March 16, 2010  •  Category:

OOps!!! I made a mistake!

After receiving a comment from Maria, I got besieged by doubts on my previous statement –namely that Lebanese cuisine was based on ghee, not olive oil-so I e-mailed Kamal Mouzawak!!!

Kamal is Lebanon’s foremost authority on culinary traditions. I interviewed him back in January and wrote about it.

Here is what he said: Lebanese cuisine used olive oil in cooking because it was the only oil available!!!

(I should have checked with him first!)

My apologies!!!

So, to recap correctly this time! Lebanese cuisine uses:

A. Olive oil, first and foremost, since olive trees are our second national tree after the cedar (source: Chef Ramzi, The culinary Heritage of Lebanon)

B. Samneh or ghee

C. Sheep tail fat, but more as a condiment.

Some people like to make their own samneh, by clarifying butter at home; for detailed instructions, check Arlette’s post. In Lebanon, the Bedouins of the Bekaa Valley are skilled at making the clarified butter; their clarified butter is so pure and so potent that you only need a teaspoon of it to flavor an entire dish (according to Chef Ramzi’s in his Culinary Heritage of Lebanon).


There is yet another type of fat used a lot in Lebanese cuisine, namely sheep tail fat, aka leeyeh; I remember one day seeing a whole mutton in the kitchen and noticing the fat, round tail of the animal. Needless to say, this type of fat is not available in the US. In Lebanese cooking, this fat is sold at every butcher shop; it is used a lot as a way to add  flavor to a dish without adding any meat! Some so-called vegetarian kibbeh are stuffed with this sheep tail fat or leeyeh and some onions and sumac spice. It is delicious but I know you are thinking, “Hmmm…we will have to see about that!” For a nice photo of a sheep with the fat tail and a post detailing sheep-tail fat, check Pomegranate and Zaatar‘s blog.

What type of fat do you use? (I am curious!)


31 Comments  •  Comments Feed

  1. peter says:

    An educational post..did not know ghee was the preferred fat for cooking and olive oil for dunking. As you know, us Greeks primarily use olive oil for dunking bread and cooking and butter is more of a regional ingredient and often used with phyllo.

  2. sabah says:

    I use olive oil in almost all my recipes, also in salads, may be because I grow up seeing my mother cooking with it. Sometimes I use canola oil, as you said.
    For the sheep fat, we add it to paprika, onions, parsley and we stuff bread called “Msemen’ with it.
    Thank you for you post, it was both interesting and informative, for example, I didn’t know that libanon didn’t use olive oil in the kitchen.

  3. tigerfish says:

    I use canola oil usually for Chinese cooking. Olive oil for dressing or pasta. A little bit of ghee to flavor Indian cooking.

  4. rebecca says:

    very interesting I thought it was olive oil lol
    I am on facebook as rebeccasubbiah

  5. Stamatia says:

    The Greek part of me uses olive oil, the Canadian part of me uses canola oil for things like stir-fries, and margarine in other situations. Usually this would be canola-based, but I use an olive oil-based margarine as a healthier (and tasty) compromise! If I do fry something in margarine or butter (on occasion), I’ll drizzle a bit of olive oil in to keep it from burning.

  6. SE says:

    Ghee is a must to garnish the dishes in Indian cuisine…and by the way..you can find the clarified butter/ghee in all the Indian stores in US !!

  7. noobcook says:

    This is something new to me. Learnt more about Lebanese cooking from your site =D

  8. Bria says:

    Olive oil. I was using butter and ghee, but I’ve cut way back on dairy and rarely cook with them anymore. Coconut oil is a nice, neutral alternative, and I have had good results using it in recent months. Even though its fat is saturated, it’s actually now considered by many nutritionists and other health experts to be a “good” kind of saturated fat.

  9. Maria says:

    I discovered your site a while ago and I like it’s earnestness in promoting the Lebanese cuisine and how your putting your heart in that mission.

    Concerning the fat used in the daily household cooking, it rather varied from one region to another, depending on their products. In my family, we cook with olive oil. My mother still remember how her grand-mother taught her how to chose the good olive oil by tasting it on a piece of bread, smelling and rubbing it on her hands. We still have, in our mountain house, the numerous “effeh” (gallons) dedicated to said oil as the family made their “mouneh” (reserve) from one “mawsam” (season) to another, a two years span. The ghee was, almost, reserved for pastries.

    The kind of meat differed from region to another.
    In my region, the Low Metn (coast) and Beirut, lamb meat was for “mechoui”, “nayeh” and Easter, otherwise they used beef in their everyday cooking.
    My friend is from Becharreh (the North region) and for them it was goat milk, cheese and meat. She discovered the cow milk when she went to the university in Beirut.

    I think, it goes the same for the use of pomegranate molasses and sumac powder in cooking, depending if you’re from the littoral, renowned for it’s citrus fruits, or other areas. We use the sumac, mostly, for fattouche salad and in winter for the spinach fattayer. It’s the same for my (coastal) friends.

    • Joumana says:

      Thanks for all the additional input! You are confirming to me how varied the Lebanese culinary heritage is from region to region, so extraordinary considering how small Lebanon is! Everybody I know used samneh for cooking traditionally; I think people now are using olive oil and giving up on samneh in contemporary lebanese cuisine.

  10. Joie de vivre says:

    So interesting! Thanks for this post! I use butter, olive oil, vegetable oil mainly.

  11. Sushma Mallya says:

    i use oil most of the time, but ghee certainly gives such a nice taste to the dishes used….esp for biryani i use only ghee…

  12. The Little Teochew says:

    Mostly soybean oil and canola oil. But sesame oil features greatly as a flavouring. 🙂 Because of its warming qualities, women who have just given birth eat foods cooked in pure sesame oil.

  13. Ivy says:

    I always use olive oil for cooking. In hot climates like Cyprus (as well as some Greek islands), olive oil has a more intense flavour, so although as you say we also consume a lot of raw olive oil, we use peanut oil for cooking. In modern cooking olive oil, imported from Greece, is now also used in cooking.

  14. amal says:

    Pour répondre à ta question:
    J’utilise le plus souvent l’huile d’olive, très rarement le ghee et les huiles de noix, de sésame, de pistaches et d’amandes. Bien sur aussi le beurre surtout dans la pâtisserie.
    Malgré tout l’huile d’olive reste l’élue de mon coeur…:-)

  15. Joanne says:

    I have to say I am all about the olive oil…but I do like ghee a lot as well. I’ve never tried either of those other fats..and I’ve never even seen them in the US!

  16. Simply Life says:

    Thanks for sharing all this!

  17. Christine's Recipes says:

    Exactly the same as tigerfish, I also use canola oil for Chinese stir-frying and pan-frying, olive oil for dressing salad and pasta.

    Thanks so much for your concern. My finger is getting completely recovered. Now I’m back to my kitchen and cook again with gloves on though.

  18. Astra Libris says:

    I really enjoyed reading this informative post! I use olive oil for everthing – even baking! 🙂
    P.S. Thank you so much for your comment on my blog! 🙂

  19. Maninas says:

    Interesting post. Now that you ask, I realise I use loads of different things: butter, ghee, olive oil, vegetable oil, groundnut oil, coconut oil (ocasionally), sesame oil. I even bought mustard oil this weekend to try it out!

  20. Mathai says:

    We Indians traditionally used a lot of ghee in everyday cooking but now due to concerns about heart disease its reserved only for special occasions 🙁 We fry cashew nuts, spices and raisins in ghee to add to our traditional sweets and the flavor is amazing!
    For daily use its mostly Canola oil for cooking and Olive oil for dressings.

  21. kano says:

    Hi Joumana

    Great post as always. I use Ghee and olive oil depending on the dish. For most hot meat-based main dishes I use ghee and for vegetarian dishes I use olive oil. I use Vegetable oil for deep frying. As in America, we don’t have Leyeh here in London.

    I think people choice has changed with time. In my grandparents house when my mum was a child they used to use olive oil for everything including deep frying. They used Ghee for rice dishes mainly. Vegetable oil didn’t even exist at the time. Things changed with time and people started to use more and more samneh and vegetable oil. Most recently olive oil made a strong return into modern Syrian cooking partly due to health awareness and partly due to people exploring and valuing their culinary heritage. Similar trends can be seen in most countries and cuisines.

  22. Arlette says:

    Marhaba Joumana
    Seems that I missed an important posting… In my family we grew up using olive oil and samneh, since my mom is from Baalback, she often made her samneh from clarified butter, also the Qawwarma for the Winter Mouneh. I remember that we used to visit some friends in the south, who grew their own olive trees and we buy from them our olives and olive oil for the whole year mouneh. Also the best way to taste the freshly squeezed olive oil is dipping the bread and eating it with some salt.
    Pomegranate and Sumac are popular in the Baalback Region maybe because it’s available in your garden. My mom used to do her own Pomegranate molasses…I remember that we had in the Kroum pomegranate, sumac and Walnut (Jouz).
    I think Lemon was more popular in the coastal cities where they grow lots of citrus trees.

    Now this is a question for you… have you ever tasted fresh walnut picked green from the tree… the best part your hands to brown turns to dark brown like Henna, kids imagination

  23. Stella says:

    Hey Joumana, I just saw your comment on my post with quick pastry dough. This recipe is one I altered from an old file in my handwritten recipes. It originally involved sour cream and a different amount of butter (a little less) I upped it and just subbed in yogurt one day, because it was all I had! Well, now I know I like Sambusek…
    Oh, and on the fats/oils subject, is smen used in Lebanese cooking?

    • Joumana says:

      I am not sure! smen could be the same thing as our samneh which is made from cow’s butter. Is smen fat from cows? I could look it up in my Morrocan cookbook.

  24. farida says:

    It was interesting to learn Lebanese cooking is olive oil based mostly. For some unknown reason I thought it was clarified butter:) Azerbaijani food is mostly clarified butter and vegetable oil, and less olive oil. Sheep tail fat? yes, we use it too, but mostly add it to kabab mixtures or dolma stuffings.

  25. Diane says:

    The fats I use depend on what I am cooking. So…for Indian food, which I cook a lot, I use canola oil or home-made ghee (or sometimes and rarely coconut oil for south Indian food in which I want that particular taste). For east Asian I use peanut oil. And for everything else I mostly use olive oil.

  26. Emil says:

    Hi Joumana I ABSOLUTLY love you work. Just a comment on Lebanese cuisine, Lebanon is a very small country but its cuisine varies greatly in every region. To simplify the argument between oil or samne North and South Lebanon use mainly olive oil as it is very plentiful, the Bekaa plain and Mount Lebanon use a mixture of oil and samne firstly the Syrian & Turkish influence was greater secondly the supply of butter was much more plentiful. There is a general rule most meat dishes you use Samne and nearly all Vegetarian dishes are made with Olive oil with the exception of Lentil soup.

  27. Sarah says:

    In Belgium, they use beef fat to bake the French fries. I only use olive oil to cook everything except of the fries I fry them in sunflower oil.

  28. Lynn says:

    I have been looking to make toum. All the recipes I’ve found call for canola oil due to its neutral flavor. However, we do NOT eat canola oil as it is the genetically modified version of the rapeseed. My question is: what was the traditional oil used to make toum BEFORE canola oil became a thing?

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