Do you think of Lebanese cuisine when you hear that the healthiest way to eat is the Mediterranean diet? Lebanon sits squarely on the Mediterranean Sea, and the Lebanese have long known that our food has everything we need to eat well and be healthy. But also…it’s more than just the nutrition of Lebanese cuisine that makes it so good for us. The way we eat means just as much as what we eat. That is: with relish and pleasure, shared with the people we love. Food and family are synonymous for the Lebanese!
Here’s what makes Lebanese eating, and the Mediterranean diet, so good and good for us:
Olive oil and healthy fats. Heart and soul of Lebanese cuisine, olive oil is such a satisfying, delicious and healthy fat. We use extra virgin olive oil every day and reserve butter for special-occasion foods. Olive oil begins a sauté, coats cooked vegetables, and tops off many, many Lebanese dishes like labneh, hummus, baba gannouj, kibbeh, and all salads. My sister and I love sharing unique Lebanese extra virgin olive oil with you at Maureen Abood Market. We also get healthy fats from eating plenty of nuts (pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts, almonds) and seeds (sesame—samsum!—we heart you in every way).
Fresh fruits and vegetables. These are the foundation for our days. The Lebanese know how to stuff a vegetable like none other (and plenty throughout the Mediterranean do it, of course)! We love our stuffed grape leaves, cabbage, and koosa (summer squash). And the salads! Fattoush and tabbouleh are the most well-known, and with good reason, but if you haven’t tried malfouf salad (incredibly flavorful, crunchy Lebanese slaw), you are missing out, my friend! As for the fruit: no Lebanese day is complete without beautiful fresh fruit. My father loved to reminisce about how his mother was so nostalgic about the fruit in Lebanon, how enormous and sweet and perfect that fruit was. We don’t know if it was nostalgia or reality that made that fruit so perfect, but that matters not at all. Fruit reigns in the Lebanese diet, well-chosen fruit that is very simply served and enjoyed. Citrus is important among fruits, lemon especially for bringing the tang we love, dressing salads and marinating meats.
Grains galore. We’re talking fiber, people, and lots of it! From bulgur pilafs and mujadara to freekeh (there is a great freekeh recipe in my cookbook, cooked like rice, with tomatoes) and a bit of rice in recipes for stuffed vegetables, our way with grains is excellent!
Fresh herbs and spices. When you cook with fresh herbs so heavily as we do, flavor is at a premium, so there is far less need for excessive amounts of salt and fat in a dish to get it to taste great. Mint, parsley, cilantro—you name it, and we’re going to use it. Tabbouleh salad, as my culinary school teacher liked to say, is not a grain salad, but an herb salad. And what goes for herbs goes too for spices—our world of flavor is unlocked with a dusting of za’atar, sumac, dried mint (Mint Salt!), cinnamon, and many more spices.
Lean meat and fish. We do love our grilled shish kebab and lamb chops, but these are eaten proportionally less than all of the above. And generally, the meat we eat is lean lean lean, as in kibbeh, the “national dish of Lebanon.” The Lebanese love their fish, too, and I wish I cooked fish more often. Spicy snapper with tahini sauce? Pistachio-crusted white fish (cookbook recipe!)? Love you.
Fresh bread. Okay, I know. But fresh, soft, homemade or bakery-made breads can be and are a healthy part of how we eat. It’s all about proportions, frequency, and the whole diet overall that allows for Lebanese breads and our fatayar to play the beloved role they do without taking us down.
Tell me more about what you love about eating Lebanese! And thank you Lebanon, for giving us such a wonderful way to eat and live.