Among the many well-known Lebanese flavor makers (the za’atar, the cinnamon and allspice, the mint, and so on), there is a whole world of spicy Lebanese, including–most unfortunately–spicy Lebanese salsa, that did not find its way into the kitchens Abood (Dad’s family) and Abowd (Mom’s family). My dad was quite clear about where he stood on spice heat, and Mom didn’t disagree. There would be none of it at their table.
My first taste of spicy Lebanese went down at the house of Shaheen (Dan’s family). Cayenne in the kibbeh? Yes ma’am, and what a heaven that hint of heat—really just a whisper—imparted to our already perfect kibbeh nayeh. Then in Lebanon, the kibbeh feast in the home of our taxi driver’s sister (so Lebanese to be invited in) was spicy with heat and flavor beyond anything I’d tasted.
Some of the classics on the Lebanese hot list: spicy potatoes (batata harrah; find them in my cookbook!), or a spicy whole red snapper sauced with tahini (here’s my version), or a dollop of breakfast labneh with red pepper flakes, good as a strong cup of joe.
And, this spicy Lebanese “salsa,” banadura harrah. The base of cooked tomato and garlic might make you think more Italian than Lebanese, until you add the mint, dried and fresh. Go all the way and add a hot chili pepper of your choosing or a hit of cayenne, which up until now might have made you think more Mexican than Lebanese.
Mom was skeptical as she stirred the tomatoes, trying the salsa for the first time recently. She reminded me that she’s never made spicy food because Dad doesn’t like it.
Mind you, he’s been gone 17 years.
When she saw me go in with the cayenne, she nearly shouted, “Oh God!” — which is my mom’s version of swearing. I assured her it was just a tiny, and it wouldn’t be too hot.
She was pretty well convinced she wasn’t even going to taste the salsa until she saw the mint make its way in.
“Ah, okay then,” she said, “get me a piece of bread.”
Spicy Lebanese Salsa
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic
- 2 pounds ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 1 small chili pepper, finely chopped, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon crushed dried mint or Mint Salt
- 1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- kosher salt, to taste
- Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant (about 30 seconds). Add the tomatoes and chili pepper or cayenne and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomato juice thickens slightly, about 20 minutes.
Season with dried mint and half of the fresh mint and cilantro. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding salt to taste.
- Serve the salsa warm.