Friday, 3 July 2015

Breakfast in Beirut

Earlier this summer, I had the chance to visit Beirut. Being my first trip to the Middle East, I was desperate to taste my way around Lebanon, and of course investigate the breakfasts.

I love Lebanese food, so I knew I was in for a treat and my Middle Eastern adventure was full of the strong flavours of tabbouleh, olives and baklavas. That said, I had absolutely no clue what Lebanese people ate first thing in the morning, and I was quite surprised at how different breakfast is in Beirut - much more flavoursome than our full English.

In this post, I'm going to run through three Lebanese breakfasts I was lucky enough to try.

1. Ful medames and falafel: the traditional Lebanese breakfast

Egyptian in its heritage, ful is a Middle Eastern dish of cooked fava beans and chickpeas, served with vegetable oil, garlic, onion and lemon. It is considered a staple working man’s breakfast – you’re bacon and eggs if you will – and is eaten in the morning with tea across many Middle Eastern countries.

Traditionally served with flatbreads, pickled vegetables, mint and raw onion which is soaked in ice water to take the edge off. It takes the Western palate by surprise first thing in the morning. The soupy consistency of the bitter beans offset by the sharpness of lemon and undertones of garlic was unexpected, but the more I ate the more accustomed to the unusual flavours I became. I also love how nearly every Lebanese meal comes with a mezze of dishes which you share with your companions, proving how social, friendly and welcoming the culture is.

The Beirut street-side cafe we visited called Makhlouf also happened to be famous for its falafel, which was by far the best falafel I have ever tasted, but I have been told ful doesn't always come with these deep fried chickpea balls - which is a huge shame if you ask me.

2. Za'atar man'ouche: Lebanese breakfast pizza

Za'atar man'ouche is more of a grab-and-go breakfast which perfectly showcases the best of Lebanese bakeries with its warm blistered flatbread, gently charred and deliciously chewy.

This amazing bread is then coated in mixture of olive oil and za'atar – a Middle Eastern spice blend of sesame seeds and sumac and depending on the recipe often includes thyme, cumin or coriander. The spice blend is warm, comforting and powerful and the Lebanese describe it using an Arabic word which doesn't directly translate, but I was told za'atar helps to motivate your taste buds in the morning if you're a person who struggles to eat first thing. I happily came back to the UK with a mason jar full to the brim.

This is eaten either at home or picked up from one of the many bakeries around Beirut on the way to work, like us Westerners might grab a croissant. A handful of Lebanese still take their own dough and za'atar blends to the bakery and for a small charge use their industrial ovens.

It is then torn off into bite sized chunks and eaten with fresh garnishes of tomato, cucumber, mint and olives - yes olives for breakfast, finally a country where I can happily eat them morning, noon and night!

Alongside my za'atar man'ouche I also tried man'ouché b jibné which is the same tasty bread covered with cheese. You can also eat it with ground meat but then you are venturing into lunch or dinner territory, with these pizzas called laham bi ajeen, which incidentally I did try one evening. Laham bi ajeen is the thinnest crusted pizza loaded with strong lamb meat and spicy red peppers.  

3. Knafeh: the indulgent breakfast treat

Knafeh is a breakfast I liken to a stack of pancakes covered in maple syrup eaten on a special weekend morning – so in other words I think of knafeh as a treat that if eaten every day would probably eventually lead to a heart attack.

Knafeh is baked on a large round platter and looks like a golden cake and when cut up into portions its gooey centre is revealed. But it is not cream or custard as you might think, but cheese. To make the savoury/sweet conundrum even more confusing, the knafeh is covered in orange blossom syrup and then placed between a sesame seed bun.

I was on my way up to the mountain village of Harissa to visit Our Lady of Lebanon, so my knafeh was wrapped up and I curiously ate it on the Téléphérique cable car which took me up the mountain, as I soaked up the beautiful sights of Beirut and neighbouring Jounieh.

As expected the knafeh was rich, indulgent and savoury with a hit of sweetness from the sticky syrup. It was very heavy, and afterwards left me with the same feeling after devouring a stack of pancakes - an urge to either have a recovery snooze or burn off the calories with a long run.

I discovered a fantastic Lebanese-American blog recently called Rose Water & Orange Blossoms and it has a recipe for knafeh I might have to try one day.

A few more non-breakfast food photos

Beautiful Beirut - I can't wait to return...

Deserted beach: carrots with lemon and a dish of nuts always accompanies drinks

Fresh from the bakery: Fatyer sabanekh a miniature spinach filled pastry

Miniature za'atar man'ouche cooked traditionally at a wedding reception
I wish I could shop here every day - so fresh

The view from Harrisa

One night we indulged in baklavas from Sea Sweet and fruits called kirini 

A selection of Arabic ice creams which is a mixture of the creamiest ice cream and sorbet - make sure you try the rose and pistachio. 

In my tabbouleh-happy-place

Keep reading for more Lebanese inspired breakfasts, including a porridge as well as a lamb mince dish which is stirred through scrambled eggs.