Portland is known for its diverse array of restaurants, including everything from Thai and Vietnamese to Italian and Mexican. One cuisine that is often overlooked is Middle Eastern. However, there is a growing number of Lebanese and Syrian restaurants popping up, offering customers an experience to their palette unlike any other.
Portland offers a Lebanese Food Festival in July and just recently, a second location of Hoda’s Middle Eastern Cuisine opened up just five blocks from my house. With all of these possibilities, pretty soon Lebanese cuisine will become another kind of restaurant that Portland is known for.
Luckily for me, Lebanese cuisine has always been a part of my life. Ever since I was a child, I heard my grandma and my mom refer to foods like kibbeh, mihshi, tabbuli and furn (pita bread), which my grandma always added a “y” to make it “furny.” Sitting at her old fashioned round wooden kitchen table with a large fork in hand, I gobbled up whatever she generously put in front of me. I rarely knew what exactly I was eating, but definitely enjoyed every last bite. Going to grandma’s house meant getting lightly buttered “furny” and a taste of Lebanese cuisine, something that I have recently learned to enjoy even more as I read more about it and learn to cook.
As I got older, I began realizing that this food I occasionally got at Grandma’s house was also available at great local Portland restaurants, my current favorites being Nicholas’ and Ya Hala. Eating at these restaurants reminds me of my grandma, who was half Lebanese, and I was able to branch out, trying everything from stuffed grape leaves to falafel (chick pea patty) and shawirma (grilled lamb). Unfortunately, my grandma passed away before my love for cooking sprang up so she was never able to teach me how to make her favorite Lebanese dishes that I enjoyed so much. She did, however, instill in me a genuine interest for Lebanese cuisine and a passion for learning more about my cultural roots.
Throughout the past five years, I have dabbled in Lebanese cookbooks and researched all kinds of Middle Eastern dishes, but I have never truly familiarized myself with everything there is to know about Lebanese cuisine. I decided to start this journey by reading cookbooks and seeing what all was out there, finding out interesting details about the recipes and history for my favorite salty, yet nutritious and sense appealing food. The basic ingredients in both Lebanese and Syrian cooking include fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit, cracked wheat, rice, nuts, olives, yogurt, tahini, spices, fish and meat in the form of lamb or chicken (boiled, grilled or stewed); plus rose and orange blossom waters. Tahini sauce is defined as a sesame paste and is usually found on my plate at local Middle Eastern restaurants for dipping lamb meat and vegetables.
According to Mike Pehanich of the CBS Interactive Business Network, “Middle Eastern courtesy demands that a guest bring a healthy appetite to the dinner table. And for good reason! Variety rules in the Mid-East where appetizers, known as mezze, give the dinner table a wide mix of flavors and food forms.” Restaurants in the area often serve 50 or more mezzes, luring in the customers. Mezzes that most Americans are familiar with, include hummus, dolmas, stuffed grape leaves, the eggplant dip baba ganoush and phyllo pastries. Chickpeas are also a staple of the diet, appearing not only in hummus, but in deep-fried patties called falafel, which are my favorite.
Whenever I go to a Lebanese restaurant with my family or friends, we always enjoy the traditional music being played as well as the lively atmosphere and rich colors painted on the walls. My mom enjoys kibbeh, which is arguably the most famous Lebanese dish, consisting of a paste of very finely minced lamb with burghul (bulgur wheat), onion, and basil or mint. Kibbeh is a dish that can be prepared many different ways, often in a round, shallow pan where the surface can be divided into quarters, displaying different patterns.
Helen Corey, author of “The Art of Syrian Cookery” defines Arabic food in a delightful manner, offering readers a better understanding of the cuisine. In her preface, she points out that “Arabic cooking is like Arabic dancing – vivid, exotic, enchanting. Seasoned with herbs and spices, moistened with olive oil and butter, rolled in cabbage and grape leaves, food no longer merely abates hunger but becomes a picture of fragrance and charm to satisfy sight, smell, and taste.” This description of Arabic cuisine is extremely detailed and makes me want to get into the kitchen as soon as possible to cook up a masterpiece of a meal.
In order to do this, I looked no further than to Madelain Farah’s Lebanese Cuisine cookbook that features over two hundred authentic recipes “designed for the gourmet, the vegetarian, the healthfood enthusiast.” While reading about the author, I discovered that Farah comes from a Lebanese-American family and like me, was born in Portland, OR. Farah and her family became stranded in Lebanon during a visit throughout World War II, but the food in Lebanon impacted her life enough that she continued to research and test the flavors of her favorite recipes from her early childhood times in Lebanon. Inspired by her mother’s cooking similar to how I enjoyed my grandma’s cooking, Farah describes mealtime in the Middle East as a “leisurely and a happy occasion, where the family is brought together in thanksgiving and mirth and where it is at its closest.” For me, this cookbook has led to many long, yet enjoyable hours of reading, cooking and trying out new dishes that I never knew could be so easy to make.
Farah’s cookbook is broken down into several categories, with some of the major ones being bread dishes, vegetarian, desserts and beverages. The glossary of Arabic terms allows readers to not only learn some of the Arabic language but also understand the terminology. The condiments section represents another common practice in Lebanese cuisine, which is preserving seasonal produce. Vegetables are often times dried or pickled and fruits are also dried, candied, or made into jams. Farah’s book teaches readers how to make pickled turnips, pickled cauliflower and preserved grape leaves while Gary Paul Nabhan’s book about Arab and American landscape, culture and cuisine, provides images from a farmer’s market that he attended in downtown Beirut. The market features a vendor named “Mr. Pickles,” who offers home-processed pickles and jams as well as strings of fresh garlic to the local crowds.
Nabhan’s book also takes readers on a journey by exploring how these seemingly disparate cultures, Arabic and American, are linked to each other in ways that people would never imagine. Although authenticity is a complex concept in itself, Nabhan explains how some foods that are assumed to be American, like “mole poblanos to chiles en nogadas and huevos Motulenos,” are actually a mix of ingredients from both America and Arabia, “combined through ancient Middle Eastern culinary strategies.” It turns out there are traditional Middle Eastern restaurants on the United States and Mexico border due to the Syrian and Lebanese refugees who landed there about a century ago.
The more that I learned about Lebanese cuisine, the more I felt inclined to embody the culture and plan my next Lebanese themed dinner party with my friends so that we could enjoy everything from kibbeh to grape leaves and Farah’s suggestion for dessert, caramelized custard. Learning about Lebanese food has brought back a lot of memories for me and has made me realize that it is something I would like to pass down to my children.
The next time that a restaurant debate occurs among your friends or no one can decide where to go, considering stepping outside the box and exploring all of the Middle Eastern Restaurants that Portland has to offer, trying something new and tastefully satisfying.
8005 SE Stark Street, Portland, OR
(503) 256 – 4484
Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
318 Southeast Grand Avenue, Portland, OR
Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
4727 NE Fremont St Portland, Oregon
Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 9.pm, Sat. 12 p.m. – 9:30 p.m