There has been something of a surge of interest in Lebanese cooking over the past several years. Perhaps this would demonstrate itself most profoundly and convincingly in a growing number of people gorging themselves on Lebanese food – however, I possess neither the statistics, nor the conviction, nor sufficient photographic evidence of lips covered in hummus, to assert that this is the case. That there continue to exist numerous Lebanese restaurants in prominent European cities offers little to support the claim of ‘a surge of interest’, even in these ‘difficult economic times’.
One may look to the political situation in Lebanon, to gauge whether any change in the country’s global standing has influenced the global perception towards its food – and yet there is nothing especially noteworthy here either. Bordering Syria and Israel, both of whom were implicated and involved in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, saw the emergence of the March 14 Alliance, which accused Syria of the murder, and the March 8 Alliance, which accused Israel. The Cedar Revolution which followed drove all Syrian troops from Lebanon; and the elections which took place in the country between May and June 2005 were the first for thirty-three years without the Syrian military present.
Today, Lebanese politics – under elected President Michel Suleiman; with a strong regional focus; and with the March 8 Alliance, which includes Hezbollah, one of the three blocs and numerous parties elected to govern in 2009 – continues to be shaped by the conflicts of its neighbours. The Saad Hariri government established after the 2009 elections fell in 2011. His replacement as Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, resigned on 22 March of this year; and his proposed successor, Tammam Salam, has struggled to form a new government. Owing to the political deadlock and the ongoing Syrian civil war – which has led to increased violence in Lebanon, and seen the country receive around 200,000 Syrian refugees – a couple of weeks ago, on 31 May, it was announced that this year’s scheduled elections have been postponed until November 2014. All of which does nothing towards interpreting the world’s interest in Lebanese food.
So instead I reflect on my own growing awareness of Lebanese cuisine; and on the profusion of Lebanese cookery books displayed prominently in popular bookstores. Phaidon published The Lebanese Kitchen, authored by Salma Hage, as part of their encyclopedic cookbook series last October. Its tessellated page-edges and lavish illustrations across five-hundred recipes make it one of the nicest cookbooks I have ever touched. Everyday Lebanese Cooking, by Mona Hamadeh, was published in January. The Jewelled Kitchen: A Stunning Collection of Lebanese, Moroccan and Persian Recipes, by Bethany Kehdy, will be published next month. Then in September will come Man’oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery, written by Barbara Abdeni Massaad with photgraphs by Raymond Yazbeck, and considering Lebanese bread-making.
I went recently to Cedars Lebanese Restaurant in Amsterdam. The restaurant, which opened in 2007, is in the south-west of the city, just beyond the Oud-Zuid, between the Hoofddoorpplein and Amsterdam’s World Fashion Centre. Set back from the Heemstedestraat road and well outside the city’s centre, Cedars sits upon and overlooks the Westlandgracht where the canal broadens out, providing an exceptional view whether you’re inside, looking out of the restaurant’s glass construction, or out on the terrace poised atop the water. The wide terrace and its wooden flooring, the easy movement between inside and outside and the light the building affords gives the restaurant a relaxed atmosphere even in its more formal interior.
Lebanese cuisine includes mezze, an array of small warm and cold dishes which are typically eaten to accompany drinks or main courses, or as a meal in their own right. Prominent ingredients are pickled and stuffed vegetables, aubergines, tomatoes and chickpeas, and there is much use of olive oil, garlic and lemon. Hummus, eaten with a range of flatbreads, is considered so much a national dish that in October 2008, the Association of Lebanese Industrialists petitioned for it to be classified a specifically Lebanese food – in the same way that Parmigiano-Reggiano and Melton Mowbray pork pies have protected geographical status in the EU. Tabbouleh, with bulgur wheat, tomato, parsley and mint, is another traditional Lebanese dish. Chicken and lamb dominate the meat market, frequently cooked with yoghurt; the Lebanese eat seafood; and pistachio nuts are common, in desserts made with white cheese and filo pastry.
Cedars offers two mezze menus, a ‘Royale’ and ‘Petite’, comprising different groupings of warm and cold dishes; and two menus, the ‘Cedars’ and the ‘Lebanon’, comprising mezze, main courses and desserts. There are twenty-six mezze proffered in all; three fish mains; three vegetarian mains; and ten mains from the grill. The wine menu is extensive and eager to soar in price (the glass of red wine I ordered was pleasant but dry together with the food); and the four desserts consist of three pastries with nuts and cream, and one ice cream with chocolate. The group with which I ate forewent all manner of mezze, opting after a drink to order main courses. These were prefaced by a selection of wonderfully baked flatbreads, served with olive oil and mixed spices.
I ordered the ‘Shikaf Garouf’, with lamb, cherry tomatoes, potato, mushroom, onion, and ‘spicy pita’. My partner ordered much the same dish but with chicken instead of lamb; while the third member of our group ordered risotto with lamb and yoghurt. My overall impression was of a well balanced meal replete with subtle but distinct flavours. The lamb had been marinated and charcoal-grilled, and a square of potato and one white mushroom were both sautéed in olive oil to perfection: the mushroom was seasoned with salt and pepper but otherwise unspiced, yet had taken just enough of the oil and was so well cooked that it was the best mushroom I have eaten; while the potato was spiced with what tasted like nutmeg, turmeric, and a little black pepper and ginger, and was equally delicious. The ‘spicy pita’ was in fact a miniature pizza, with a hot tomato sauce. Again, the rice had been cooked expertly with a little oil and spices: it was an appealing yellow-golden colour, suitably fragrant, delicate and light.
Initially calling regarding Saturday night, only to hear it described as ‘fully booked’, my party went to Cedars on Sunday evening, when the restaurant was fairly quiet. We had the terrace to ourselves for drinks on a bright and warm-enough evening; and without being rushed, the waiters were not only helpful and polite, but more, talkative and funny. Mains at Cedars are priced at around €20; mezze at €6.50 each – fairly standard for restaurants in Amsterdam.