Lebanon is well known for nut-filled baklava oozing with rosewater. // © 2017 Creative Commons user alixaneurphoria
Feature image (above): A shawarma sandwich stuffed with lamb, pickles and tahini is a popular lunch item in Lebanon. // © 2017 Creative Commons user avlxyz
You may recognize Lebanon from news headlines and stories in the early 2000s, at a time when war and danger were its defining characteristics. But after years of recovery and relative peace, its reputation is beginning to change. Tourism is slowly on the rise. And as more people discover what this tiny-yet-enchanting Mediterranean country has to offer, it’s increasingly celebrated for what it truly is: a mecca for culinary enthusiasts.
From lavish restaurant meals to quick and cheap street food bites, there are many dishes to discover when visiting the country. Prepare your palate for a spice-heavy, citrus-laced, rosewater-infused ride through some of Lebanon’s must-try food experiences.
Watch a Manousheh Cook on a Saj
You’ll smell manousheh, the tantalizing Lebanese-style flatbread, before you see it. And once you smell it, you’ll surely follow your nose to the closest bakery to buy it. But while manousheh looks and smells similar to pizza, the toppings are quite different.
Before it is cooked on a saj (a round, dome-like griddle) or baked in a pizza oven, it is brushed with a mixture of oil and zaatar (an herb mixture traditionally consisting of ground wild thyme, toasted sesame seeds, marjoram, oregano, salt and occasionally sumac). This is the typical way to eat manousheh, but other toppings, such as halloumi cheese (a salty cheese that crisps and only slightly melts under heat) or tomatoes can be added upon request. Once cooled, a spoonful of labneh (a fresh cheese similar to Greek yogurt) is a customary addition as well.
Where to Get It: It’s easy to find a bakery shop, often called a “fern,” popping out manousheh during breakfast and lunch hours in almost any small town in Lebanon. For one of the best in the country, head to Fern Ghattas, a well-known, ancient spot serving manousheh that features a soft, blistered dough and top-quality zaatar.
Sit Down for a Three-Hour Mezze Dinner
Most of the traditional restaurants in Lebanon will offer a choice of mezze-style dining. Similar to Spanish tapas, mezze consists of an array of small dishes, which fill up the dining table over a period of three or four hours.
The experience begins with an offering of mixed nuts before an assortment of cold appetizers, such as hummus and tabbouleh salad, arrives. The hot appetizers are next, including kibbeh meat pies and fried halloumi cheese, with the main event of fish and skewered meats following shortly after. Once you’re positive you can’t fit another morsel of savory food in your stomach, you will be moved to a new table, where sliced fruits and an assortment of desserts await you.
Where to Get It: About a half-hour east of Beirut, Kasr Fakhreddine in Broummana presents a meat-centric mezze meal overlooking a lush mountain side. The restaurant itself is expansive and opulently designed, contributing to the lavish, over-the-top meal experience its full mezze dinner is sure to deliver.
Pick Your Own Fish to Fry at a Restaurant by the Sea
With coastal views and an abundance of fresh fish, Lebanon is an ideal country to celebrate your love of seafood. Many of the restaurants that overlook the sea specialize solely in fish and other sea creatures, so don’t arrive with hopes of ordering a steak.
Upon entry, you will be shown an icebox of the restaurant’s fresh catches of day, which can range from mullet and sea bass to sea urchin and tiger prawns. Your selections are then weighed and cooked to your liking, with fried, baked and salt-crusted options.
Where to Get It: It’s hard to beat a seafood dinner at Chez Sami, where you can sit on the wooden terrace and watch the Mediterranean Sea ebb and flow against the sand. Besides the view, the fish is superb, the service is impeccable and the fattoush salad is so good you’ll beg for the recipe.
Grab a To-Go Shawarma Sandwich
If you don’t have time to sit for a long meal, the next best option is a shawarma sandwich. Marinated meat that’s cooked slowly on a spit is shaved onto a fresh pita bread upon order; then topped with pickles, fresh veggies and tahini sauce; and, finally, wrapped into a long tubular sandwich. Lamb is the traditional shawarma meat, but it can also be made with beef, chicken, turkey or veal.
Where to Get It: Though it’s difficult to find a disappointing shawarma sandwich in Lebanon, there are a few standout spots, such as Restaurant Joseph in Sin el Fil and Abul3ezz in Dekwaneh.
Bring Home a Bag of Lebanese Nuts
What makes Lebanese nuts unique is not so much the nuts themselves, but the combination of nuts, seasonings and roasting techniques used to create the special mixed bags. My favorite, the addictive kri kri nuts, are whole, roasted peanuts baked with a crunchy-sweet coating that’s made from a mixture of flour and sugar.
Where to Get It: Alrifai is by far the most famous and popular nut shop in Lebanon. You can find its store in downtown Beirut, but if you run out of time, you can always grab a few premade bags at the airport.
Stuff Your Face With Knefe in a Kaake
Thought it’s doused with sugar syrup and can be cloyingly sweet, knefe is not classified as a dessert. When eaten properly, knefe is a hearty breakfast or a late-night meal enjoyed after clubbing.
The base of this dish is akkawai cheese, a white brine cheese that holds its form well under heat, resulting in a stretchy but not overly gooey texture when baked. It is topped with ground kataifi pastry mixed with ghee, which turns golden brown in the oven. Before being served, the tray of knefe is sliced into squares, drowned in syrup and stuffed into a thin, sesame, purse-shaped bun, called a kaake, to be eaten somewhat like a sandwich — a delectable, sweet and immensely filling sandwich.
Where to Get It: It’s impossible to miss the two chain sweetshops, L’Abeille D’or and SeaSweet, when driving through Lebanon. Not only are they on every corner, but they are also consistently busy through the wee hours of the night, providing never-ending trays of knefe stuffed into thick, brioche-like buns. But for a more traditional version, head to Amal Bohsali, where the kaake is thin and the knefe is more flavorful.
Stop on the Side of the Road for Summer Figs
When you buy a basket of figs at your local U.S. supermarket, you may find only one or two intact as well as exceptionally sweet fruits. Now, imagine — for the same price — receiving two, filled-to-the-brim bags of flawless figs bursting with so much sugar that they taste as if they were soaked in honey. These are the kinds of figs you can expect to buy on the side of the road in Lebanon.
Where to Get It: Native to the Middle East, figs can be found throughout the small country and have more than 750 varieties. The best way to buy them is to pull over as soon as you pass a small hut on the side of the highway where a farmer is selling his or her summer crop. I pulled off the highway Jbeil, located northeast of Beirut, just to have a taste. I left with more than a few bags.
Eat Layers of Stretchy Lebanese Ice Cream
On a hot summer day in Lebanon, it is extremely difficult to resist a cone of ice cream. But before you decide to splurge, be warned, this is not your typical creamy sweet treat.
Lebanese ice cream is made with mastic (a pine-scented resin that comes from the mastic tree), which is dissolved in hot water and can replace eggs as a stabilizing agent. It also gives the ice cream a chewy and shockingly stretchy texture, similar to that of chewing gum. If you’re going to try it, go with the classic flavors, such as rose water, ashta (Lebanese-style clotted cream enhanced with orange blossom water) or pistachio.
Where to Get It: If you find yourself in Achrafieh – one of the oldest districts of Beirut – it’s imperative that you stop by Hanna Mitri to experience Lebanese ice cream at its best. The tiny shop hasn’t changed since its opening in 1949, and neither have the recipes for the handmade ice cream. Best of all, the scoops are served in a traditional biscuit square cone, which tastes similar to a homemade sugar cookie.
Try an Assortment of Baklava
Many cultures consider baklava a staple dessert to their cuisine, with recipes across countries varying tremendously. In Lebanon, baklava is made of phyllo dough layers and sweetened with rosewater syrup. The filling is made purely of butter and nuts, ranging from pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pine nuts and almonds.
Where to Get It: Though Amal Bohsali makes a stellar knefe, the sweets shop is most known for is its flaky and addictive baklava. With employees constantly offering you samples, you’ll likely walk out of the store with a meal’s worth of baklava in your stomach and a case worth of baklava for your suitcase. Baklava is the best gift to bring home to your friends and family.
Cool off With a Lebanese Fruit Cocktail
Unlike in America, where fruit cocktail refers to plastic cups filled with overly sweet and unappealing diced fruit, fruit cocktails in Lebanon are the epitome of fresh and enticing. The colorful, crisp-looking variety of just-sliced fruit arrives packed tightly in a large glass atop a blend of thick fruit juice. The smoothie-like, pina-colada-reminiscent concoction is drizzled with honey, sprinkled with slivered almonds and topped with a heaping scoop of ashta.
Where to Get It: For the most showstopping and generously-portioned fruit cocktail, stop into Frulatte Resto in Jeita just outside of Beirut. They specialize in fruit cocktails but also offer pizza if you’re looking to have something savory on the side.