Why go to Lebanon?

If I’d stuck to raw liver I’d have lost weight I imagine, however what with eating hommus three times a day and the myriad sweets drenched in butter and syrup, not to mention the incredible breads… I did not. Oddly, the question we got asked all the time was: “Why go to Lebanon?”

Asbeh & liyye

Asbeh & liyye

Beirut, the crazy, honking, hammering city love-child of Cairo and Berlin, is just full of great food. Tawlet – the first all-you-can-eat restaurant I’ve ever loved – offers home-style Lebanese cooking by women from different regions who do guest stints and cook specialty dishes from their village (there’s never been a number put on just how many varieties of kibbe there are). When we visited we ate dishes from the mainly Christian Maronite region Jezzine, and this being the lead-up to Easter the dishes were Lenten (vegetarian). The buffet table groaned under tomato and lemon zest salad, kibbe filled with tart wild herbs, and sautéed or stewed sweet and sour eggplant, tomatoey potato, garlicky zucchini and greens with crisp fried onion. We were as stuffed as kousa and couldn’t even approach the sweets.

In the remote Hermel Mountains near the Syrian border we were introduced to awarma, a lamb confit of sorts, whereby finely chopped lamb or mutton is cooked and preserved in sheep’s tail fat. Hearty dishes of bulgur wheat and lentils topped with sheep’s milk yogurt, and local river trout split and cooked over a charcoal grill with a sauce of raw garlic, lemon juice and local olive oil were prepared by local Hussein, who owns Lazzab Eco Lodge. Hussein told us that he also often uses juniper berries from the ancient trees that dot the mountains to rub onto the fish or onto lamb before barbecuing.

In Baalbek, thanks to our guide Gilbert we finally got to try the dish I’d been wanting to since I first found out about it researching the book on Sheep: raw sheep’s liver (asbeh) and tail fat (liyye). In a restaurant where hunters gathered after their early morning shoot in the mountains, we were served the dish with hot, bubbly tanoor bread and a saucer of salt, ground chilli and za’atar. We tore a piece of bread and pinched a piece of liver and piece of tail fat before dipping in the spices. The raw liver was less odorous than cooked liver, and creamy in texture but bloodier in flavour than cooked, and the raw fat was soft and mild, yet unmistakably from a sheep. I can’t say it was a Eureka moment but I think I could learn to love it – just as we learn to love oysters, dark chocolate and beer.

Australians are familiar with hommus, kebabs and tabouli, but perhaps don’t realise the wealth of Lebanese cuisine. Crushing a juniper berry between my fingers, picked off a tree over three thousand years old, I inhale the cold pine aroma.

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One Response to Why go to Lebanon?

  1. fornalutx says:

    Triffic. Just sent the post to my almost veggo wife to gag on good thing Ben didnt do Boston


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