Lebanese food is popular across the world for being both good for you and packed full of delicious flavours, with plenty to offer everyone from the most ardent meat eater to the strictest vegan. In fact, it ranks among the world’s healthiest cuisines. So many of these tasty dishes are low in fat, protein-rich and, perhaps more importantly, made from fresh and energising ingredients.
There are so many delicious dishes that it can all get a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, Lebanese food, like a lot of Middle Eastern cuisine, is extremely rewarding for home chefs.
There’s a lot of room for both playfulness and refinement here. Even novice cooks should be able to taste what’s gone wrong and make improvements for next time. But Lebanese food is also fairly forgiving. First timers should be able to throw a satisfying meal together without too much scope for disaster. It’s very easy to build a few easy but delicious plates around a slow-cooked showstopper – and you can easily prepare much of it in advance (that said, maybe try making falafel for yourself the first time before having guests round).
So if you want to try your hand at putting on a Lebanese spread, here are a few ideas to start your menu off.
Who said healthy food can’t be delicious? Hummus is beloved the world over precisely because it can. Consisting of just chickpeas, tahini, lemon, and garlic, it can be a simple dip or the base of something more extravagant. The Lebanese like to top it with fried lamb, pine nuts, spices and fresh herbs. That’s known as hummus kawarma, but another popular hummus variation is hummus Beiruti, which mixes the dip with yoghurt, chilli pepper, paprika, and chopped parsley.
Kibbeh is Lebanon’s national dish, with kibbeh nayyeh being just one of the variations. Often compared to steak tartare, it’s composed of raw lamb or beef, mixed with chopped onions and bulgur. It used to be reserved for special occasions, when animals would be slaughtered in celebration and eaten later the same day.
Baba ganoush is similar to hummus but with the chickpeas swapped out for roasted aubergines – the smokier the better. A similar but lesser known dip is mutabal, which adds yoghurt and onions, although baba ganoush is also great for flatbread sandwiches.
Keeping it simple, labneh is only two ingredients: yoghurt and salt. What makes it special is in the straining of the yoghurt, which removes liquid from the whey, and turns the yoghurt to the consistency of cheese. Some are more on the creamy side, some more firm, but they’re all delicious.
Lebanese Main Courses
Okra stew, sometimes called yakhnit bamyeh, isn’t as vegetarian as it sounds. It usually contains beef. What it is is a quick, nutritionally dense winter favourite that can be cooked all in one pot. Comfort food at its finest.
Lebanese Freekeh with Chicken
Freekeh is a grain made from green durum wheat that’s both a common rice substitute and incredibly fun to say. It’s at its best when topped with succulent fried or grilled chicken and garnished with chopped parsley and toasted nuts.
Kafta is somewhere between a sausage and a meatball, combining beef, onions, parsley, and spices, rolled into shape and grilled on the barbecue.
The classic Lebanese stuffed eggplant uses a mixture of rice and meat sandwiched between halved eggplants. The eggplants are then boiled in a mouthwatering tomato broth.
Lebanese Vegetarian Dishes
Falafel can be enjoyed as a meal unto itself, often in a sandwich or wrap, as it usually is in the West. In Lebanon, however, you’re just as likely to have these spiced chickpea balls as a starter or side dish, often with one of the dips mentioned above.
Mujadara is simply rice and lentils topped with caramelised onions, but don’t just make it for the vegetarians at the table. You can be certain that everyone will be desperate for seconds.
Missing eggs from your Lebanese menu? Well they don’t get much better than this. Shakshuka is all about poaching eggs in a mixture of tomato sauce and diced peppers. It’s great at any time of day, but it makes a spectacular breakfast.
Lebanese Side Dishes
Halloumi is a cheese that doesn’t melt. OK, so what? Well, so it can be fried and grilled and taste absolutely heavenly. Forget just Lebanese, it should be a mandatory side for all meals.
Batata harra translates as spicy potatoes, and that’s exactly what these are. They’re a staple of Lebanese cuisine due to their incredibly favourable ratio of deliciousness to required ingredients. Just fry the potatoes until crispy and toss with a toss of olive oil, garlic, chopped coriander, and red chilli flakes.
You’ll want to go for one of two options here. First is tabbouleh, which is a parsley and mint salad made with bulgur and diced tomatoes, or fattoush, otherwise known as the 'peasants’ salad', consisting of cucumbers, tomatoes, chickweed, mint, and ripped up pita bread.
All Arabic nations have their own baklava and Lebanon is no different. The classic Lebanese baklava sees ground nuts sandwiched between layers of phyllo pastry and flavoured with syrup and rose water.
If you’ve ever seen kanafa before then you’ve surely remembered its distinctive appearance, if not the name. The pastry is thin and noodley, looking almost like golden strands of hair. Topped with chopped pistachios, the surprise lies underneath – a layer of sweetened cheese.
Sfouf is a cake made from turmeric and semolina. It looks great and isn’t very sweet, which makes it ideal as a lighter dessert or an accompaniment to coffee.
Where do you think Lebanon ranks among the world’s best cuisines? Check out the people’s top 10 here.