Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Levantine cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Singaporean cuisine, here to read her column about Kenyan cuisine, and here to read her column about Jamaican cuisine.
Culture Tuesday – Levantine Cuisine
Levantine cuisine is the cuisine from the Levant region of the Middle East. This region compromises of Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, and Syria. However, a broader definition of the Levant region includes Egypt, Greece, Libya, and Iraq as parts of the region.
The cuisine features an array of fresh ingredients seasoned with spices, seeds, and herbs which are reminiscent of the cultures of the Levant as well as the cultures of neighboring Arab nations and their history involving the trading of herbs, spices, and other flavorsome ingredients. Some of the herbs, seeds, and spices commonly used in the Levant region include parsley, sumac, cinnamon, coriander, and sesame seeds. Spice mixes are also frequently used and are made by combining herbs and spices. The most popular of these are za’atar and baharat.
Za’atar is made by combining ground dried oregano, marjoram, thyme, sumac, salt, and toasted sesame seeds. However, variations of this spice mix exist in each nation as well as amongst home-cooks and chefs who make fresh za’atar to cook with. These variances include the more pronounced use of sumac by some Lebanese people resulting in a reddish za’atar, the inclusion of caraway seeds by a significant amount of Palestinians, and the inclusion of cumin, coriander seeds, fennel seeds, and satureja/bean herb (a genus of aromatic savory herbs).
Za’atar is used to season vegetables as well as a condiment and a key ingredient in some foods such as manaqish (specifically, manaqish bi za’atar) which is man’ousheh when referring to a single serving. The za’atar mixture is combined with some olive oil and spread onto fresh dough prior to being baked. This form of manaqish is usually served as a breakfast food or a mezze (appetiser/starter) in the Levant region.
Levantine cuisine features an array of fresh ingredients seasoned with spices, seeds, and herbs which are reminiscent of the cultures of the Levant as well as the cultures of neighboring Arab nations and their history involving the trading of herbs, spices, and other flavorsome ingredients.
The description of baharat varies with region. Generally, it is a mixture of spices. However, the regional differences lay in the number of spices used as well as the spices used. With reference to Lebanon, ‘baharat’ tends to be used to describe a seven-spice blend/mix while in other nations such as Greece and Turkey, it describes a mixture with a wider range of ingredients. Regardless of regions, the ingredients usually found in a Levantine Baharat include allspice, nutmeg, cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cassia bark, cloves, ginger, turmeric, saffron, paprika, black peppercorns, dried chilies, and mint. However, mint is usually only found in Turkish Baharat.
Salads are usually served as part of a mezze or main meal. They typically consist of fresh vegetables, fruits, and/or fresh spices dressed with lemon juice or olive oil. The most popular Levant salads are tabbouleh and fattoush. However, other salads such as that known as the Levantine salad, ful medames salad, and raheb are also eaten in the region.
Tabbouleh is a salad consisting of finely chopped fresh parsley with finely chopped/minced tomatoes and onions. The tomatoes are usually salted and left to sit in a sieve for a few minutes as the onions and parsley are cut to drain off excess liquid. These ingredients are then combined with the addition of bulgur wheat, lemon juice, and additional salt (if needed) to make tabbouleh.
Fattoush is made by combining chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, and green leafy vegetables with fried or toasted bite-sized pieces of khubz (a type of flatbread). Unlike tabbouleh, the ingredients in fattoush are usually cut to larger bite-sized pieced as opposed to fine or minced sizes.
Levantine salad is a combination of diced cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and parsley with lemon juice and olive oil. Ful medames salad consists of the same ingredients, but with the addition of fava beans, salt and black pepper, and exclusion of cucumbers.
Lastly, raheb is a salad that consists of tomatoes and aubergines (eggplant). However, this salad also tends to contain other ingredients such as onions, fresh parsley, fresh mint, cucumbers, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, bell peppers, garlic, and pomegranate molasses.
Legumes: Beans and Lentils
The Levantine cuisine features a range of dishes made from beans and lentils. These legumes used include fava beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), brown beans, lupini beans, runner beans, brown lentils, green lentils, and red lentils. Common dishes made from these include lentil salad, lentil soup, falafels, ful medames, mujaddara, and mecimek koftesi. The most popular of these, globally, being falafels.
Falafels are typically made from chickpeas. However, variations made from fava beans or a combination of chickpeas and fava beans are also made. Falafels are deep-fried balls of flavor consisting of ground dry/raw beans, parsley, garlic, spices, and aromatics such as garlic, spring onions (green onions/scallions), or leek. The use of these ingredients varies with nation.
Falafels are usually served on a bed, or with a side, of hummus (which is also made from chickpeas), in a wrap, pita, or as part of a salad topped with fresh and pickled vegetables, tahini, a hot sauce, and tomatoes. They are eaten as a mezze, snack, or meal (when in larger quantities).
In Levantine cuisine, dips are commonly found served as sides to mezze dishes and main dishes. They act as condiments for imparting additional flavor or texture to foods. The most common Levantine dips include hummus, baba ganoush, moutabal, muhammara, and toum.
Hummus is a thick dip made from blending cooked chickpeas with lemon juice, garlic, and tahini. It is often garnished with olive oil. However, it is common to also find it garnished with whole chickpeas, chopped tomatoes, paprika, sumac, sesame seeds or a fava bean paste (making the final hummus dip known as, ‘hummus ful’).
Baba ganoush and moutabal are often used simultaneously with reference to the same dish. However, there are differences between them. Moutabal is made by mashing the flesh of flame-roasted aubergines (eggplant) with olive oil, tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. On the other hand, baba ganoush is more like a salad dip than a smooth dip. It is made by chopping the flesh of flame-roasted aubergines and mixing it with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pomegranate seeds, onions, tomatoes, and tahini. Herbs such as parsley could also be included. Both baba ganoush and moutabal are usually eaten on pita bread or any other Levantine flatbread.
Muhammara is a chunky red dip made from roasted red peppers, chili paste, broken down toasted walnuts, lemon juice, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, salt, cumin, and breadcrumbs. It is characterized by its sweet, savory, and smoky notes with a hint of spiciness/heat from the chili paste.
Toum is a paste-like or emulsion dip made by either mashing garlic with oil, salt, and lemon juice using a mortar and pestle or creating a smooth emulsion, similar to the Spanish aioli by blending and, thereby emulsifying, the garlic with the oil, salt, and lemon juice.
The Levantine cuisine features a range of rice dishes including mujadara and riiz bi sh’arieh (also known as Lebanese rice). Mujaddara is a dish consisting of rice, lentils, and sauteed or caramelized onions. Its origins are believed to be Persian (Iranian). However, mujaddara is a popular Levant dish, especially in Lebanon. In Lebanon, the dish is known as either muddara or mudardara, although there is a third name given to this dish, to differentiate its texture/consistency. This name is, ‘mjaddara.’ Mjaddara, generally, is the same as mujaddara. However, the final dish is pureed into a rice pudding-esque consistency.
Across the Levant region, there are variations of mujaddara. These include m’jaddaret-burghul and fakes moutzentra. M’jaddaret-burghul is essentially the same as mujaddara but made with bulgur wheat (bulgur grains) in place of the rice. This version of mujaddara is most commonly found in Palestine and Israel. On the other hand, fakes moutzentra is cooked the same way as mujaddara with the addition of lemon juice and it is commonly eaten in Cyprus and Greece.
Riiz bi sh’arieh (Lebanese rice), is a rice dish made of rice cooked in boiling water with dry-fried vermicelli noodles and olive oil. It is very simply seasoned using salt. However, some cooks include warming spices such as cinnamon in the dish.
Another rice dish in vegan Levantine cuisine is hashweh. Traditionally, this dish is not vegan. However, it can be veganised by using vegan mince, vegan ground or minced mushroom in place of the non-vegan ingredient while retaining the rest of the traditional ingredients – onions, baharat (or Lebanese 7-spice), rice, salt, and optional herbs, spices, nuts, and raisins.
Recipe – Vegan Spinach and Za’atar Fatayer
Fatayer is a savory flaky filled pastry. For this recipe, Mahmoud fills the homemade pastry with a spinach mixture consisting of spinach, onions, lemon juice, za’atar, and salt. This recipe will teach you how to make and shape the pastry dough, make the filling, and assemble the fatayer.
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