Food For Thought

Proverbs from the land of cedars open a door on its customs and cuisine.

by Marilyn Raschka

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Few countries can match the customs and hospitality linked to the food of Lebanon. There, the table is always a generous one and once the feast is laid, there is no sign of a tablecloth.

It is this Lebanese gift for the presentation of cuisine that first greets the eye of the diner. Dishes of chickpea and garlic or the drab-to-look-at but delicious also known as are enlivened with chopped parsley, sprigs of fresh mint, slices of crunchy radish or a toss of pomegranate seeds bursting with crimson juice. The expression “too pretty to eat” could have come straight from a Lebanese kitchen.

In Lebanon, hospitality is a duty. It embodies centuries of culture, art and tradition. But this hospitality is a two-way street. The ultimate goal of both the host, and the guest, is to please – and there is always room for another person at the Middle Eastern table.

Some ancient but still-in-use soup recipes note that water can be added should an unexpected guest arrive. To persuade someone to stay for lunch is both a triumph and an honor. When the meal is over, plenty of food should be left as a sign that no one has walked away hungry.

For foreigners, learning Lebanese cooking and the rules of hospitality often results in mistakes – some are taken lightly, others are almost regarded as sins.

One foreign woman who tried making stuffed grape leaves had everything right until she rolled the leaves inside out. The guests smiled, saying, or, the inside has come to the other side. Funny, but forgivable.

For one Norwegian woman, her first attempt at Lebanese hospitality caused her and her husband great embarrassment. Unaware of a local custom, she broke the “three times” rule. When she offered her guests something to eat, they politely said no. Observing their wishes, the woman took the food away. As a hostess, she was disappointed. But the guests were shocked.

In Lebanon, no polite person would accept food on the first or even second offering. Additionally, no hostess would take food away after the first no. Coaxing, and a little firm insistence, are important ingredients when serving food.

Lebanese largess is found even at the Turkish bath. When women gather at the bath – admittedly a fading custom – everyone brings something to share.

And picnics in Lebanon are a far cry from what is standard fare in America. These alfresco feasts require hours of work as full meals are transported from home to the countryside.

When a place for the meal is selected, small grills are set up, coals are lighted and meat is skewered. Overflowing basins of and bags of bread appear. Chairs and blankets, babies and grandparents are arranged. Hammocks are rigged for the youngest and water pipes are stabilized on the uneven ground. Boom boxes get cranked up and the picnic takes off.

Also, very unlike Western custom, no attempt is made to be apart from other picnickers. On the contrary, the Lebanese love proximity and, as any picnicking foreigner can tell you, trying to keep your distance simply does not work.

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Tags: Lebanon