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.