A few months ago, I was scoping out Lebanese recipes online … because, well, that’s what I do in my spare time. Within a few minutes, I came across Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen, and I was hooked. Many of the recipes I came across — stuffed cabbage, rice pudding with pistachios, Lebanese shish tawook, wild thyme (za’atar) salad — were authentic, delicious and fairly easy to replicate in my kitchen. What more can a girl ask for? I am always excited to observe the slight variations and distinctions between quintessentially Middle Eastern recipes — for example, the stuffed cabbage rolls, which are also made in Egyptian cuisine, include garlic and the famous Lebanese 7 spice mixture, whereas in most Egyptian versions of the recipe, onion is used instead and the main spice used is dill. Of course, there are also regional variations in each culture, as well as personal touches. But the general differences are still interesting to note.
One of the coolest things about Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen is the fact that many of the recipes are super traditional. How do I know? Well, the whole site was built in honor of Mama’s authentic Lebanese recipes. Who is ‘mama’ , you may ask? Esperance Sammour was was “born and raised in Bakarkasha, a village in the mountains of Lebanon neighboring Becharri, the town of the world renowned author Khalil Jebran. She currently resides in Koura, North Lebanon. She inherited her cooking style from her late mother Mansoura and her late mother-in-law Mannoush who is from the village of Douma in Lebanon. Mom also adopted modern Lebanese recipes into her kitchen and added her special touch to them.” How fascinating! I interviewed Edgard Sammour about his Mama and his favorite food memories growing up, his opinion on what distinguishes Lebanese cuisine, and where he finds authentic Middle Eastern ingredients in the US. Read on to find out more!
Tell us a little bit about how Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen got started. What inspired you to share your mother Esperance Sammour’s recipes online?
One day in the summer of 2010, mom and I were talking about her old days as a kindergarten teacher, about how much she misses being busy, and how bored she currently is after retirement. I felt bad for her, and I realized that it must be quite difficult for a person to go from being fully productive to sitting around doing just hobbies. I also realized how extremely talented mom is in cooking as she was quite known in our circles for her amazing dishes, especially those that are old-school traditional Lebanese. So I thought that perhaps we could create a food blog whereby she emails us her recipes from Lebanon, and my wife and I who live in the United States would try then then publish them online. She loved the idea even though she knew that it won’t keep her that busy. However, little did I know how busy we will get instead!
In your opinion, what distinguishes Lebanese cuisine from other Middle Eastern cuisine?
When it comes to the areas of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Turkey, we tend to share more recipes and cooking styles among one another than with the rest of the Middle East. I came to this realization over this past year when many blog fans from the region commented that they too have their own national versions of many of our recipes. And I thought that for most of the part, those were purely Lebanese dishes! However if we dig into history, we find that the region was exposed to so many civilizations that spanned many countries simultaneously, and this naturally leads to the dissemination of staple foods, cooking products and styles in the region … so no wonder we tend to have similar dishes! However, one thing I noticed about Lebanese food is that perhaps in general, it tends to be loaded with more garlic, onions and olive oil at the base than in other neighboring countries’ dishes. It also tends to have more veggies, grains and greens and tends to be less spicy than others, whereby a good deal of the flavoring comes from onions and garlic instead.
What are your most memorable food experiences from childhood? How do these experiences influence the way you cook today?
When i think of memorable food experiences from childhood, many images replay in my mind. I used to love watching my grandmothers make their own bread at home. A few friends would come over and they’d all knead the dough together in a big container and let it rest overnight. The next morning around 4AM, they would all walk to someone’s backyard where they have a furn, or an outdoor oven that is dome-shaped and made of clay. They would fire it up with wood and would spend hours baking their bread on it along with some amazing pies with cheese, za’atar (thyme mix), labne (dried yogurt) or simply make olive oil pies. Life in the old days was tough, but was beautiful and more natural.
Other good memories come from the times when we kids would hang around mom and her friends during summer while they prepare their winter mouneh, which means “food provisions”. We spent our childhood summer in the town of Hasroun in North Lebanon, which was quite famous for its fresh fruits and vegetables. So mom and her buddies would get together a few days a week and prepare from scratch many types of jams, preserves, herbal teas, grape leaves, kibbeh balls, shish barak (meat dumplings), green beans — you name it; they prepared it. Many of those foods were not readily available in winter, and we did not like to buy processed food so this was our best way to extend summer harvest into winter.
For those who like making mouneh at home, I highly recommend the book Mouneh by Barbara Abdeni Massad which documents in detail how all those lovely “provisions” are traditionally prepared (the book is reviewed on our blog). Barbara traveled to Lebanon, one village after the other, and spent 5 years with villagers trying to understand the roots of their food traditions and documenting them. Her work is very valuable and authentic.
What are your favorite Middle Eastern ingredients, and where do you find them in the States?
To us the most commonly used ingredients are 1) labneh (yogurt), 2) dried mint, 3) sumac spices, 4) Lebanese 7-spices, 5) high-quality extra virgin olive oil, 6) Lebanese olives and 7) Lebanese bread (thin pita). Today we’re able to find all of those ingredients at our local Middle Eastern grocery store in New York. And we can even find some of them online on Amazon. If possible though we like to get our 7-spices from Lebanon when we visit, since it’s fresher there, and we also get our sumac and za’atar from there as well. And as for labneh, our most favorite brand is “Arz” which is made by Karoun farms in California; it’s hormone-free, and can be found in most Arab-owned grocery stores in the US.
What are the benefits of cooking your meals at home, in your opinion? Is it worth the extra time?
When we cook our food, we know exactly what goes in it. We have control over the quality of oils, veggies and especially the meats. We try to cook with organic ingredients as much as possible in our home to avoid pesticides, GMOs and artificial hormones (we’re fans of your other blog as well, My Life in a Pyramid because of its focus on healthy living). And it’s virtually impossible to find restaurants that care as much about quality ingredients as someone would care for in his or her own home. So quality is the main benefit of cooking at home, then freshness, and flavor; so it absolutely is worth the time even though practically this is not always possible.
What are your favorite “twists” on traditional Lebanese meals?
In general we try to stick to the original and traditional recipes because we love them as they are. However, when we’re in the mood, my wife Sarah and I “garlic” things up a bit more. And thanks to her Indian descent, she brings in another dimension to the kitchen and occasionally makes Lebanese dishes with an Indian highlight to them (Indian spices, ginger…etc). Truly, it is a lovely fusion.
Favorite Lebanese recipe? I know that’s a hard one – so what about two answers, one savory and one sweet?
What’s the hardest thing about blogging, in your opinion? What about the most exciting thing?
You know, I originally thought that food blogging is simply about writing recipes but this couldn’t be further from the truth. There is so much that goes on in food blogging than meets the eye. When we first started, a simple recipe used to take us 5-10 hours in total, including the time of cooking and re-cooking, and then comes photography, editing, writing, blogging, etc. It’s no secret that many recipes have already been published online long ago and can easily be found on search engines. So we didn’t simply want to just post yet another recipe. And if we were to do that, blogging would have been much easier since translating mom’s recipes from Arabic would take just a few minutes and we’re done. However we decided that we want to test and try every recipe personally and understand its depth in order to be able to relay it in simple terms to our audience. As for the most exiting thing about blogging, it’s the pleasure of sharing. We love it when we get comments from people successfully trying our recipes, and we love it when we interact with so many folks from all over the world, especially second and third generation Lebanese who recall our dishes from the cooking of their grandparents.
What do you like most about midEATS? Where do you think we can improve the most? How about this: favorite midEATS blog posts?
I like many things about your blog. First, the fact that it’s about Middle Eastern food, which is my favorite. Second, the posts are rich and well written, and they project a lively and personal style. I also like the photography and the cleanliness and neatness of the website. And I like how you guys feature more than just recipes and how you care about details such as the quality of ingredients (focus on organic, non-GMO, etc). This makes it a rich food blog and that is why a few months ago when I came across it I decided to link to it from our own blog. As for favorite blog posts, the one that tops them is the grape leaves stuffed with minced beef and rice.
What aspirations do you have for Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen?
To be honest we don’t have clear long term goals, we take it and enjoy it day by day and we enjoy the interactions we have with our fans through the blog and our facebook page. So more of that is good but if I were to travel forward in time and look back, I’d love for the blog to become a reference for traditional Lebanese cooking with a focus on hard-to-find recipes.
Featured Recipe from Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen: Hot Garlic Potatoes
Most people I know would list potatoes at the top of the list of their favorite foods … so when trying to pick which recipe to highlight from the extensive selection on Mama’s Lebanese Kitchen, I knew I found a winner when I came across hot garlic potatoes! Judging from the interview and the recipes on the blog, garlic is a beloved ingredient in Lebanese cuisine, so I thought it would be appropriate to feature a recipe that’s heavy on the garlic. Plus, garlic is super healthy, so including more of it into your diet is a good idea, especially if you have high blood pressure or are fighting off an infection. Anyone who loves potatoes is sure to love this dish, and the best thing about it is that it’s quick and easy to prepare!
Hot Garlic Potatoes (Batatis bil Toum)
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Keywords: boil blender appetizer side gluten-free nut-free soy-free sugar-free vegetarian vegan potato garlic Middle Eastern Lebanese winter fall spring summer
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 4 medium sized potatoes
- 1 garlic head (or 13-15 cloves)
- 1.5 lemons, freshly juiced
- 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/3 teaspoon unrefined salt
- 2/3 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or hot chilli pepper)
- A pinch dried mint (optional)
(1) Make the garlic sauce: In a food processor, grind the peeled garlic, salt and the lemon juice at high speed for 2 minutes. Then add the olive oil, and let the processor go for another 3-5 minutes. Alternatively, you could also use the Lebanese garlic dip instead if you have it pre-made and handy.
(2) Boil the potatoes for about 15-20 minutes, preferably leaving the center a bit crunchy and not fully cooked.
(3) As soon as the potatoes are done and while still hot, strain the water then cut the heads into disks of about 2/3 inch. You may need to wear gloves as the potatoes will be extremely hot.
(4) Add a layer of potatoes on your serving plate, cover it with the garlic sauce, then put another layer and cover it with the sauce. Let the heat from the potatoes cook the garlic sauce for 3-5 minutes.
Sprinkle the cayenne pepper on the potatoes and serve hot.
Edgard (the son) is the geek behind the blog. He was born and raised in Lebanon then migrated to the US to pursue a career in computer engineering. Growing up, Edgard learned some basic cooking skills from his mother as he sometimes helped her in the kitchen. However, after moving to the US and being on his own for a while he was somewhat forced to spend more time in the kitchen to avoid excessive restaurant foods, and thereby learned to recreate a few of mom’s recipes. He currently resides with his wife Sarah in New York.