Let’s get straight to the point, Lebanon is a food paradise. If you don’t love Lebanese food, there might be something wrong with you. Lebanon has something for everyone. If you love meat, they have amazing kebabs, marinated meats and fresh seafood straight from the Mediterranean. For vegetarians the options are also endless, from amazing grilled halloumi to the famous Fattoush salad. Not to mention that Lebanon is the king of the entre. One needs to be careful not to fill up just on the first course.
Combining spicy Arabic flavours with the fresh produce and exciting styles of Mediterranean food, Lebanese is a unique cuisine that should be at the top of every foodie’s list. With many destinations there are a hand full of national dishes, however with Lebanon there are so many that we couldn’t possibly list them all, so here is a short list of some must tries.
Entres and appetizers
Kibbeh is without a doubt the national dish of Lebanon. You are more likely to be asked whether you’ve tried Kibbeh than any other dish. Part of the reason for this is that it’s a lot less common outside of the region than the other popular dishes such as Shawarma, Falafel and Hummus.
Kibbeh is ground beef mixed with bulgur then rolled into small balls or similar shapes such as cones or even the shape of a rugby ball (or American football for our American friends). Kibbeh is then fried or baked, however it can also be eaten raw.
It seems like every town in Lebanon has its own take on this amazing dish, from exactly how it’s cooked (or not cooked), the spices used and the shape they press the ground beef into. Kibbeh is often served with onions, mint and garlic as well as hummus, yoghurt or tahini to dip.
Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern salad many of you will be familiar with. Made of fresh parsley, mint, bulgar, tomato, onions with lemon juice and olive oil, it has a very fresh flavour.
Tabbouleh is served with a selection of other mezze and is eaten at any time of the day.
It’s traditionally served with Lebanese mezze (a spread of appetizers) and is very popular to eat at all times of the day. Modern Lebanese often substitutes ingredients such as quinoa and pomegranate.
It’s very unlikely you’ve never heard of hummus and while there will be debate forever about its origin, it’s possibly the most ubiquitous product in Lebanon. We don’t have the statistics, but we’re willing to bet hummus is the most common dip in the world.
Made from chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon juice, there are many variations of hummus including with meat, beetroot, different types of oil and even pomegranate seeds.
Another extremely popular salad, usually served at the start of a meal. Fattoush starts off sounding like a normal garden salad until you realise it’s so much more. Fattoush contains lettuce, mint, cucumber, tomato, radish and to top it all off fried pita bread. The dressing is to die for, made with lemon juice, olive oil, sumac and pomegranate molasses.
Muhammara is another extremely popular dip made using roasted red peppers (capsicums). Because the peppers are roasted, the dip has a rich smoky flavour. Muhammara means “to turn red” due to its vibrant colour. Made with garlic, salt, lemon juice and molasses.
Breakfast is a simple affair in Lebanon. Most often it’s some bread, cheese, olives, maybe some jam and of course a very strong coffee.
There is one breakfast staple that everyone should try and that is manakish:
Manakish is often referred to as Lebanese pizza, and while in other parts of the world you might eat it for lunch or dinner, in Lebanon it’s primarily a breakfast food. Walking around in the morning you’ll see people lining up all over the country to get their hands on a freshly cooked manakish.
The most famous type is made with a Zaatar topping which is a mixture of different herbs including thyme. As well as this you can get yours with halloumi cheese, ground meat or even a mixture. You really should get a cheese (halloumi) and zaatar mixture.
Manakish is street food at its best and if you really want to look like a local you should eat it folded in half by hand.
Foul is another great dish for vegetarians. It’s primarily considered a breakfast dish, but can be found served at other times of day and is thought to have come from north Africa.
Foul is a type of stew made from different types of beans, red beans, fava beans as well as chickpeas. Served with olive oil as well as a mixture of onions, radish and mint and is eaten with bread.
As with all dishes in Lebanon, there are of course different varieties, some cooked with butter and tahini and with minced garlic. Foul can be a fresh option, however often it’s also an indulgent dish when lots of extra spice and oil.
Foul is very popular during lent for Lebanese Christian communities when they’re avoiding eating meat.
Lunch and Dinner
Another global favourite, shawarma, may have become the staple of late-night drinking sessions in some part of the world, but in Lebanon is a meal eaten at all times of the day.
For those who are unfamiliar, Shawarma is similar to a Doner Kebab or Greek Gyros (Souvlaki for some). Another food that can be eaten on the go as one of the most popular street foods, or can be eaten on a plate in a more formal setting.
Shawarma is specifically the type of meat cooked on a rotating spit, usually chicken or lamb. However, it either comes inside a pita with salad and sauce or on a plate with bread, and other sides, often including chips (fries). The most popular sauces are hummus or garlic sauce, however there is a huge variety.
A Middle Eastern favourite, falafels are deep fried vegetarian balls made from chickpeas, fava beans and spices. They can be served as individual balls as snacks or can replace meat inside a sandwich. Many Shawarma shops will offer falafel instead of the meat options.
There is always debate as to where falafels come from, however most importantly they are amazing in Lebanon.
Falafels are also served with dips/sauces, the most common being tarator, which is tahini paste mixed with lemon juice. Falafels aren’t just vegetarian, they’re also vegan and are very high in protein.
Lahm bi ajin
Lahm bi ajin are similar to Manakish. A traditional flat bread covered in minced meat, it’s often referred to as a Lebanese meat pizza. Also topped with onions and fresh parsley.
Varying from region to region, the secret is the different spices used to flavour the mince meat. Lahm bi ajin are also smaller than manakish.
Lahm bi ajin is usually served with locally made yoghurt giving it a fresh edge.
You’ve probably heard of Kofte, a spiced pressed minced meat dish common in Turkey and also much of the Balkans. Well in Lebanon they have kafta, which as far as we can tell, is pretty much the same thing but utilising the local flavours and produce available.
Like meatballs the world over, kafta is left up to the chef’s discretion as to the ingredients and flavours used. The most common are onion, parsley and breadcrumbs. Kaftas are then grilled or fried and then served on a bead of rice. However, they can become so much more depending on who is making them and where.
One can find kafta with tomato-based sauces, or simply served with grilled vegetables. Sometimes kafta are placed in different types of stews or served as a finger food.
Being on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea means there is some amazing fresh seafood. The Lebanese generally keep it quite simple and don’t have many particularly convoluted seafood dishes. Usually seafood is caught and then just fried or grilled with a sprinkling of lemon juice and some herbs.
Sayadieh is a simple but probably the most popular fish dish. Taking a variety of different white fishes, the fish is seasoned with a mixture of cumin, coriander, caraway, paprika, turmeric and other spices. The fish is served on a bed of flavoured rice and then garnished with pine nuts and almonds.
Kanafeh is a very sweet dessert made from thin noodle like strands of pasty made from semolina. Layers of a sweet cheese are mixed with the pastry and then the whole thing is covered in syrups, usually flavoured with rose water or orange blossom.
Everywhere you walk in Lebanon, you’ll see huge round metal trays with knafeh being sold. It is both rich yet delicate, hearty yet light. The perfect knafeh when it’s served hot will have you weak at the knees.
The most indulgent part of knafeh is that it is more often than not eaten in the morning when it is most fresh. This means you don’t need to finish your dinner before you’re allowed dessert!
Halewit el jeben
Halewit el jeben are small cheese rolls, pale in colour and garnished with pistachio nuts, thought to have originated in Homs, Syria. The pastry of the roll is made from semolina and then the filling is a variety of different local cheeses or even a mixture. The roll is also moistened and flavoured with rose water or orange blossom sugar syrups.
Who would have thought that cheese could be a sweet dessert, but once you’ve had halewit el jeben, you’ll struggle to see cheese as a savoury food again.
Namoura is a semolina cake, topped with coconut and dowsed in a variety of sugar syrups. Similar to a sponge cake, namoura is very sweet but also much more dense than a normal sponge cake due to the use of yoghurt or in come cases sweetened condensed milk.
Also unlike some sponge cakes, namoura doesn’t use eggs. Namoura is usually cut into small squares and topped with a single almond.
The most popular drink in Lebanon is coffee. The Lebanese love their coffee and you can get one on almost every street corner. Another popular drink is Ayran, a salted yoghurt drink common across the Middle East and Turkey.
Having a large Christian population means that Lebanon produces some great alcohol, especially beer (of which Almaza is the most common), wine and arak (an aniseed flavoured strong spirit similar to ouzo and mixed with water).