Like many, Norma Dakhoul's favourite things in life involve a combination of cooking and eating. Yet it was only after inheriting a collection of Woman's Weekly cookbooks from a friend, that she truly developed a curiosity of her native Lebanese cuisine.
We talk to Norma about dairy in the Lebanese diet, tips for making perfect falafel, and why everyone needs a bottle of pomegranate molasses in their pantry.
What has your mother taught you about food?
My mother’s philosophy is simple: If you’re a woman and have a family, your fate is sealed. That sums it up for her generation. I don’t agree with her that being a woman carries the title of 'the cook", but, lucky for me, cooking is one of my leisurely activities. When I’m bored, I’m likely to be in the kitchen trying a new recipe or experimenting with a new technique. She also taught me to cook from your heart. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true. It took me a long time to understand this.
Tell us about your journey to Australia.
parents migrated to Australia in the 1950s as young adults, looking for
a new start in life. Having come from a small village in North Lebanon
with not many work opportunities locally, it was: 'Move to the city or
travel overseas". Bound for Australia with other young people, they got
married and had three kids. Missing his homeland, my father decided it
was time to move back to Lebanon. [Then] I was born and, two years
later, Australia beckoned again, so we moved back for another three
years. Not satisfied, my father moved the family again and, not long
after, the troubles and the Civil War drove the family back to
Australia. In 34 years, my father went back only twice – Australia is
I arrived in 1978 and, for an 11 year old, starting
school and having to learn a new language was very daunting. I was
desperate to fit in and master the English language. The first year was
frustrating and confusing, and I have vivid memories of begging my
parents to take me back home. Luckily, special classes for immigrant
kids were a solace and allowed me to develop and get used to my new
life. It didn’t take long before I accepted Australia as my new home. My
early childhood years in Lebanon are precious, with memories wedged
deep in my heart.
Yoghurt plays a major role in the Lebanese diet. How is it used?
In general, Lebanese people don’t drink milk, but are more likely to consume, on a daily basis, yoghurt (or laban in Arabic). Literature dating as far back as the 1st century suggests that laban was accidently created during the transportation of milk in animal skins. Animal skins, being porous and containing natural bacteria, allowed the whey to evaporate and convert the milk into yoghurt – a magical birth.
- Laban is enjoyed cold in salads, as an accompaniment to various meat dishes, and diluted with water and mixed with salt to make a popular breakfast drink. It also compliments many stews and rice dishes. It can be made into a soup, used as broth to cook meat, vegetables and dumplings. Yoghurt is awesome when married with flavours like garlic, mint and coriander.
- Labneh is a must-have ingredient and, like all Lebanese, I grew up eating it nearly every day. Yoghurt is mixed with salt and strained in muslin overnight, resulting in a thick, luscious and tangy cream loved by all. Drizzled with olive oil, labneh is essential for any Mezza banquet.
- Darfieh cheese is an artisanal specialty made seasonally in some rural regions of Lebanon. Accidently discovered by goat herders long ago, it’s made by adding rennet to the milk and storing it in the skin of a goats’ leg called a darf.
- Shankleesh is the only mould-ripened cheese native to the Middle East, and is similar in texture to Fetta cheese. The cheese is shaped into balls, coated with thyme and flavoured with chilli powder. Lebanese have a philosophy of not wasting anything and it’s evident here as the whey of the yoghurt is used and converted into this artisanal cheese.
- Kishik is the ultimate breakfast as it combines dairy and a cereal. A ratio between burghul and yoghurt is mixed, boiled and sun-dried to produce a preserved product that was enjoyed in the harsh winter months.
What distinguishes Middle Eastern desserts from all others?
Fragrant waters, like orange blossom and rosewater, are essential. So is flour, semolina (a by-product of wheat), ghee and butter, nuts, sugar, sugar and more sugar! Sugar is the foundation of all sweet things, but especially in Middle Eastern sweets. Not much sugar is used in the batter or base, but most recipes require atter to sweeten things up. Atter is a simple sugar syrup infused with rose and/or orange blossom water. It’s made by boiling 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, some lemon juice (to stop the syrup from crystallising), and boiling to the desired consistency and finishing with the essences. Classics like baqlawa and semolina cakes are baked and, while hot, drenched with the cooled syrup, leaving you with that sweet, sticky perfumed delight that Middle Eastern sweets are known for.
How did your cooking school come to fruition?
I fell in love with [BBC cooking show] Two Fat Ladies while on maternity leave 16 years ago. Bored at home and waiting to deliver my first child, a friend suggested I watch a new show about these two ladies cooking their way around Britain. I was fascinated by their adventures and love affair with food, which reminded me of my own food experiences. I migrated to Australia when I was 11, and growing up in a small village in North Lebanon, I was exposed to food in its raw form. I have vivid memories of picking olives in the groves; helping the women to make flat bread; and watching in horror as my grandmother chased chickens around the garden and, inevitably, the chook ending up on our dinner table.
As a lover of farmers' markets, I discovered no-one was producing Lebanese condiments. While the basic ingredients were available, these gourmet products weren’t and you had to search for Middle Eastern grocers to source them. My idea was to produce and sell a small range of my homemade gourmet products, interact with customers while gaining some credibility, and move on to my cookery school.
The birth of Norma’s Lebanese Foods is a collection of my childhood food memories combined with my passion and love for Lebanese food. Even though Sydney is dotted with Lebanese restaurants, there was no-one educating foodies on the fundamental techniques and basics of Lebanese cooking.
What is pomegranate molasses?
Funnily enough, my son has nicknamed me 'pomegranate" because I love this fruit so much. Fresh pomegranates range from sweet to sour. In Australia, the season is generally from March to May. Once you’ve managed to pop out the crimson jewel-like seeds, they’re sweet and delicious, and add vibrancy and flavour to your dishes. Scatter them over ice-cream, puddings or toss them through a salad.
To produce dibs el roummane, or pomegranate molasses*, the sour variety of pomegranate is juiced, boiled and reduced by more than half, resulting in a thick syrup that’s sweet and sour. It’s perfect in salad dressings, especially in fattoush – a popular peasant salad adored around the Middle East. The molasses is also used to flavour stews and pastries.
As Lebanon is relatively small, how regional is the cuisine?
Classic Lebanese dishes are prepared and enjoyed throughout the country. Despite being labelled authentic and traditional, each recipe is unique and based on seasonal produce, regional influences and individual cooking methods. So much so that regional cooks argue and boast that their version is the best!
One example is moujadara – a peasant dish loved by every Lebanese I know, with many variations. To make it, you need olive oil and lots of onions as the foundation. Utilising the staples found in every Lebanese pantry, the dish is a marriage between lentils (referred to as 'the meat of the poor man"), various beans, burghul (cracked wheat), rice and sometimes meat or spices. I grew up eating moujadara nearly every Friday in one form or another, as Fridays were always meat-free.
How would you define a typical Lebanese mezza?
A mezza feast is all about abundance, sharing and is typical of the Lebanese hospitality. Whether it’s simple or elaborate, a mezza is to be savoured at a leisurely pace. A typical banquet can consist of 20 or more appetisers. And preferably served with arak – Lebanon’s national alcoholic drink. Distilled from white grapes and flavoured with aniseed, this drink is fondly referred to as 'lioness’ milk" as it turns milky white when mixed with water.
Your three tips for perfect falafel?
1. Get organised a day ahead. 2. A visit to a European deli, food market or, if possible, a Middle Eastern supermarket, ensures the best quality dried legumes. A combination of chickpeas and split fava beans need to be soaked overnight or a minimum of 12 hours. 3. Test the mixture during the processing stage. Take a small amount about the size of an egg. Try moulding it in the palm of your hand. If it shapes easily, chances are the fritters won’t fall apart when frying.
For someone who hasn’t cooked Lebanese before, what should they attempt first?
Lebanese food can be complex and time consuming. I’m a modern day cook with minimal time to prepare a family meal. During the week, I love to cook fuss-free dishes that are healthy and flavoursome from the cuisines I love. There are so many Lebanese dishes I love to cook for my family. I’ve chosen these as they are simple, versatile and packed with flavour. You’ll note that a few ingredients make up these dishes celebrating simple food at its best.
- Kafta is the Lebanese version of meatballs with Middle Eastern flavours. To transform the humble mince, add some spices, parsley, red peppers and onions, and you end up with a marriage that can be moulded and shaped to suit many dishes. Kafta can be grilled, barbecued, pan fried, shaped into meatballs to add to a stew, rolled up in a kebab or eaten raw – just to name a few! To eat it raw might shock some, but Lebanese are particular and fussy when buying meat. A visit to the best Lebanese butcher guarantees the best and freshest meat to enjoy raw. No different to eating sashimi or steak tartare, raw kafta is very palatable when drizzled with olive oil and scooped up with flat bread!
- Batata harra are golden, baked cubes of potatoes tossed in a garlic, coriander, cayenne pepper and lemon juice sauce, exploding with flavour. Everyone I cook this for has seconds and thirds – including me. This is my favourite potato dish.
- Hummus or the proper name hummus bi tahini translates to chickpeas in tahini. Loved and known worldwide as a classic Lebanese dish, evidence suggests it was first prepared in Egypt, so we really can’t claim it as our own. Today, it’s cooked all over the Middle East, with each country adopting their version. The classic hummus must contain chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice and tahini.
- Fattoush is derived from the Arabic word 'crumble", and is a popular peasant dish prepared throughout Lebanon. The name of this dish refers to the use of stale flat bread, which is toasted or fried and tossed through the salad. This salad is centred around seasonal produce.
- Riz bi hallib literally translates to 'rice in milk", and is a rice pudding. I’ve tasted many versions, which can be flavoured with rosewater, orange blossom, vanilla and sometimes mastic. Chopped pistachios are used to decorate and add flavour, taking it from a simple rice pudding to an exotic Middle Eastern treat.