in the Levant during the earliest Biblical times, the Phoenicians carrying it westward to North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

 Potayto, Potarto, Banadoura, Bandora: The Aztecs and Incas

Tomatoes are a central ingredient in Levantine cuisine, but they are in fact a very recent addition! There is no stew without tomato, no tabouleh, no salad, in fact it is hard to imagine Lebanese cuisine without tomatoes. Tomatoes significantly altered the cuisine of Lebanon and other Mediterranean countries. Today Lebanon occupies seventh place, just behind Italy, in the world’s largest consumers of tomatoes per capita of the population.

Tomatoes originated from the Andes, where they grew wild, in what is now called Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. They were first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 AD. Following Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas, many ‘New World’ foods were transported to Europe and to the East. These included potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, tomatoes, and chili peppers. In many instances, the New World foods had an important effect on the evolution of local cuisines.

Tomatoes arrived in Europe and the Levant around the sixteenth century, but they were considered poisonous and used as ornamental plants! They were not introduced to cuisine before the nineteenth century. Maize was brought by Columbus from the Americas to the rest of the world but, unlike tomatoes, it was quickly adopted in the Middle East, arriving in Lebanon and Syria in the 1520s. Corn helped spur population growth under the Ottomans and, as a result, many Europeans referred to maize as the Turkish grain: in India, it was known as Mecca.

The Ottomans

The Ottoman influence is very important in Lebanon – mainly because the country was part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries. From 1516 to 1918, the Ottomans ruled Lebanon and introduced a variety of foods that have since become staples in the Lebanese diet.

Substantial migration led to the introduction of new foods, such as yoghurt, stuffed vegetables, and a variety of nuts. The Ottomans also increased the popularity of lamb. Some believe that the Turks also imported burghol, which plays an important role in the cuisine of the area, especially for kibbeh. However, some experts have argued that kibbeh is mentioned in ancient Assyrian and Sumerian writings with archaeological evidence indicating that the necessary utensils and products for making this dish were available in the region long before Islam wielded its influence.

The French Joke

Orientalists always fantasise about the French influence on Lebanese cuisine, because of the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon (1923 – 1946). This influence is just that: a fantasy! During their relatively short time in Lebanon, the French did not influence the long standing and refined techniques of the Lebanese kitchen, nor the ingredients used. An example of one rather silly French-meets-Lebanese product is the Croissant bi Zaatar; a hybrid of the best French breakfast, and the best Lebanese breakfast, manousheh, with the thyme spice mix. Croissant bi Zaatar has become ubiquitous in the many bakeries in Beirut.

Refugee Cuisine: The Armenians and Palestinians 

Of all the changes to culture and people living in Lebanon throughout the twentieth century, it is the Palestinians and the Armenians who have truly left their mark on Lebanese cuisine. The Palestinians came to Lebanon approximately seventy years ago and although they rarely kept their accents or their traditional dress they did of course keep their food! The Palestinians proudly cook for Palestine every day, through a maftoul, a msakhan or a kafta bel thineh.

The Armenians have had an even bigger impact on Lebanese food, indeed, there are approximately fifty Armenian restaurants to be found in Beirut alone, many based within Bourj Hammoud, also known as ‘little Armenia.’ The Lebanese system favours hayabahbanum: the preservation of the Armenian people and their identity. Hayabahbanum means ‘Armenianess,’ and is vital to the proud Armenian diaspora.

In the years following the Armenian Genocide of 1915, entire communities of Armenians settled in makeshift shelters on the outskirts of Beirut. Bourj Hammoud was born, and is widely recognised as Armenians’ cultural cradle in Lebanon. There are streets in Bourj Hammoud named after Armenian cities, such as Yerevan, and rivers such as Arax.

Armenian food in the Middle East differs from that in Armenia, as it is mixed with Greek, Turkish and Arabic influences. Bourj Hammoud has the best lahm b'ajin, or meat pies, but done the Armenian way! And lots of boerek and mante. Armenians even have their own variations of kibbeh, and kabab karaz is somehow a form of the local fatteh!

The Lebanese Diaspora

Since the days of the Phoenician empire, the Lebanese have travelled the world and this diaspora is integral to the longstanding popularity of Lebanese cuisine. The diaspora is estimated to comprise 14 million people, far more than the internal population of Lebanon, which is approximately 4 million with Brazil currently having the largest number of Lebanese residents, estimated to be 6.4 million.

Throughout history, the Lebanese diaspora has used Lebanese identity to create networks to support its members and over time immigration has created Lebanese networks across the world. The Lebanese diaspora has developed a reputation for hard work and business traditionally comprising merchants and entrepreneurs; maybe even including some descendants of Phoenician heritage! In addition, the Lebanese diaspora has sustained its Lebanese identity through food, starting restaurants and eateries all over the world, which are ‘moorings’, links, to the Levant homeland.

Honoring our Ancestors

Cuisines and tastes, whether they are old or new, are not just about ingredients.

Cuisine is an expression of tradition, just like architecture, or music, or dance, but cuisine is the most sincere and authentic expression and the one that travels the furthest and the best. By cuisine I mean the food of the everyday. Not necessarily court, or elite, or restaurant cuisine but food cooked by ordinary people and eaten everyday: that is the true cuisine and expression of tradition.

The 15 million Lebanese abroad could not take their houses and their beloved villages with them, but they did take their recipes. Kibbeh and tabbouleh have been adopted by countries all over the world and today sfihha and kibbeh are so much a part of Brazilian cuisine that their Lebanese origins have nearly been forgotten!

Home cuisine is a simple and authentic way to perpetuate an identity and a tradition. Nothing speaks more eloquently of the Beqaa Valley’s wheat, the blazing sun, or its dairy farming, than kishek: sundried fermented yogurt, mixed with burghol. Nothing speaks of North Lebanon's steep mountains better than a kibbeh nayeh, made from lean goat meat and eaten raw. Nothing speaks of the hilly south better than the fire-smoked freekeh (smoked wheat) or the kamounieh, a mix of burghol pounded with the garden's fragrances – rose, cumin, lemon leaves, wild mint, marjoram and basil.

Through caring for and feeding their families, women preserve Lebanese identity and heritage, maintaining the roots to our long ancestry. Zaynab Kashmar, a native of Tyre, keeps her strong ties to her ancestral village. From her garden and the gardens of other women she picks fresh herbs; Zaynab is on a pilgrimage, or Hajj, of sorts: to discover the secret recipes, and to hunt for the ingredients. ‘When I cook,’ Zaynab says ‘I feel as though my ancestors are here, and that I am honouring them.’



Braudel, F. (1973) [1949] The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Trans.  Sian Reynolds. Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.

Kanafani-Zahar, A. (1997) ‘”Whoever Eats You Is No Longer Hungry, Whoever Sees You Becomes Humble:” Bread and Identity in Lebanon.’ Food and Food-ways 7, 1: 45–71.

Oksman, O. (2015) ‘Garum sauce: ancient Rome’s “ketchup” becomes a modern-day secret ingredient.’ The Guardian, Wednesday 26 August 2015.

[1] Braudel 1973 [1949]