Food is a vital part of culture, and it’s not just the food itself, but also how it’s made. In Lebanon for instance, they say the finer you chop the parsley for tabbouleh the more love you’re putting into the salad. Kibbeh traditionally took a lot of strength to make; while today’s cooks usually blend ground meat with bulgur in machines, our grandmothers took time to beat the ingredients using stone mortar and pestles. Stuffed vine leaves are still time-consuming, taking hours to prepare, each little leaf carefully filled and folded. These delicious dishes are just part of the rich culinary heritage spanning the Levant, which is repackaged by chef Lara Ariss in a beautiful debut cookbook, Levantine Harvest: Flavors for all Seasons.
Ariss grew up in a household where food was made with a lot of love, so it’s no surprise she’s passionate about passing that love of food and cooking it to others. She recalls her mother and grandmother always preparing delicious meals using fresh ingredients grown on the family farm in south Lebanon by her father, an engineer by trade. Inheriting her parents’ love of working with their hands, and of food, she started baking at the age of nine and would talk to an imaginary camera, pretending to host her own cooking show. Thankfully, her understanding family allowed her the freedom to explore – and sometimes make a mess.
But while Ariss, a graduate of the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in London, has always felt comfortable in the kitchen, describing it as her playground, not everyone can relate. Today, many busy millennials are a lot more familiar with food delivery menus than kitchen tools and leave the cooking to older family members, deeming it a difficult and tedious chore.
Ariss insists cooking is not as hard as it might seem and for that reason, keeps her cookbook simple and accessible. She explains that methods have been simplified and portions have changed, adding that “[In the past] women would cook for the whole village. We’re not cooking like that anymore.”
Leafing through Levantine Harvest, which took about a year to cook up, you’ll discover recipes from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, some quite traditional, others with a modern twist. The language is easy, the recipes are unfussy and the vivid photos of ingredients and final results jump off the pages, begging to be eaten. A large selection of the recipes come from the author’s family, with others contributed by friends and their mothers.
A few of the recipes are a bit challenging, including the stuffed vine leaves, which she says is actually just time consuming, but not necessarily difficult. She also says people shy away from kibbe because they wrongly think it’s difficult to make. One of her favorite recipes in the book is a cheesecake that is certainly worth the effort. It’s made with ashta cream on a filo strand (shaarieh) base, topped with caramel and pistachios.
Her other favorite recipe made it to the cover: smokey aubergine and tahini (moutabbal) bruschetta, with pomegranate and nigella seeds. “It’s a new way of positioning moutabbal. I didn’t invent it, I just liked the way it really stands out on any table,” she explains.
Other dishes in Levantine Harvest use ingredients popular in regional cuisine that are now becoming internationally recognized, like bulgur and beetroot. In fact Lebanese food in general is trending, with restaurants ranging from casual bistros to award-winning establishments burgeoning all over the world, in cities with a lot of Lebanese expats such as New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and Paris, and more surprising locations like Mumbai, Bali and Hong Kong. For Ariss it’s obviously more than just a fad. “It’s healthy cuisine that tastes good, and it so happens that this is what I grew up with, it’s what I know best.”
While she acknowledges that young people are generally cooking less, she also points out that cooking, especially with trendy superfoods, is picking up. With her book Ariss taps into the market of the young and health-conscious who are hungry for Lebanese food, especially those who have left the nest and are perhaps abroad, giving them a gentle, simple, appetizing, well-photographed nudge.
Levantine Harvest also includes a forward by Australian-Lebanese Michelin star chef Greg Malouf, who Ariss describes as the “master of modern Middle Eastern cooking.” Aside from his immense success in the culinary field she appreciates his humility and kindness. “It’s nice to know that someone who’s so well established in the field is encouraging and giving me moral support on the start of a journey,” she says.
In parallel to the launch of Levantine Harvest on November 17, Ariss is scheduled to teach cooking classes at Beirut’s Kitchen Lab, walking students through select recipes in her book. Such classes evoke the communal cooking of the past, she remarks, adding, “You can either share the experience [of food] by inviting people to eat the final result or invite them to work on it with you.”
To Ariss, food says a lot about culture and the type of people the Lebanese are. “When you go into a Lebanese home you don’t have one main and one salad, you have a whole table filled with food, and the more food you make the more you’re honoring your guests,” she says, adding, “Through our food we are able to show our hospitality, our warmth and our love.”
Levantine Harvest is published by Rawiya Publisher & Literary Agent, and available at all major bookstores and on Amazon.com.