A Middle Eastern-style mezze presents dishes that are considered typical of Lebanese cuisine. But as a self-taught cook and restaurateur John Gebran, of Gebran Lebanese Cuisine, explains, if you really want a traditional Middle Eastern feast you should step outside your comfort zone. Here are five Lebanese dishes that show how much more there is to offer with Middle Eastern cuisine.
1. Foul moudammas (fava bean stew)
Also spelt ful medames or mudammas, this is a filling dish of cooked fava beans with slight variations throughout the Middle East. Whilst it is a common staple of Egypt, it is also a popular breakfast dish in many African, Middle Eastern and Arab cultures. "We do serve that dish all day long but traditionally it's a breakfast dish. You make it by boiling the fava beans, mashing them up, adding a scoop of garlic, cooking the garlic through, adding a tiny bit of hummus and then spicing it up with cumin, spice, salt and a tiny bit of white pepper and some lemon juice. When you finish it, you top it up with a little bit of parsley and tomato and finish it with olive oil on top. I've eaten this dish on Qatar Airways because it's the most popular breakfast dish to eat in the Middle East. I've grown up on this dish. I have customers who come in every single morning for this dish.'
2. Nkhaat (lamb's brains)
"Nkhaat is lamb's brains and it's great for those wanting to try something different. If you talk to older generation Australians, they will tell you they grew up eating brains. It was food for paupers. This dish takes me back to Lebanon. My father used to slaughter lambs in the back of my village of Bahayra in the mountains of north Lebanon. What we didn't sell, we ate. Mum cooked this dish because we couldn't afford to waste anything. This particular dish is served with a lemon garlic sauce. I enjoyed this dish very much as a child and it is on my menu because I want people to experience the food I grew up on. Lamb's brains are a soft-tissue meat. The brains are par-boiled and then pan-fried with garlic, lemon, salt and pepper. If you say 'lamb's brains' to some people they say 'Errrgh!', but if they taste it they usually enjoy it. Most people in Australia grew up on crumbed lamb brains, which makes it more palatable because it looks like a big round schnitzel. The children of migrants in Australia eat this dish because they grew up eating offal. They come to Gebran to eat this food because nobody else has it."
3. Zaatar akhdar (fresh oregano salad)
"Serving a salad made from fresh oregano is pretty unusual. Everyone knows oregano as a dried herb, but they probably haven't had it green. It's very popular in Lebanon but not many Lebanese restaurants have it because they can't get the green oregano. It's a very bitter green, but it's very aromatic and very good for you. It grows wild in the mountains of Lebanon and we used to pick it and grind it. The fresh green oregano that is grown here in Australia is spicy. Dried oregano smells beautiful, but the fresh oregano is even more aromatic. To make this dish I just add a bit of olive oil and Spanish onion and lemon. It's interesting stuff. It's a traditional salad that I have eaten ever since I remember. My mum used to make it. It's great to serve with meat because it cuts through the richness of the meat."
4. Masareen (tripe sausages)
Masareen is a tripe dish that is not on the menu, but everyone knows we make it. Gebran has had the same chef - Wafa Naesse - for the 16 years we have been opened and the restaurant has built its reputation on this dish. People don't eat this dish much because it is so laborious to make, so they come here because they know how good it is. It's a dish for special occasions. At Christmas time, it's the equivalent of the turkey. This type of tripe is thicker than sausages. We stuff them with rice, meat, onions, spices, herbs and pine-nuts. It's a dry stuffing so you have to hand feed the rice into the tubes and then tie them together into a 40cm circle so the rice doesn't fall out. We then put them in a pot of water and add bay leaves and onions and star anise for flavouring and boil for three hours. That's the dish. It makes my mouth water just talking about it."
5. Loubyeh b’zeit (green bean stew)
"This dish is made by sautéing all the ingredients together in a pot and serving as is. You can eat it cold or you can eat it hot. I prefer it cold because the flavours come out and it's a dish that is made to be eaten over a few days. It hasn't got meat in it so it doesn't need refrigeration. Back in the day in the villages, we didn't have a fridge until I was eight years old, so you kept a dish in the table in a cool place. It's a sort of dish that can stay at room temperature. It's an all-year-round dish. In Lebanon, Christians eat it on a Friday through Lent. It's a very healthy dish. You sauté the onions and beans a little bit and I add just chopped tomatoes and the tomato melts down into a sauce and the acids in the tomatoes cook the bean. I season it with salt and pepper and cook it for about an hour. It's a very simple dish to make but delicious."
Photographs by Carla Grossetti.
This succulent chicken is often barbecued over charcoal for extra smokiness. With the lemony flavour of sumac, it’s the marinade that makes this Lebanese dish such a crowd-pleaser.
This combination of flavours is one I picked up from my grandmother. She loved infusing her fig jam with aniseed or yansoun as it’s called in Arabic. Here, I’ve infused a yoghurt mousse instead of fig jam and included star anise, but the effect is much the same. I don’t think any description can do this understated dessert justice, you’ll just have to try it to truly appreciate it. It can be assembled up to two days ahead.