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Summer 2008 Vol. VI, No. 4

Features

Fast Track to Slow Food: A Crash Course in Lebanese Heritage Cuisine

Last summer, I landed my dream job and was paid to do something I love-eat. I was enrolled in the pre-med program in the Biology Department at the time, taking my summer dose of physics and chemistry courses, when I noticed a flyer for a summer job in the hall of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences (FAFS) on lower campus. It was my first exposure to Slow Food. From FAFS Professor Rami Zurayk (the originator and manager of the project) I learned that the job entailed researching, cataloging, and visiting production sites of traditional Lebanese foods-and, of course, extensive sampling. There were 25 items dubbed "heritage products" to research and the goal was to develop materials to promote all of these products. The work was being carried out through ibsar (the Initiative for Biodiversity Studies in Arid Regions) at AUB and funded by UCODEP, an Italian NGO that supports activities fighting poverty, supporting health and education rights, and promoting the values of diversity and solidarity.

My research started at the tip of Akkar, in the small village of Rahbe, where I was told I would find a well-known shankleesh producer who was renowned for her good ripened cheese. On Waddad Skaff's front porch I was greeted with mammoth trays filled with the round cheese molds that she was drying in the sun. She explained that shankleesh is the only mold-ripened cheese native to the Middle East and is believed to be of Kurdish origin. It is essentially concentrated, skimmed milk yoghurt that is hand-molded and given a smooth outer surface, then ripened due to the colonization of yeasts, and finally coated with thyme and other herbs. It lasts a long time thanks to its high salt and low moisture content. This was especially important when and where refrigeration was not available. I also found out that shankleesh can be made from cow, sheep, or goat's milk. The type of milk will affect the taste of the final product, which is moderately pungent and somewhat musty and has a perceptible bitter note. It is also naturally low in fats (around 5 percent) and is a healthy source of protein and calcium. Shankleesh is usually eaten as an appetizer broken into small pieces, mixed with finely cut onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, and drenched in olive oil.

Craving more cheese, a few days later I went to Ehden, a village situated 1,000 meters above sea level, nestled in the cedar forests in northern Lebanon, where I met Youssef Maroun Douehi, one of the few remaining producers of darfieh cheese. Darfieh is a goat milk cheese fermented in a goatskin pouch or darif. Like yoghurt, it is thought to have first evolved when milk was stored in containers harboring certain micro-flora. Darfieh is traditionally sold at butcher shops. Douehi invited us for an early breakfast on his balcony that overlooks a forest of over 30,000 trees, where the clouds skim the treetops and you hear nothing but silence. Douehi explained the production process in which the goatskin in which the cheese is fermented is shaved, cleaned, salted, and tanned before use. But the secret, he said, lies in the pores, which are perfect for releasing water at a rate that allows for proper fermentation when it is put in the grotto under his house. Darfieh cheese is considered to be a delicacy and is only available a few months each year in this particular region. Although many European cheese producers have visited and spent weeks with Douehi trying to develop an industrial method to produce darfieh cheese, no one has succeeded.

I went down into the Beqa'a Valley on a steaming hot July morning to visit the village of Laboue to sample and catalogue its infamous kishik, a preserved dairy product made from coarse flour or cracked wheat (burghul) mixed with sour milk or yoghurt (laban), sun-dried, and powdered. This form of milk processing can be stored for years and is usually made into stews with cured meat and eaten for breakfast, which is the main meal of most farmers of this region. Zeinab Mohamad Balouti, who began making kishik to supplement her family's income, told me that as long as the situation in Lebanon is stable, demand is very high and she is able to provide kishik to many Beirut restaurants. Vegans can now also enjoy kishik al khameer or fermented kishk, which originated in Hawran in southern Syria. It consists of burghul that is

fermented in water and later dried in the sun and ground into powder. Mona Jaafar Durr, who produces kishik al khameer, graciously welcomed us into her house in the southern village of Majdelzoun. She explained that many people are ashamed to admit that they produce this vegan cheese because it has been historically linked to poor people who couldn't afford milk to produce the real kishik.

Next, my research took me deeper into the Beqa'a Valley to the rural village of Ham to explore salamouni wheat, a soft, low yielding variety that has survived because it is the raw material for burghul. Grown by the Mrad family, salamouni has been rescued from threatened extinction. Speaking of burghul, I drove back to Zahleh where I met George Saliba, who is a large-scale producer of burghul. Believed to have been originally a Kurdish product, burghul has been found in the Middle East since 1300 AD and has been traded by the Arabs along the Mediterranean coast since 1600 AD. Although it is still part of the diet in Levantine countries, since World War I it has been increasingly supplementing rice. Due to its minimal processing, burghul conserves most of the vitamins, minerals, and essential elements found in wheat. Saliba explained that to make burghul, whole wheat is boiled for several hours in large pots and then sun-dried. The processing procedure, specifically the boiling, takes place at the end of the summer after harvest and is a communal activity that brings families together.

I also visited the village of Chamaa in southern Lebanon, where 80 year old Mohamad Srour produces a unique and distinctively Lebanese product called freekeh, or roasted green wheat, which has historically replaced rice in this region of the world. Its name, he explained, comes from al-freek meaning "what is rubbed" and refers to the process of manufacturing freekeh, which involves rubbing the wheat grains to rid them of their shell. High in fiber and vitamins, freekeh is made by taking the green unripened wheat stalks, stacking them in bunches, then roasting them in the fields over an open wood or charcoal fire for approximately ten minutes until the spines of the wheat grain are removed. When cool, the grain is separated from the chaff and left to dry. The color of the final product is greenish and its shape, if not cracked, is similar to that of rice as is its texture, although it tends to be somewhat chewier. The flavor is nutty and smoky. Freekeh is cooked like rice to accompany meats or vegetables.

By late August my deadline grew near and I still had the south to visit and two more products to see: mishtah jreish and zaatar. On an early Thursday morning I headed to the south, where I met Khalil Ollaik, an agricultural engineer and extension adviser working with Land and People. He took me to the Deir Kanoun Cooperative where I met Daad Ismail, whose hard work was providing job opportunities for some 35 women in her village who produce food products for sale at festivals and farmers markets all over the country.
Ismail told me that mishtah jreish is a type of bread specific to Jabal Amel, in south Lebanon and was traditionally produced during the pilgrimage season to be consumed during the first few days of the journey to Mecca. Today it is associated with Ramadan and is eaten with labneh and olive oil when the fast is broken. Mishtah jreish is made with cracked soft wheat flour, as well as whole aniseed, sesame seeds, and mahlep, the tiny dried fruit of the wild cherry.

We continued to the southern village of Zawtar, near Nabatiyeh, where I met Mohamad Ali Neimeh, who has pioneered the cultivation of zaatar, or thyme, which has historically been collected in the wild. It was not the actual plant that I was after but rather a unique zaatar mix. Taking me out to his field of aromatic thyme, Mohamad showed me how his crop is harvested, dried, and then processed. The zaatar mix is composed of thyme, sumac (rumex dentatus, a powerful acidulant), toasted sesame seeds, salt, and sometimes other spices. This mixture of dry herbs and spices is typically used as a garnish for labneh and other dairy products such as shankleesh as well as serving as the main ingredient in the topping for manakish (zaatar pies). Neimeh explained that the best quality zaatar comes from Lebanon; other zaatar mixes are inferior in quality and are basically dried, flavored, and minced thyme stalks packaged and sold at rock bottom prices.

After nine weeks of traveling all over the country, up mountains and down valleys, and crashing the car a few times in potato fields in Akkar, I reconsidered everything. As a result of these trips, I gained a new respect for the farmers and hard-working individuals in our country and changed the food in my kitchen. Freekeh is now on the table several times a week as my family and I are trying to replace rice with healthier, local, and better tasting products such as freekeh and burghul.

I also made some other changes in my life. I decided not to go to medical school but to shift to agriculture instead. I've just finished my BS in biology and will pursue a second degree in agriculture at FAFS. In early January, I was introduced to the Slow Food movement. A group of us have decided to start a chapter at AUB-part of the Slow Food on Campus program. Slow Food AUB will be in full swing by fall 2008. Its mission is going to be to promote good, clean, and fair food on campus and in our surrounding community. Through Slow Food AUB, I hope to introduce my fellow students to their food heritage and to the same treasures that I have discovered in my research around Lebanon, and to connect them with the food they eat. Slow Food AUB will work with the community of food producers in Lebanon to support and celebrate the food traditions of our region and to create a more environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable food system on campus through advocacy and education. We want our campus cafeteria to become a Slow Cafeteria where all the food that is used is locally grown, fairly purchased, healthy, and seasonal.

It has been a year since my fieldwork ended, and my family is still eating more healthily. We've switched to seasonal organic produce grown by local producers, and we eat more traditional products such as freekeh, shankleesh, and labneh. I hope we'll be able to convince others at AUB to do the same.

Sami Abdul Rahman (BS '08)

More On-line

I gained a new respect for the farmers and hard-working individuals in our country and changed the food in my kitchen. Freekeh is now on the table several times a week as my family and I are trying to replace rice with healthier, local, and better tasting products such as freekeh and burghul.

Slow Food

What is Slow Food?
Slow Food is a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions, and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. Slow Food now has 85,000 members in 132 countries. Check www.slowfood.com to find a convivium near you.

Slow Food Beirut

Slow Food Beirut is a Lebanese convivium and NGO that seeks to promote a good, clean and fair food system. Check their website for information on events, Earth Markets (Souk el Ard) and information on the terroir of Lebanon.
www.slowfoodbeirut.org

Out this fall-a short movie for schoolchildren filmed and produced by Lebanese cinematographer Carol Mansour of Forward Productions. The movie, which narrates and shows how products like labneh, zaatar, mwaraka, markouk, and cedar honey are made and can be consumed, introduces traditional foods to children.

"From Akkar to Amel-Lebanon's Slow Food Trail"

"From Akkar to Amel-Lebanon's Slow Food Trail" will be published in September 2008 and will discuss in detail the 25 Lebanese heritage foods highlighted in this research. The book is written by Rami Zurayk and Sami Abdul Rahman and photographed by Tanya Traboulsi. Both the book and Slow Food AUB will be launched at the Terra Madre biannual summit in Turin, Italy in October 2008.

Ambaress / Sirdaleh a goat milk labneh fermented in earthen pots-Barouk
Arak clear, aniseed flavored, alcoholic beverage made from grapes-Kfar Aaqab
Awarma spiced and salted cured sheep or goat meat preserved in fat-Nabi Sheet
Burghul cracked and boiled wheat-Zahleh
Aasal Al-Arz cedar honey, a honey dew honey from the famous Cedrus libani-Barouk
Darfieh goat milk cheese ripened in goat's skin (darif)-Ehden
Dibis El-Inab grape molasses, velvety concentration of grape juice-Barouk
Dibis El-Kharoub carob molasses, syrup from concentrated marinade of crushed carob beans-Deir El-Mkhalis
Dibis El-Rimen pomegranate molasses, citrusy concentrate of pomegranate juice-Joun
Figs the fruit produced by Ficus carica (the fig tree)-Roum
Freekeh roasted green wheat-Chamaa
Kishik crushed and powdered, fermented cracked wheat (burghul) in yoghurt-Laboue
Kishik Al-Khameer fermented cracked wheat in water (vegan kishik)-Majdelzoun
labneh drained yoghurt in clothe bags-Taanayel
Markouk Bread a flat, super thin bread baked on the saj (inverted heated wok)-Kfar Faqoud
Mawared rose water, distillate of the Damascus rose (Rosa damascene)-Qsar Naba
Mazaher orange blossom water, distillate of Seville or bitter orange's blossoms-Maghdouche
Moullat Al-Smid a thin crispy semolina cracker made of burghul, flour, olive oil and sesame-Deir Kanoun
Mirweih a local, white, and large sized grape variety used for both arak and wine-Kfar Aaqab
Mishtah el-Jreish southern type of bread made with burghul, flour and aniseed-Deir Kanoun
Mwaraka a sweet pastry filled with walnuts and almonds and flavored with Mazaher-Aamchit
Salamouni a rare low yielding wheat variety, indigenous to Lebanon-Ham
Shankleesh yoghurt based, mold ripened, herb flavored cheese molded into balls-Rahbe
Tannour thick bread baked on the walls of a heated earthen pit-Baalbeck
Zaatar a fragrant mix of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt-Zawtar