I am just back from Beirut where I saw my beautiful mother and of course every time I visit her, I ask her to cook something delicious for me. This time I was modest in my request and asked for mujaddara, a simple lentils, onions and rice dish that is a staple of Lebanese Christians during Lent and once also a staple on spring cleaning days when the lady of the house put the lentils to cook while she and her maid/s beat the dust out of the carpets before putting them away, washed the floors and generally did a deep clean everywhere preparing the house for the summer months. I still remember the beating of the carpets although I don’t remember the mujaddara — mujaddara is the mushy version, almost like a dip while mudardarah is the dry version, a little like risotto although not at all wet – on those days! Anyhow, my mother now whizzes the lentils, rice and onions with a hand blender but in the old days she cooked them down to a mush over a low heat. And my mother being a totally wonderful woman, she obliged my whim and prepared mujaddara for me and as you see from the picture of the ingredients above it couldn’t be more frugal as a dish.
No visit to Lebanon, for me or for anyone elese for that matter, is complete without at least one manqousheh (or manousheh as they say it; most Lebanese people drop the q when they speak), the quintessential Lebanese breakfast. Most people will only eat manaqish (plural of manqousheh) made with their own za’tar and olive oil which they mix at home before taking it to their local baker for him to use with his dough (which by the way is the same as that for pita bread unless you are in the south but this is for another post) to make the manaqish, which are basically pizzas. The most common topping is za’tar but you can also have them topped with cheese or with cheese and za’tar or with kishk (a mixture of burghul and yoghurt that is first fermented then dried then ground very fine). The kishk is normally mixed with diced tomatoes, walnuts, sesame seeds and olive oil. These are the classic toppings but as with pizza you can use any topping you want.
Until I started researching Mediterranean Street Food, I only knew fatayer (Lebanese triangular savoury pastries) as dainty little triangles, made at home by my mother and grandmother who were uncanny in how perfectly they shaped them and how well they sealed them so that none of the juice from the filling trickled out to spoil the look of the golden triangles. I also ate fatayer in restaurants of course. They were a little less dainty and a little less sour and with more crust than filling. But somehow I had never had them from a bakery. Perhaps because my mother sent out toppings for manaqish to the bakery for the baker to make our manaqish but she always made the fatayer at home. Things change naturally and my mother is no longer so young and now has her fatayer made by Emile, our local baker whose dough is just amazing. Of course, his fatayer are not dainty — unless it is a special order bakers make large fatayer for people to have as a snack or as a quick lunch on the go — but they are just as good as my mother’s and when I saw the fresh baqleh (purslane) at the greengrocer, I bought some and asked my mother to make the filling to take to Emile for him to make the fatayer.
Today, I start a new chapter in my present career by writing a bi-monthly column for a beautiful new website called Qulture, covering arts, culture, entertainment and food mainly in Qatar but also elsewhere. My first column is about how I started being interested in food and when I began to cook. There is a lovely picture of my beautiful grandmother and aunt in their kitchen. My grandmother was a fabulous cook. She taught my mother and I in turn learned from both of them, so, I thought I would post another family picture of my grandmother, mother, aunt and uncles on Palm Sunday with us girls in front — I am in the middle in front of my aunt who seems to be adjusting something; my grandmother is carrying my baby brother and my beautiful mother had yet to go back to her normal svelte figure! — before we all went back to my grandmother’s home for a feast although the big feast would have had to wait until the following Easter Sunday which is the big day for feasting for Lebanese Christians. Far more important than Christmas Eve.