1. Tell us about your cultural background?
My maternal grandfather (“jiddo”) came to America from Aitou, Lebanon around 1920 to establish himself. Aitou is a small town in the hills just southeast of Tripoli. He started a restaurant and grocery store in Peoria, Illinois—and then “sent for” my grandmother (“sittee”) along with my uncle and one of my aunts (who were little kids at the time). After arriving in America, my mother was born, along with three more aunts.
2. What do you wish people new about your cultural foods?
Lebanese food is included under the Mediterranean cuisine umbrella. But there are significant differences in cuisines by region. Lebanon is part of the Middle East, which is in the eastern Mediterranean area. The food may seem meatier than the western parts of the Mediterranean, like Italy and Spain. Lamb is a popular meat. However, fresh produce, whole grains, chickpeas, and olive oil are all a major part of Lebanese cuisine, which is why it’s considered healthful overall.
Interestingly, foods consumed tend to be quite local—or hyperlocal—in Lebanese cuisine. For instance, my mom’s family was raised in the hills of Lebanon where there are no fish! So, the Lebanese food I grew up eating includes absolutely no fish. Also, you could say that the Middle East is the birthplace of flexitarianism. Due to religious, income, or accessibility factors, meaty Lebanese foods can be made without meat, like vegetarian grape leaves, spinach fatayer (hand pie), and potato kibbeh instead of their traditional lamb counterparts.
To know Lebanese food is to simply eat it, not read about it. So, whenever you have the opportunity, try some. It’s way more than just hummus!
Lebanese food is considered “love.” You can’t visit a Lebanese household without being fed. It’s actually considered somewhat of an insult if you don’t eat when offered food, even if you don’t want it.
3. What are some of your culture’s health-related values, beliefs, and practices?
My mom and her family were Maronite Lebanese Christians. Maronite is a form of Catholicism; their beliefs will vary from Muslim Lebanese people. I was raised as a Maronite. During holy days, abstinence is generally practiced, which means eating no meat or dairy products. Modern day practices vary.
Similar to many other nationalities, a fat child is usually considered to be a healthy child. “Dieting” is not a traditional part of the Lebanese culture, but that’s changing now. The traditional family roles of men being the “breadwinners” and women taking care of the home and family are still practiced by most. And lucky for me, women are generally the cooks of the family. I only knew delicious food growing up! (Though, my mom was actually a caterer, too.)
As a girl, my mother always emphasized that it’s important for young Lebanese women to present themselves attractively to men. This Ohio girl almost always wore dresses (and no jeans!) as a child.
4. What family food traditions are most important to you?
Even though I’m half-Lebanese (my dad is mostly Irish), our family food traditions were almost always 100% Lebanese, especially since we lived near many Lebanese relatives. (And, of course, any Lebanese woman was considered my “aunt.”) Being with family on holidays and having an enormous spread of food (meze) is an important part of what makes me who I am.
I don’t think there has ever been a time that less than a dozen dishes (at least half of them vegetarian) were on a celebration table, such as hummus, baba ghanoush, labneh, pita (“talami”) or Syrian flatbread, fattoush or tabbouleh, Lebanese rice, stuffed grape leaves, fatayer (spinach or lamb pies), kibbeh siniyeh (baked meat/bulgur wheat dish), kibbeh nayyeh (it’s raw like beef tartare), loubyeh (a stewed green bean and tomato dish), and baklava.
5. Tell us about your comfort foods.
When I’m stressed, feeling unwell, or missing family and friends, I do enjoy comfort foods. My comfort foods are almost always something Lebanese—often hummus with warm pita for something quick. Or if I have more time, I’ll make a personalized meze platter of plant-based Lebanese picks.
6. What kind of foods do you like to eat on a regular basis?
The foods I eat regularly are leftovers, which I like to call “vintage cuisine.” Since I spend so much of my professional time developing recipes, I tend to have lots and lots of food testing projects—and ingredients left from these projects—in my fridge and freezer at all time. I build my vegetarian (often vegan) meals and snacks around these foods so nothing goes to waste!
7. What are your favorite resources for finding recipes and/or ingredients?
My favorite way to get inspired is to dine out (or carryout) from restaurants when I don’t have recipe project leftovers on hand. From there, I do find plenty of culinary inspiration browsing Instagram, especially the Reels. For ingredients, I love browsing the shelves at Kalustyan’s in New York City; it’s a specialty market that has probably every spice that you’ve never heard of! This all helps to spark ideas for my own cooking. And even though I develop recipes for a living, I rarely actually use recipes (except for baked goodies). That’s a hand-me-down practice from my mother—she only used “love” and her hands to cook, never a recipe … not even if it was my recipe.
Would you share a plant-based recipe from your food tradition with us? Why did you pick this recipe?
Fattoush with Heirloom Tomatoes:
Fattoush is a Middle-Eastern salad that features pita (which is also called “talami”) and contains cucumber, tomatoes, and mint. It was my favorite salad as a child. This updated version offers a delicious twist that showcases za’atar flatbread chips and heirloom tomatoes.
Yield: 4 servings
Za’atar Flatbread Chips:
- 5 to 6 ounces (155 to 170 grams) soft, thin middle eastern flatbread or pita, ideally whole grain
- 2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 teaspoon za’atar seasoning (or mixture of dried thyme and sesame seeds)
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Lemony Sumac Vinaigrette:
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice (juice of 1 lemon)
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses, or to taste
- 3/4 teaspoon ground sumac
- 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 cup (59 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 hearts of Romaine, roughly chopped (about 7 ounces/200 grams chopped)
- 1/3 cup packed (8 grams) small fresh mint leaves, torn if necessary
- 6 ounces (170 grams) English or Persian cucumbers, sliced (about 1/2 English cucumber)
- 1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 3 small radishes, extra-thinly sliced (optional)
- 3 medium Heirloom tomatoes, cut into small wedges, patted dry
- To make the Za’atar Flatbread Chips: Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Line a large baking sheet with unbleached parchment paper. Cut flatbread into large bite-size pieces. (If using pita, split it open first.) In a large bowl, toss together the flatbread pieces, olive oil, za’atar, and salt to evenly combine. Arrange the pita pieces in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake util crisp and golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer chips directly to a cooling rack to allow to cool and further crisp.
- To make the Lemony Sumac Vinaigrette: Shake together all ingredients in a jar.
- To make the Fattoush Salad: In a large salad bowl, lightly toss together the lettuce, mint, cucumber, onion, radishes (if using), and half of the Za’atar Flatbread Chips (whole or broken). Arrange onto salad plates, top with tomatoes, and drizzle with the Lemony Sumac Vinaigrette. Add a pinch of sea salt, if desired. Serve the remaining chips on top of the salads or on the side.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?