Saturday, November 5, 2016

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Lebanon

It has been a few months since the last chapter of my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes.  That last challenge was to make a main course from Pakistan.  I chose to make Karahi Gosht, which is a spicy lamb curry dish that could often be found in markets and street stalls.   While my challenge is to make main courses, I have always been intrigued by street food, which, for many, serves as a main course, whether for lunch or dinner.

So, my next challenge takes me to the country of Lebanon, where I will make a main course that could easily be served on the street and markets.  The main course is Shish Taouk (or Shish Tawook) This dish is common throughout the Middle East, although it is more because the preparation is common: marinating chicken cubes in yogurt and spices, followed by cooking the chicken over a fire.  While this dish can be found in many countries, including Turkey and Syria, I thought it would be a good way to introduce myself to Lebanese food.

The history of Lebanese culinary traditions is an ancient one, with many of the dishes being traced back to the Roman era and even the Phoenician civilization.  While they have their own unique origins, those culinary traditions also incorporate spices and cooking methods from the Turks, whose Ottoman Empire ruled over the lands that would eventually become Lebanon from 1516 to 1918, as well as the French who controlled the area until 1946. 

As with any country, dishes vary by region.  Lebanon has the coastal regions along the Mediterranean Sea, along with the fertile Bekaa Valley.  The fertile areas, which could support crop production, comprise only about 30% of Lebanon.  Yet, farmers are able to produce a wide range of fruits and vegetables, which serve as the basis of dishes served across the country, including its capital, Beirut, which was once known as the "Paris of the Middle East."  The capital was, and continues to be, a sort-of crossroads, one that has for centuries brought spices and dishes to a very small and very complex country.  


For this challenge, I am drawing from the Turkish influence over Lebanese cuisine.  Skewers of chicken, marinated in yogurt and spices and grilled over spices draws inspiration from the Turks.  Indeed, the name Shish Taouk comes from Şiş,which is Old Turkic for "skewer" and Takagu, which is Old Turkic for "chicken."  Yet, these tasty skewers of grilled chicken are served in restaurants and food stalls not only in Beirut, but in cities throughout the country. 

Recipe adapted from The Spice Kit
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the chicken):
2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken
4 wooden skewers, soaked in water

Ingredients (for the marinade):
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baharat
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano

Ingredients (for the sauce):
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced
1/4 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon fresh mint
1/4 teaspoon salt

1.  Marinate the chicken.  In a large bowl, combine marinade ingredients and mix smooth.  Add chicken and evenly coat the pieces.  Cover and refrigerate 4-8 hours

2.  Prepare the grill.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit or an outdoor grill to medium high heat and lightly oil the grate. 

3.  Grill the chicken. Thread chicken on skewers and grill 4 to 5 minutes each side or bake 7 minutes each side until chicken is done. 


And, if you have Shish Taouk in one of those Lebanese restaurants or from one of those street stalls, that tasty chicken will most likely be served with a garlic paste sauce known as toum, hummus and tabouleh.  For this challenge, I decided to make a side of Lebanese tabbouleh. This side is a salad made from tomatoes, parsley, garlic, mint and onions   The dish originated in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, and it spread from there.  As the story goes, the dish was mocked by some as simply a means to "scrimp" on meat. This critique was easily solved by serving the salad with some meat, like Shish Taouk.  

Recipe from NYT Cooking
Serves 4-6

1/4 cup fine bulgur wheat
1 small garlic clove, minced (optional)
Juice of 2 large lemons, to taste
3 cups chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 pound ripe tomatoes, very finely chopped
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
Salt, preferably Kosher salt, to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1.  Prepare the dish.  Place the bulgur in a bowl, and cover with water, by 1/2 inch.  Soak for 20 minutes, until slightly softened.  Drain through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and press the bulghur against the strainer to squeeze out excess water.  Transfer to a large bowl and toss with the garlic, lemon juice, parsley, mint, tomatoes, scallions and salt.  Leave at room temperature or in the refrigerator for two to three hours, so that the bulgur can continue to absorb liquid and swell.

2.  Finish the dish.  Add the olive oil, toss together, taste and adjust seasonings.

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In the end, both the Shish Taouk and Tabbouleh recipes are very good and, apart from the time taken to marinate the chicken, very easy to make.  This also represents a slight change in how I will approach future challenges.  In the past, I tried to make complex dishes, with many sides.  That was easy to do when it was just my Angel and me, but with our two little cherubs, finding the time to do such cooking is hard.   This dish represents my 24th challenge, leaving me with 56 to go.  If I am going to finish the overall challenge anytime soon, I will need to do these more than once every few months.  So, until next time (which hopefully will be soon)...