Lebanese cuisine has been around for thousands of years and yet, amazingly, little has changed since ancient times. Lebanese cooking still revolves around a core set of ingredients, with an emphasis on freshness and simplicity.
It is a cuisine that epitomises authenticity to, and when something is done right from the start, there’s a reason that it doesn’t need to change. From fresh bread to fragrant spices, here’s a look at some of the key ingredients in Lebanese cuisine.
Chickpeas are the central ingredient in two of Lebanon’s flagship dishes: falafel and hommus. Both are legendary in their own right, but would not be possible without the humble legume at their core. Chickpeas boast a wide range of health benefits and have been a staple of diets in the Middle East since ancient times.
Sesame seeds are yet another central element in Lebanese cooking. They are used in a number of ways. Perhaps most prominently sesame is used to make tahini, which is a paste made from seeds that have been lightly toasted and then ground with oil. Tahini is eaten as a standalone dip or as a sauce on Lebanese shawarma.
It is also a core ingredient in hommus, imparting a smooth, creamy texture and vibrant nutty flavour. Sesame is also used in many desert dishes. And you’ll find sesame seeds scattered upon Lebanese pastry dishes, both sweet and savoury.
The Lebanese pickle just about anything – cucumbers, cauliflower, beans – but it’s the neon pink pickled turnip that is the most memorable, both on the eye and on the palette. Turnip pickles are usually steeped with beets, which imparts a lovely rosy-pink colour.
The firmness of the turnips means that the pickles stay crunchy and they tend to milder than traditional cucumber pickles in terms of vinegary-ness. You’ll find them on mezze plates, in wraps and on Lebanese pizzas. They’re also the perfect accompaniment for falafel.
Olive oil has had a dramatic impact on Lebanese cuisine, and is a central element of almost every traditional dish in one way or another: Falafel, hommus, tahini, manoosh, labneh, tabbouleh, kibbeh, kafta – you name it!
Za’atar is a mix of thyme, roasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt. It is the flavour of Lebanon and can be used in a huge array of dishes. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a healthy sprinkling of za’atar to some pitta bread, throw it in the oven and you’ve got traditional manoosh.
The earthy flavours of za’atar are the perfect complement to almost any kind of meat too. You can also add a pinch or two of za’atar to any vege-based soup to highlight all of those natural flavours. Or sprinkle it on your favourite dip, salad , cheese or vegetables for a simple Lebanese twist.
Sumac is a zesty spice that is often used to season meat and vegetables; however, it is also sprinkled over salads, like tabbouleh and fattoush, as well as added to dips such as hommus and labne. It is also one of the core spices used to make za’tar and sujuk.
In Lebanon, fresh baked bread is eaten with every meal of the day. It provides the perfect basis to enjoy many dips, such as hommus and baba ghannouj. Bread is also the ideal vessel for encasing falafels or marinated meats, or you can simply slather your pita with labne for a fast and healthy breakfast.