When I think of the Lebanese kitchen I think of falafel, hummus, and pita, but not much else. Recently, I asked a friend what she knew of the cuisine, and she said the same thing. So I checked out a Lebanese cookbook from the local library. And there it sat, in my kitchen, for a month, untouched.
The cookbook was Salma Hage’s The Lebanese Kitchen. The first time I opened it was daunting. The cookbook is over 500 pages long, and includes recipes from Hage as well as guest chefs. There are recipes for pita and hummus, but also for yogurt and spice mixes, jams, pickles, and drinks. There are pictures of food, of people, of Lebanon. Hage even included a history of Lebanese cuisine. And yet it sat, untouched. Daunting.
And then came a combination of internal and external forces that motivated me to open the book and pick a recipe. Any recipe. I picked one that seemed to have a good combination of familiar and “exotic.” One that made me think simultaneously of the past and the future. So I decided to make a dish Hage calls lamb and sumac turnovers (فطائر لحم الغنم والسماق).
In the South, I would deep fry them and call them fried pies; in Europe, boiled and called pierogi; in Spain and everywhere influenced by the Spanish, they would be fried or baked and called empanadas. Everyone has a version of dough stuffed with deliciousness and cooked.
I also picked this recipe from the Lebanese kitchen because it looked fairly easy and I had most of the ingredients already. The dough consists of two types of flour, whole wheat and all-purpose, yeast, salt, olive oil, and water. It’s a pretty basic bread recipe. The filling was slightly more difficult, but not by much. The stuffing was ground lamb, onion, toasted pine nuts, ground sumac, salt and pepper. The lamb and pine nuts were easily found at my local grocery store (though I did end up toasting the nuts myself).
The sumac, however, was a different story. I knew sumac would be available in the Arabic grocery stores outside the city, but I didn’t want to leave the District. Someone suggested a particular grocery store in a very international part of town. And there it was. Not in the minimum of five varieties and sizes as with many spices, there were only two. But at least it was there.
So on a cool, drizzly Wednesday, I set about my first real attempt at trying out a recipe from the Lebanese kitchen. The whole process was pretty easy, though it took me much longer than the estimated time. I sifted flour, added yeast, mixed water and oil, and made dough. It sat; I chopped onions and cooked up some lamb. The hardest and most time consuming part came when rolling out the dough into little balls and then into circles. That is always my least favorite part about making this type of dish.
You need lots of hands and lots of counter space, neither of which I have. Once the circles had stuffing, the edges were folded up and pressed to keep all the goodness inside. Then they were brushed with egg and baked. They came out golden brown, and the warmth from the oven and warm aromas made the chilly May afternoon less dreary. As soon as they were done, I ate three of them.
They were so warm. I don’t mean just warm from the oven, but the kind of warm that gets down to the core, to the soul. An instant comfort food. Whether it was the lamb, the sumac, or the bread I’m not sure. But for me, it was the same kind of warmth I get from anything with cloves, even cold dishes. A spice, a heat, but not spicy.
I ate these little turnovers fresh and hot, room temperature, and cold, they were delicious every single time. I shared them with friends who have lived in the region, who said it took them back.
As much as I love them, there is one thing I will change next time: the ratio of filling to dough. For me, there wasn’t enough filling and when they were finished, as the pocket was a little empty. Next time I’m going to either cut the dough recipe, maybe in half, or make more filling. This is either a personal preference or a maker’s error. Likely the latter.
This was my first real foray into Lebanese cooking and I consider it a success. At first I was very overwhelmed flipping through this massive cookbook of foods I’ve never heard of, let alone eaten. But after making even one dish and continuing to look at the other recipes, I’m starting to feel like the Lebanese kitchen is something I can actually bring to my little D.C. apartment.