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Volume 48, Number 1January/February 1997

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Memories of a Lebanese Garden

Written and illustrated by Linda Dalal Sawaya

Many, many generations ago, mothers began passing on to daughters the ways of preparing food that have made the Lebanese famous throughout the world. Each generation added its refinements to mountain traditions, coastal traditions, village traditions, city traditions and seasonal traditions. Within each of these, there are variations from village to village, family to family and day to day.

In the late 1800's, my grandmother, Dalai Hage Ganamey—whom we affectionately called by the Arabic Sitto—was sent to school as a child in her Lebanese mountain village of Douma. There she was taken not into the classroom to study but into the kitchen to help. As a result, she didn't learn to read or write; instead, she became a wonderful cook.

Alice, my mother, learned from Sitto first in Douma and then in Detroit, where the family immigrated in 1926. When Mother married my father, Elias, in 1934, they continued west to Los Angeles. Sitto and Jiddo, my grandfather, joined them a few years later. By the time I was a child, Mother and Sitto had become renowned throughout the community for their cooking. And I had the good fortune to be their assistant.

Thus began my apprenticeship in our Lebanese kitchen. In time, my roles as dish-dryer and table-setter expanded as I begged to stuff kusah, or squash, roll waraq 'inab (stuffed grape leaves) or malfoof (cabbage rolls) and pinch ma'mul, the nut-filled cookies. Most of all I longed to twirl the bread dough high in the air and toss it from arm to arm like Mother did. But despite my pleading, Mother would not allow her 10-year-old daughter even to try that.

So to this day I am still working on getting the spin just right on a full-sized round of dough, the kind that Mother made look so easy as it flew above her hands. I have mastered a much smaller, pita-sized loaf that nonetheless thrills me as I toss it into the air. Such loaves are easily stored in my freezer, and they make for quick meals and great memories: The stacks of fresh khubz marquq, or flatbread, wrapped in slightly dampened towels, steaming from Mother's oven, and the incomparable smell of bread as it bakes, go straight to the essence of my being. A dab of butter and a drizzle of honey on bread hot from the oven is like paradise to me. This is why I, too, must bake bread.

In our house there was always an abundance of food. At dinner, seconds were essential. If you refused even after the customary three-times offering, Mother still slipped another helping onto your plate. It wasn't because she didn't want leftovers—we loved leftovers!—it was because of Mother's and Sitto's tradition of generosity and their genuine desire to satisfy everyone. Sharing food was the greatest gift one could give.

Over the years, Mother and Sitto modified the family's mountain-village cuisine to fit what was available in Los Angeles grocery and import stores in the 1950's. Whole lambs weren't, of course, so they learned to cut from legs of lamb to make their dishes—a job that in Douma had been left to the local butcher.

Similarly, our gas range had four burners instead of the single one on the stove in Lebanon—or instead of the open fire in earlier days—that was the origin of a varied tradition of one-pot meals.Certain spices and herbs could not be found in America either, and friends shared the contents of precious parcels from the old country that contained vegetable seeds from the village or za'tar,mahlab, summaq or kishik. We kept a small kitchen garden in a patch of California sun, and even dared to raise chickens until neighbors protested our rooster's early-morning serenades.

Baqdunis (parsley); na'na' (mint); baqlah (purslane); waraq 'inab, laymon (lemons), akkideen (loquats), and teen (figs) all graced our table in seasonal harvests. For us, they were essential. Douma, the name of our village in Lebanon, means "continuity" in Arabic, and the perennial growing and eating of what is in season preserves a vital, healthful legacy.

Still, I remember one challenge in elementary school: Hummus, mujaddrah or laban were just too weird for the other kids. After enduring much teasing, my sister Vivian and I implored Mother to give us bologna, American cheese, or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to take to school. Only at home, I learned, was it safe to devour everything Lebanese. Occasionally we asked Mother for hamburgers or spaghetti for dinner and, although she would accommodate us, somehow even those ended up with parsley in them.

I remember rich moments in the kitchen after school. Because Lebanese food is labor-intensive, Mother and Sitto had been preparing dinner since shortly after breakfast. I would pinch, wrap, stuff or roll whatever was in progress, and occasionally help prepare lamb, make cheese, cure olives or stir kettles of preserves that would be stored for use in the days or weeks ahead.

In 1971, my first visit to Lebanon changed my life. Over three months, my understanding of my identity was reshaped. When I flew into Beirut, I felt as though I were coming home. The Lebanese landscape so resembled southern California and, more than that, the experience of being surrounded by people who looked like my family, spoke our language and ate our foods was transforming. At last, I belonged! At the same time, I became aware of the fragility of our culture once transplanted to another continent. Being in Lebanon delineated my duality as both an American and a Lebanese Arab, and not merely one or the other.

There, the source of my family's generosity and hospitality was evident in every encounter, in every greeting kissed on both cheeks, in every invitation. The roots of Mother's artistry were visible on every dish, garnished and embellished with sprigs of parsley or mint, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds or paprika. In presentation, I saw an art form; in sharing, a ritual of pleasure and friendship. Food brings together family, friends and strangers; it is a medium for laughter and stories. It is no less powerful outside the home, where street markets, vendors, cafés and restaurants all celebrate life.

One of the most wonderful meals I remember was at an outdoor restaurant in Chtourah, a little town overlooking the Bekaa Valley on the way to the ruins at Baalbek. We ate mezzeh that consisted of at least 50 tiny oval plates filled with delicacies, from small grilled birds to fustuq (pistachio nuts), and all the Lebanese staples from hummus and baba gannuj to tabbuli. We sat in the sunshine gazing at the expanse of tranquil farmland that provided this abundance. From that moment I understood that mezzeh are the heart of Lebanese cuisine, just as lamb and rice are its backbone, laban, olives and bread its fragrant spirit, garlic and onions its soul, and mint and salads its breath.

The food of Lebanon evolved over the centuries: a little meat and lots of fresh vegetables, grains, herbs and seasonings aromatically combined. Many Lebanese dishes provide complementary proteins, that is, complete proteins formed by the combination of two non-meat foods, such as legumes with grains, or seeds or nuts with grains. Lentils with rice in the one-pot dish mujaddrah are one example; hummus bi tahinah —puréed garbanzo beans with a sauce made from ground sesame seeds, eaten with wheat bread, is another. Complementary proteins are essential where economic circumstances and the scarcity of meat create a need for meatless protein sources.

Traditional Lebanese cuisine uses relatively small amounts of meat, almost always lamb. Sheep are strictly grazing animals and do not consume grain that humans could eat. These facts make the Lebanese diet both less expensive and more healthful than diets heavy on beef. A few cubes of lamb on a shish-kebab is about the most meat a person will eat, and none of the lamb is wasted, as there are recipes which use virtually every part of the animal.

Lebanese food, a model of the healthy "Mediterranean diet," is fast being integrated into the American diet, just as pizza, stir-fried dishes, tacos, and crepes have been in the past. Tabbuli, hummus and falafil appear regularly in newspaper recipe columns, and they are available in many supermarkets. Pocket bread is in vogue. And with olive oil as its main fat source, Lebanese cuisine can be quite low in cholesterol.

But health is only part of the appeal: There is a spiritual component as well. Lebanese tradition uses resources carefully, prepares what is in season locally and, above all, shares. Mother continues to speak of the most important ingredient when she says, "Dear, if you make it with love, it will be delicious."

Linda Dalai Sawaya, an artist who lives in Portland, Oregon, adapted this article from her book Alice's Kitchen: The Ganamey-Sawaya Lebanese Family Cookbook, and dedicates it to her mother and to the memories of her father and grandmother. She thanks her sister Vivian and other family members whose photographs she used in creating the illustrations. Alice's Kitchen is available from Box 91024, Portland, Oregon 97291.


Mother's cooking is done intuitively. I've never seen her use a cookbook, though she is literate in four languages. As I recorded our family recipes, her intuitive style proved both a joy and a challenge. Mother would say, "Add enough salt," and somehow I knew or learned just how much "enough" was. The fact that we could relate this way showed me how deep our communication had become, because "enough" could mean a dash or a tablespoon or a cup. The challenge then became to transform Mother's instructions into measurements.

Because of her love of her family, tradition, great food, cooking with love and loving to cook, we have her, and those before her, to thank for these recipes. At 85, Mother still cooks Sunday dinner every week, "for the family, and whoever can come."

baba ghannuj               eggplant purée with sesame sauce

burghul                         cracked wheat

falafil                             fried patties made of chickpeas and other legumes

hummus bi tahinah       puréed garbanzo beans (chickpeas) with sesame sauce

jibn                               soft fresh cheese like Neufchatel

kishik                           dried yoghurt and burghul ground into flour

kusah bayda                 light green squash

laban                            yoghurt

labnah                          drained yoghurt, lightly salted

mahlab                         stuffed

mahshi                         Cornell-cherry kernels used as a spice

mezzeh                         hors d'oeuvres

mujaddrah                  a lentil-and-rice dish

summaq                      crushed sumac berries used as a spice

tabbuli                        parsley-and-burghul salad

tahinah                       paste of crushed sesame seeds, or a sauce made of it

za'tar                          spice mixture usually including thyme, sumac and sesame seeds


Omelette with parsley, mint & onion

Light and delicious, 'ihjee can be served for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, tucked into a round of pocket bread with feta cheese or jibn, olives and sliced cucumbers.


1 white onion, chopped fine

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

dash cayenne pepper

½ tsp. cinnamon

2 tbs. flour

1 tsp. baking powder

4 green onions, chopped fine

½ bunch parsley, stems removed, chopped fine

4 eggs

¼ c. clarified butter and olive oil in equal parts


4 sprigs fresh spearmint, stems

removed, chopped fine celery tops, chopped fine


Place onions in a bowl and mix with spices, flour and baking powder. Add green onions, parsley and, if desired, mint and celery leaves. Crack eggs over the top and mix with well a fork. Heat oil and butter in skillet to medium high. Pour in mixture and spread it out evenly. Cook until golden brown (about three minutes) and until top is not runny. Flip over carefully and brown. Serve hot, warm or cold.


Savory pastry

This is very similar to the meat pies we grew up eating, but Mother has modified it somewhat in recent years. The sambusak disappear as fast as they are put on the table. Perfect for mezzeh or as a side dish, and can be served hot or at room temperature. Filling and dough can be made ahead and refrigerated, or the pastries can be made and frozen, then baked or fried later. In Douma, they were usually fried, because people did not have ovens in their homes; today, baking them is recognized as more healthful. It is worth trying both methods to discover which you prefer.


1 stick (8 tbs.) softened butter

4 c. unbleached white flour

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. yeast

1 c. water


Combine butter with salt and flour. Mix well by hand to blend completely. Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. After five minutes, knead into flour mixture. Divide dough and roll into four balls. Cover and let rest for half an hour while you make the filling. Then roll dough out on a lightly floured board to Vs-inch thickness. Cut into circles about three inches (8 cm.) across. Fill each with a tablespoon of filling. Fold in half and pinch curved edges to seal, forming fat half-moons. Fry in equal parts of olive oil and clarified butter over high heat until golden. To bake, arrange pastries on a tray and bake 10 minutes at 450°F on bottom rack, then move tray to top rack for 10 minutes more or until browned.


2 c. chopped onions

¾ tsp. salt

2 tbs. olive oil

½ c. pine nuts

1 lb. ground or finely-chopped lamb

1 tsp. cinnamon

¾ tsp. black pepper

¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

6 whole allspice berries, freshly ground, or ¾ tsp. ground allspice

½ c. labnah or kefir cheese

2 tbs. lemon juice


Sauté onions and salt in olive oil over medium heat until onions are translucent. Add pine nuts and saute a few more minutes. Add meat, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes. Just before meat is done, add seasonings and cook two more minutes. Remove from heat. Add labnah and mix well. Cool. Mix in lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning.


Lentils and rice with fried onions

This is a favorite from childhood, when I used to pretend that the brown mujaddrah was the earth and the green salad on top of it was the vegetables I was growing. The mixture is delicious with bread and provides complementary proteins. The caramelized onions lacing the top of the dish elevate this simple, nutritious food to gourmet status.


1 c. chopped onion

2 tbs. olive oil

½  c. brown or white rice

1 c. lentils

3 onions, julienned

4 c. water

1 tsp. salt

dash of cayenne pepper


Saute chopped onions in olive oil until slightly brown. Wash lentils and rice. If you use brown rice, add both lentils and rice to onions and sauté a few minutes more. Add water, salt and cayenne. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer for 1½ hours. (If you use white rice, add it to the pot after the other ingredients have simmered for nearly an hour.) Stir from time to time and add water if necessary: mujaddrah can be made as dry as rice or as wet as a thick porridge. While the lentils and rice simmer, julienne the three onions and saute them in olive oil, first on high heat, stirring constantly, then slowly until they are dark brown. Serve hot, at room temperature or cold, heaped on a platter with the caramelized onions scattered on top.

Kusah Mahshi

Squash stuffed with lamb and rice

This was one of my favorite dishes, perhaps because I was allowed to help Sitto stuff the light green Lebanese squash harvested from our garden. Sitto would even let me try to core it using one of the corers my mother had made from brass tubing. This was tricky for a 10-year-old, because it was easy to cut through the side or the bottom of the squash. Lebanese squash wasn't available in the grocery, so if we weren't raising any that year our Lebanese friends, the McKannas, would share their crop with us. Several US seed companies now sell Lebanese zucchini, but small yellow crooknecks or dark green zucchini can also be used. To find a half-inch diameter corer, try a Middle Eastern import store; you can make do with an apple-corer.


½ c. uncooked rice

½ tsp. cinnamon

4 whole allspice berries, ground, or ½ tsp. ground allspice

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. black pepper

¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

1 tbs. lemon juice

2 c. lamb, finely chopped or coarsely ground

1 c. tomato sauce, divided a few lamb ribs for the pot

10 small green or yellow squash

1 clove of garlic

16-oz. can of whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped

2 tbs. lemon juice

4 whole peppercorns

3½ c. water


Wash and drain rice and place in a bowl. Mix in seasonings, the smaller quantity of lemon juice, the lamb and half the tomato sauce. Parboil the lamb ribs, rinse them, arrange them in the bottom of a deep pot and set aside. Cut off the tops of the squash and core them carefully: Gently insert a corer and remove the first inch and a half of the core by rotating the corer clockwise with your right hand and the squash counterclockwise with your left. As you turn, the marrow will be extruded. Ideally, there will be an ⅛-inch thickness of squash around the hollow core. Save the seedy center for other dishes. Rinse each cored squash in a bowl of salted water flavored with a clove of garlic. Drain, then fill gently, being careful not to crack the shell, to about one-half inch from the top. Arrange stuffed squash upright in pot over the lamb ribs. Pour in the remaining tomato sauce, the chopped tomatoes with their juice, the additional lemon juice, peppercorns and the water. Cover and heat on high until boiling, then simmer approximately one hour until rice is done, squash is tender and sauce is thick. Serve with Arab bread, carrot sticks, celery, cucumbers, romaine lettuce and other cut vegetables.

Salatat Bandurah Elias

My father's tomato salad

Days when my mother wasn't around were a special treat because my father, Elias, would make us lunch. His specialty was this tomato salad, which tasted best in the summer, when it was made with garden-picked tomatoes. It is laden with garlic, so eat it with friends. The bite-sized chunks of tomato are scooped up with Arab bread that absorbs some of the juice. Serve with feta cheese and olives for a perfect summer picnic.


3 cloves garlic

½ tsp. salt

5 large tomatoes

  c. olive oil

½ bunch fresh spearmint, stems removed, finely chopped

3 rounds of Arab bread


Peel and chop garlic. In a bowl, mash it into a paste with salt. Cut tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and add them with their juice to the bowl. Add olive oil and spearmint; toss. Marinate for at least 15 minutes, if possible. A half hour in the refrigerator is perfect.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the January/February 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1997 images.