I started watching Chef Ramzi on Future TV a year or so ago. I especially enjoyed his segments on traditional Lebanese cuisine. On Saturdays, he would travel through the countryside, stop in a village and visit the local folks and watch them cook their homestyle dishes. I was fascinated. Then I learned that he had published a book on traditional Lebanese cuisine. I checked Amazon and when I found it available, ordered it with some trepidation. Similar to a Larousse Gastronomique, this book does not leave a stone unturned when it comes to traditional Lebanese cooking. It is a monumental work. The book itself weighs 5 pounds (I checked). There are hundreds of recipes and color photographs, a total of 525 pages and more than 600 recipes. The photographs make up 95% of the book. This is I believe the first time that a culinary professional has attempted to seriously explore authentic and traditional Lebanese cuisine from every corner of the country.
What I liked about it:
- This book is so thorough! Chef Ramzi and his team did not miss one area of Lebanon. From the Hermel and Akkar to Tyre and Bint Jbeil and everything in-between.
- The photographs are postcard quality. They render the dishes, yes, but especially the scenery and the environment that gave birth to them: the pine forests, the green valleys, the snow-capped mountains, the archeological sites at every turn, the ancient ports and citadels, the palaces and temples, the fortresses, the fossil quarries, the grottoes, the lakes, the springs, the waterfalls, the bays, the stone carvings, the frescoes, the mosaics….
- Chef Ramzi presents for each area a historical background as well as a report on the current situation.
- The preserved traditional industries such as the production of silk at Bsoos, the production of tableware at Jezzine, the artisan soap factory in Saida, the cheese makers such as the Jesuit monks in Ta’nayel, the olive oil makers, the tahineh factory, the moghrabiyyeh makers are all thoroughly documented (except for wine and spirits)… So, in effect, one gets the whole picture. A touristic guide and a cooking manual, all in one.
- I discovered dishes I had no idea existed and were used in Lebanon. Savory ma’karoon, tabboossat, marshoosheh, matmoorah, shmakhliyyeh, mahrooseh, barhooti, harqoossah, fakhtiyyeh, etc.. and several desserts such as hareq isba’o which means “he burned his finger” and is a type of bread pudding that Chef Ramzi claims is one of the best and considered the dessert of the poor, due to its simplicity.
- I discovered ingredients I was not aware of. When I was a child at school and during break we would often grab a wildflower we called hommaydah and suck on it because it was sour and lemony-tasting. Well, apparently, people in some areas use it in their cooking! Or, a spice mixture called kammooneh…
- Chef Ramzi explains the how and why of certain traditional ingredients: that grape molasses, for instance, was used to sweeten dishes before the introduction of sugar, which gave birth to khabissah, a pudding from the west Bekaa area.
What I did not like about it:
- Very often throughout the book the recipes are very succinct and the quantities are for commercial use. One recipe for pumpkin kibbe calls for 16 pounds of pumpkin, another for lentil soup lists 1 whole cup of crushed garlic! So, unless you are an experienced cook with a background in Levantine or Lebanese cooking, you will find them challenging.
If it was up to me, I would proclaim this book a national treasure and would ask Chef Ramzi to create in Lebanon an Institute of Lebanese Gastronomy. It is high time the Lebanese realize that our culinary traditions need to be preserved at all costs. When I read an article in the Daily Star (Lebanese daily in English) about the cupcake craze in Beirut, I am not happy. Sure, it is great to adopt culinary confections from other cultures for a while, as long as we protect our own. Here is what Chef Ramzi says in his introduction: “.. The young Lebanese, dazzled by these new fashions, neglect a centuries old cuisine, based on the produce of our land, breathing the air of our country, warmed in the sun of Lebanon and nourished by its water, modeled by our customs and traditions, our feasts and festivities”. After all, didn’t the West proclaim Lebanese cuisine to be one of the healthiest in the world? We should not turn our backs on it.
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