Nigel Slater begins a Middle Eastern food adventure in Lebanon, a cuisine that has travelled the globe, but whose heart remains at home.
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As a cook and writer,
I've long been intrigued by the flavours and fragrances
of Middle Eastern cooking,
one of the oldest and most influential cuisines in the world.
Now I want to find out more.
You know, there really is only one true way
to get to know a region's food, and that's to go there,
to eat the food amongst the people who cook it and eat it every day.
That way it's seasoned with a sense of place -
the landscape, the culture and the traditions.
So join me on my journey...
Can I have a look in your cupboard?
..to discover ingredients and recipes that define three countries
with truly exciting food stories.
Cheese and roses. It shouldn't work.
Places considered to be the key pillars of Middle Eastern cuisine.
My adventure takes me across northern Iran
to taste Persian dishes with a rich heritage,
to Lebanon with its Arab-influenced flavours of the Levant,
and to Turkey, where the recipes, born of a diverse landscape,
have travelled the world.
Did the date pattern. Should've done the walnut pattern.
My appetite for new flavours
takes me through ancient and beguiling lands
but, more importantly, into people's homes.
I absolutely loved it, and I can't thank you enough.
This is my chance to learn new techniques and recipes
that aren't in books but have been handed down through generations...
How long does it take you?
Yeah, well, I'd better get a move on, then.
..and I'll share the secrets I discover
by cooking recipes inspired by my journey.
An adventure that starts with both the modern and ancient expression
of Arab cuisine, in the fertile, spirited lands of Lebanon.
I've wanted to come to Lebanon for so long.
I mean, yes, it is the Middle East
but it's also very much the Mediterranean.
For someone who likes to eat and cook...
..this is a very exciting place to be.
I can't wait to discover its secrets.
The cuisine of Lebanon is as rich and varied as its landscapes.
It's counted as the healthiest in the Middle East.
Pulses, grains and vegetables form its nourishing heart,
and meat used sparingly to great effect.
I'll be celebrating the flamboyance of festival food...
I've never seen so much on one table.
It's the generosity, it's just never-ending.
..the simplicity of rustic staples...
I'd love it, I'd love this for breakfast.
I'd love this for breakfast every day.
..and the joys of preserves infused with floral fragrance.
CALL TO PRAYER
Just half the size of Wales,
this is a small country with a big reputation.
It's been ravaged by decades of war,
yet remains one of the most relaxed
and liberal corners of the Arab world...
..and my journey starts here,
in the eternally resilient capital, Beirut.
Beiruti native Nour Matraji will be my guide and translator in Lebanon.
-I'm very excited about this trip.
-You're going to love it.
The city was known as the Paris of the East,
not least for its vibrant nightlife and party vibe...
..but tonight, the streets are busy for a different reason.
Just over half the country's population is Muslim.
And I've arrived during Ramadan,
a month of daylight fasting for the devout.
I'm getting the feeling that there are certain foods that you only see
And, like, for example, this stand over here that we're going to pass,
they have kallaj Ramadan -
kallaj of Ramadan, so it's basically like a dough.
It's like kind of a pastry, wrapped,
then stuffed in cream and then fried
and then dipped in sugar syrup.
Then splash pistachio over it, and it's heaven.
You're making me very happy.
And this is just a Ramadan thing.
-So, in, like, a few days this is gone.
The kallaj dough is filled with ashta,
made from skimming the thick skin from simmered milk.
Unlike clotted cream, it doesn't melt when warmed.
The deep-fried pastry parcels are trickled with rose water
or orange blossom syrup and then showered with chopped pistachios.
You want to try some?
-I... I'd love to.
-I'd love to.
SHE SPEAKS ARABIC
Thank you. Shukran. Thank you.
It's really crisp on the outside...
..and you get that little hint of rose water.
I can't believe I'm eating fried cream.
This is so good.
We're going to a place now
that is usually very well known for its breakfast, but during Ramadan
they switch their hours,
so instead of opening from 7am till 2pm, they open from 10pm till 3am.
So for part of the year
their day is just turned completely on its head.
-The hours are just completely different.
Sohur is eaten as close to dawn as possible.
It needs to sustain those who fast right through the day until sunset.
Cafe Al-Soussi is reputed to serve the best breakfast in town
and is hugely popular during Ramadan.
Muhammad and his cousin Ahmed serve the same simple menu
as their grandfather, who started the business 125 years ago.
Unbelievably, they serve up to 300 people a night
using this one simple stove.
I just love the fact he doesn't even turn his flame down.
-And this is...
It's all or nothing, isn't it?
They say Beirutis live every day as if it's their last -
and Muhammad's rather adventurous take on health and safety
appears to back this up.
The menu's designed as a selection of sharing plates.
Starting with the all-familiar hummus.
Extra smooth here as the skins are removed from the chickpeas
Tahini, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil are added.
Look at that. Just look at that.
The Arab classic, sawda djej,
chicken livers cooked with sweet-sour pomegranate molasses,
garlic and cumin,
served for breakfast, or as an appetiser.
-People come from miles for this.
And the dish I'm looking forward to most, fatteh.
There are many types of fatteh and in this one,
Muhammad tops pieces of toasted pita with steaming chickpeas.
He then smothers it with labneh,
the Arab staple of soft cream cheese made from strained yoghurt...
..and the best is yet to come.
The dish is finished off with toasted pine nuts
fried with awarma, a star of the Lebanese store cupboard,
lamb morsels preserved in dripping and used throughout the year
to flavour dishes.
-Exactly, it's amazing.
-It's incredible. Amazing.
The dripping-laden fatteh cannot arrive quickly enough.
-It's really good.
This is very gentle food.
-There's no what I call...
..big flavours. There's nothing shouty. It's very, very mild.
It's a very gentle flavour.
So this has got to last,
-would actually have to last me the whole day.
-Because you can't drink, either.
-This is what I can't get my head around.
So, you know sometimes you have something, like at night,
and then the next day it just makes you super thirsty.
-This is a no-no.
This is something everybody who fasts tries to avoid.
So you're trying to eat foods that have a bit of, like...
-..water kind of content in them.
-Hence all the salad
-and the tomatoes and things like that?
-Yes, exactly. Exactly.
You know, I love this place.
The fact that it's midnight and it's only really just opened.
They'll be going till three o'clock in the morning -
and they're basically eating something very sustaining
and yet quite gentle to see them through.
The really special thing for me was finding something here
that is, hand on heart,
one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.
That fatteh with the yoghurts and the pine nuts...
..and with what was basically roast juices and dripping on top
and little bits of lamb...
It is, it's home cooking.
It's comfort cooking, it's about making yourself feel good
and keeping yourself going -
and I love it.
It's a beautiful morning on the Corniche,
Beirut's iconic seaside promenade.
The country's shoreline
stretches almost 200 kilometres along the Mediterranean.
My culinary adventure will take me south to the arid hills of Nabatieh
by the Israeli border,
before heading east to the country's rural heartland,
the Bekaa Valley -
but first I'm travelling to the bountiful slopes of Mount Sannine,
just 40 kilometres from Beirut...
..but before leaving Beirut there's just enough time for a pit stop
at a very unassuming local landmark,
the ice cream shop, Hanna Mitri,
in the historically Christian area of Achrafieh.
Can I have a little, a little taster of some of the...?
You may, you may have whatever you like.
The sorbet, you have strawberry,
you have apricot, rose water and lemon.
So, gentle early summer flavours?
-Could I have some rose water?
-I'd love to taste the rose water.
-Some rose water?
OK, I'll give you some rose.
Yes. And all the roses are out, so it feels...
The rose water here in the shop is white.
-We don't add the colour, we don't add anything.
It's natural. Everything is natural.
It's so fragrant. It tastes...
-It tastes of the smell of a rose.
-So, how long have you been here?
-Not for long.
My father had, 20 years old.
-And we didn't close, even in the war.
In the war, maybe two or three days when they hit the area here...
It was a big hit.
-And you stayed open...?
-We stayed here.
And we have this to remember -
it was a big shell who hit here.
We keep it. We didn't change it,
to let us remember, a little bit, these times.
You want to taste another thing?
-Please. Lemon, fantastic.
-You'll like the lemon.
We bring the lemon, we wash it, squeeze it, handmade,
we put everything in it.
I love it because it's not at all sweet.
-It's so refreshing.
It's good with some vodka.
To digest at the end.
-It's a little early.
-I'm telling you about me.
I love it.
I'm a very happy man.
Well, that was one of the most difficult decisions ever,
and I've ended up with rose, because it feels right.
Rose water is of this place.
What is so extraordinary is learning that this place stayed open
right the way through the war.
People came here for ice cream.
It says so much about this place.
I'm off to find out more about the source of these flavours.
Lebanon's fertile land produces a rich harvest of fruits,
vegetables and flowers, many of which are bottled and preserved.
A long-standing tradition called mouneh,
one of the cornerstones of Lebanese cuisine.
I'm meeting Amine, who quit his job as a banker in London
to help run his family's preserves and pickling business
in the village of Ain el Kabou.
I can't imagine why.
We start in February with the citrus
and our little workshop is fully focused on producing
-all the citrus products.
-So orange, lemon...
-And bitter orange.
And then, we follow the seasons.
-After the citrus, we start with the roses.
-Yes, the early roses.
And then, the strawberries,
the apricots, the mulberries, then the figs,
and we cover the whole year this way.
I'm just thinking, everything that I love about this cuisine -
the fragrance of it, the fruits, the sourness - it's all here,
in these slopes, in these landscapes.
I feel, this must be like the job...
It's like a gift from the gods, working here.
A fact I'm sure Amine appreciates every day.
This time of year, the family makes rose preserves
using an exceptionally fragrant variety, the centifolia.
We usually pick it early in the morning,
before the sun hits it and takes the flavour out.
So, usually, by 9am, we're done with the picking.
I know roses smell differently, according to what variety they are.
But this is... It is sweet, but it's also refreshing.
-It's a clean smell, because sometimes rose can be very rich,
very sweet and almost a little bit cloying and soapy -
but this has a freshness to it.
It has other virtues.
The colour -
when you cook it, it doesn't turn into black...
-..like other varieties.
And the nicest thing about this variety of rose
is the texture of the petals.
Because depending on which variety you use for preserves...
-..some of them are very chewy.
This one will just melt in your mouth.
The petals are cooked with sugar and lemon.
The lemon not only counteracts the sweetness,
but also preserves naturally for up to two years.
This is like a table of sort of jewels.
I mean, just shining.
This is my every morning breakfast.
Amine's mother, Youmna, and her sister, Leila,
are the founders of the business.
I'm intrigued as to why we've got cheese on the table.
Yeah, this is the local version of ricotta.
And in the tradition,
they used to have this with this fruits-in-syrup over.
Just try them together.
It shouldn't work.
It shouldn't work, should it?
Cheese and roses, it shouldn't work.
But it so does.
Everything I'm eating,
of course, it's about the flavour, but it's also about the fragrance,
it's about the smell. It's just...
..hovering over the landscape and over the table and over my plate.
It's just here. It's just engulfing.
The family's boutique set-up has won numerous awards for its preserves
that lock up the sense of season in a jar.
It may now export to high-end delis all over the world,
but its roots were humble and born of necessity.
It started in '89, 1989.
We still had war in Lebanon.
Yeah - and my sister, Leila, and myself,
we began with an idea
-to do something for the people in this area...
..who couldn't work because they couldn't reach their place of work
because of the war.
They had the idea of tapping into an already-established skill base.
Preserving seasonal ingredients, both savoury and sweet,
had, after all, been key to the way of life here for centuries.
They all do this in their homes for generations
because in summertime,
in the mountains here,
the nature is very generous.
It gives you so many fruits
and so many vegetables...
-..and in wintertime,
it's all full of snow and they don't have anything any more.
Of course, you have snow, yeah.
So, they learnt how to preserve all what nature gives us in summer
and keep it in their homes, in their pantry rooms.
If you haven't got it here, in your larder...
-..you don't eat.
I can't think of another cuisine
that has so much in the way of preserves in it.
-It's absolutely part of the essence of Lebanese food.
Youmna and Leila's preserves became so popular that the army
opened up snowbound mountain roads
to allow the products to reach Beirut.
Hard to imagine the same reverence being accorded to jams back home.
Sitting here, it's really difficult
to think of what this terrain is like in the winter.
There's thick snow. The roads become impassable.
So you have to have a good store cupboard.
You've got to have an efficient way of providing food.
So, the long tradition...
..of packing stuff away in its season for later on...
..it's not just...
..a fanciful bit of joyful cooking, it's a necessity.
It's not just about making rows of jams and jellies
that look pretty on the shelf,
it is utterly crucial, and has been for centuries.
In peace times, in war times, it doesn't matter,
you need to have something in your cupboard.
Fragrances of Mount Sannine have inspired me
to make a richly aromatic dessert.
Creamed rice with apricots,
pistachios and rose petals.
Add 150g of pudding rice,
two tablespoonfuls of golden caster sugar,
250ml of milk, and the same of double cream,
to a pan.
Split a vanilla pod and add, before bringing to the boil.
Turn down to a simmer until the rice softens.
In a separate pan, boil dried apricots
with half a lemon and a cinnamon stick.
Chop a generous handful of pistachios.
Trickle in a dash of rose and orange blossom waters.
Top with the apricots and pistachios
and finish with a sprinkle of dried rose petals.
A delightful, creamy and fragrant dessert.
The end of Ramadan is approaching
and Nour has invited me to her parents' home in Beirut
for Eid al-Fitr,
the celebration that marks the end of fasting.
Anticipating a deluge of generosity,
I'm keen not to turn up empty-handed,
so I'm visiting a kitchen-table enterprise
on the outskirts of Beirut,
which I'm hoping will provide a solution.
Arabic is the national tongue of Lebanon,
but most people also speak either French or English
and it's not uncommon to greet people in all three languages.
Mona Hashemi's delicately flavoured, exquisitely crafted ma'amoul
are traditionally eaten at Eid
and she's agreed to offer me a pastry-making masterclass.
So, these are the little treasures I've been hearing about.
Her delicate semolina-based dough is enriched with butter
and given a slightly chewy texture with the addition of mastic,
a naturally-occurring resin.
Hidden away in there is a small pinch of mahlab,
the ground kernel of the sour cherry tree,
which adds a pleasingly bitter note
and works well with aromatic orange blossom and rose waters.
A sweet stuffing of either pistachio, walnuts or dates
is carefully encased in the centre...
..but it is the handmade, intricate designs
that make these delicacies so charming.
How cute is that?!
So, the pattern that you're putting on...
..it tells us what's inside -
or is it just the shape that tells us?
The dates are like daisies,
the pattern, the design's like a daisy.
-The walnuts is like a rose.
And then the pistachios are like a leaf, you know.
-Oh, yes, of course.
-Yeah. There it is.
-It's obvious now!
-Yeah, makes it easier now to do them.
And that little tool that you're holding, this one...
..is that just for these?
Do you do anything else with it?
THEY SPEAK ARABIC
-Only for these?
-Only for ma'amoul.
You know, I would love to have a little go.
Would that be all right?
-This is easier.
You're getting the beginner's tools.
Oh, I'm... OK, I'm on the nursery slopes.
-You and me.
Oh, you have to be quite careful, don't you?
Cos the nuts are actually only just below the surface.
Look at the speed you're doing it at!
It's not brilliant, is it?
SHE SPEAKS FRENCH
SHE SPEAKS FRENCH
So you did the date pattern,
you should have done the walnut pattern.
Did the date pattern!
Should have done the walnut pattern.
-So it doesn't fall off...
It lies in the ridges and the furrows and the folds.
-We make it like this.
It's a work of art.
I wouldn't say "perfect".
It's better than my first one.
It's the sort of thing I just love doing.
You could sit all afternoon, quite happily,
with this amazing little tool,
just decorating cookies.
The ma'amoul go into the oven at 180 degrees.
20 minutes later, the coffee is on, the ma'amoul are ready, and so am I.
This is lovely.
I just can't get over these. They're so fragile,
they are so fragrant.
-Oh, it's going to become tougher.
-So is it only Eid?
Are they made at any other time of year?
So, Easter for Christians, and Eid, during Ramadan, for Muslims.
I'm surprised about the Christian thing.
I didn't realise that it was something for everyone.
Ma'amoul are enjoyed throughout the Arab world,
and most countries have their twist on these delicate pastries.
Here, they are a beautiful example of a shared culinary heritage.
Back in Beirut, and the big day has come.
For some, it's the end of 30 days' fasting.
For those of a more liberal persuasion, including Nour's family,
an excuse to bring everyone together.
-You had no idea about the food?
Lebanon is known for its relaxed attitudes.
Many Muslims here, particularly in urban areas, drink alcohol,
including the Levantine tipple arak,
made from fermented grapes and aniseed.
Nour's mother, Maya,
has been preparing dishes for the past four days.
So, this is dough,
fried dough stuffed with meat and then soaked in yoghurt.
Fried dough, stuffed with meat...
..soaked in yoghurt.
I'm liking the sound of this.
-There's all this, as well!
Oh, look at those.
..aubergine, stuffed with meat...
MAYA SPEAKS ARABIC
-And tomato, OK.
So much food!
And there's still work to be done.
Freekeh, a roasted green wheat with a distinct nutty flavour,
is widely used in Arab cuisine.
Here, it is topped with ground lamb, roasted almonds, pistachios,
pine nuts and finally chicken.
This is magnificent!
It's utterly magnificent.
Maya has also made Nour's childhood favourite,
a distinctly Arab dish called mulukhiyah, made of chicken,
cinnamon spiced onions, bay leaves, and mallow,
an astringent, leafy vegetable often compared to cooked okra
and made popular by the ancient Egyptians.
This is a completely new smell to me.
-I don't know this smell.
-And I know most cooking smells.
-But I don't know this one.
I've noticed that some people who are not from the Middle East
either love it, or hate it. So we're going to see.
I think it's a mark of the best food, actually.
-The food that polarises people...
-..tends to be the best.
But Maya has left her speciality until last -
and with very good reason.
Kibbeh, which uses a base of bulgur wheat and ground meat,
is hailed as one of Lebanon's national dishes,
and there are literally dozens of regional variations.
Maya, who is from south Lebanon,
is cooking her local version, kibbeh nayyeh,
where the ground meat is actually served raw.
Maya adds water to tenderise the bulgur wheat,
another widely used cereal here.
The bulgur will lend the dish a lovely, nutty hue.
Ice is also added, to keep the bulgur cool.
This makes total sense!
The raw minced meat, in this case lamb, is added to the chilled wheat.
Time for Maya's special southern flourish.
This is the magic, basically.
-And what is the magic?
-OK. The magic is...
..cumin, and dried wild flowers.
Basil, onions, mint, and that's it.
I want to know what those wild flowers are.
It's spring flowers that are, like, harvested,
and just dried and made specially for this.
For just this one recipe?
Yes. And everything... The wild flowers are here.
You know, meat always has a certain smell sometimes,
that is not really pleasant.
-Particularly lamb, particularly lamb.
And when you have, like...
..and sometimes when you cook it, it goes away, but you're eating raw...
Not mince, like, raw pureed meat.
You know? So...
To just give it that beautiful smell.
These wild flowers are there to do that.
Yes, take a little bite.
You taste hers, and she's going to taste yours.
-OK, so, just a little bit?
-No, eat it all.
Raw meat's kind of a slightly odd thing for us to eat, but...
Mmm! How delicious.
It's smooth, isn't it?
It just goes down easily -
and it's these spices and this mix that just brings that...
I'm not even sure I knew it was raw,
-if you know what I mean.
-Exactly, that's the thing.
When you're not sure that it's raw, and you don't know,
this means the kibbeh was done right.
Eating raw meat can be harmful,
but Maya follows a family recipe, sources her meat carefully,
and keeps it chilled as near to the point of serving as possible.
You can do whatever shape you want.
Finally, the kibbeh is shaped...
..and lavishly doused with olive oil.
You have a lot of food!
From stuffed vine leaves to an array of lamb and vegetable dishes,
it just keeps coming.
I've never seen so much food on one table.
It's this generosity, it's just never-ending.
This is such a delight, to see so many people eating at once.
-It's really important, the sound of people...
"Yes, I want to socialise, I want to talk, but actually..."
Everybody's focused on the sound of food, yes.
-I know. It's lovely, isn't it?
Family gathers, and food.
You think all of them would be here if there wasn't food?
It's such an honour to be here.
Such a privilege to be invited,
to cook, and to be with the family to eat with them.
It's wonderful, it's a big, social occasion,
and being part of it is very, very special.
It's when that food goes on the table.
It's like the catalyst that just starts everything off.
All the conversation, all the movement, all the fun,
all the life that is around that table.
It starts with the food.
One dish on Maya's table that particularly caught my imagination,
was the classic Middle Eastern salad fattoush.
For my version, peel, halve and seed two cucumbers.
Cut into half moons and add to a bowl.
Quarter a handful of tomatoes and radishes.
Chop a small lettuce
and a bunch of spring onions.
Tear in parsley
and a few of the smallest mint leaves.
Shallow-fry a whole pita bread in olive oil.
Blend olives and parsley with olive oil and lemon.
Spread the paste on the toasted bread.
Dress the salad with a mixture of pomegranate molasses,
olive oil, and sumac.
It's a fresh and exciting salad
that will always take me back to Lebanon.
My journey through Lebanese cuisine now takes me inland and southwards,
from the shores of the Mediterranean
to the dusty slopes of Nabatieh,
just ten miles from the Israeli border.
It's here I plan to unravel a mystery
that has stumped me since long before I arrived.
I'm on a bit of a personal mission for something that's puzzled me,
a mystery, for a long time.
I love the herb mix, za'atar,
and I buy it from my local Lebanese grocer's -
and I know that it's a mixture of thyme, of sesame seed,
salt and very often sumac -
and yet it's always puzzled me,
because it doesn't seem to actually smell of thyme.
So I've come here
to unravel this little puzzle.
What exactly is za'atar?
The herbal mix known as za'atar is a storeroom staple
throughout the Arab world -
but it's also a herb in its own right.
Abu Kasim is a local farmer here in Nabatieh.
He was one of the first farmers in the country to grow za'atar
commercially, and I'm hoping he can solve my culinary conundrum.
So what do you call this herb that you are growing?
Yeah. This is oregano, it's got that beautiful sea-green...
..colour, it's very soft and velvety to touch.
It seems like the herb mix I buy uses oregano rather than thyme -
but both herbs are related,
and different varieties of both may be used.
This personal quest has led to an unexpected revelation for me.
Maybe it takes the right...
..plant in the right place, to make you rethink it,
but oregano, to me, has always been slightly dusty, a little bit old.
It's something I reserve, I suppose, to use dried, on pizza...
..and suddenly, holding a freshly-picked plant,
something that I can feel, and it's velvety, it's soft and it's earthy,
it's aromatic - but it's also got a very slight fruitiness to it.
It's a completely different herb from the one that I know,
and have been barely using -
and I want to know more, and I want to use it differently.
Standing in these fields,
I'm interested to know how Abu Kasim's business came about.
So, I'm intrigued why you decided to grow it,
why you decided to farm it,
when it actually grows quite naturally.
With the potential for injury from unexploded cluster bombs,
and the desire to protect the environment from excessive foraging,
Abu Kasim was provided with the impetus
for his now-successful business.
I'm keen to find out how this plant is transformed
into the herb mix I know and love.
The plant is thrashed by farm hand Abu Ali,
and any woody stems are removed by Abu Kasim's wife Fatima.
It's not surprising that this is such a happy scene,
because with the warmth from the earth and the heat of the sun,
and all of the oregano dust that's flying around the air,
this whole scene is just totally intoxicating.
There is magic in this process.
From how the leaves are sieved...
..to how Abu Kasim prepares the herb mix
by toasting the sesame...
..and mixing with the tangy, lemony sumac...
..right through to how his sister-in-law makes saj,
a Lebanese flatbread...
..and coats it with an olive oil and za'atar mix...
..to make the much-loved man'oushe.
The trick is to cook the bread until it's crisp,
but also soft enough to roll.
Often served with cheese, labneh or ground meat,
here, it is filled with tomatoes and cucumber.
And I'm not surprised -
and it's just, the bread is so crisp,
and so sort of crunchy,
and then all the lovely, refreshing tomatoes and cucumber.
I'd love this for breakfast.
I'd love this for breakfast every day.
I would be happy to eat this every morning.
No wonder za'atar is a cornerstone of Lebanese cuisine.
Its earthiness really elevates everyday dishes.
My trip to the farm has inspired me to use it even more.
Za'atar chicken and chickpeas.
Mix three tablespoonfuls of za'atar
with a glug of olive oil.
Add chickpeas and six peeled garlic cloves
to a large roasting tin.
Brush four chicken thighs with the za'atar mix
and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
Bake in a preheated 200-degree oven for 40 minutes.
Remove the garlic, brush the chicken again,
and return to the oven for a further 15 to 20 minutes.
Pound the soft, roasted garlic, before adding thick yoghurt.
Serve the chicken on a bed of chickpeas
with the yoghurt
and a few small mint leaves.
The final leg of my journey takes me further inland and eastwards,
to the Bekaa Valley, the rural heartland of Lebanon.
It's the country's most important agricultural region,
and, I'm hoping, the ideal place
to learn more about traditional home cooking.
So I'm out into the Bekaa Valley,
which is, I guess, about ten miles from the Syrian border -
and, immediately, you can see it's incredibly lush.
This is very different, it feels very different,
and I suspect that the cooking will be different here, too.
Situated between two parallel mountain ranges,
this fertile plateau is home
to almost half of Lebanon's cultivated land.
First, I'm off to discover a simple but essential routine
that has been part of domestic life, not only here,
but across most of the Middle East, for centuries.
Ibrahim Abu Eid lives in Haouch Snaid
with his wife Aziza and their three children, Hamoud, Maria and Zara.
Ibrahim is showing me how to make labneh,
the soft, white cheese that to this day
forms a staple part of the Arab diet.
This is a world away from Beirut...
..but before we start,
I must meet another very special member of the family.
-That's a good yield.
Whilst many rural people buy their labneh
from small-scale local producers,
this single cow provides Ibrahim and his family
with all the dairy they need.
Made into balls and placed in oil, labneh can last two to three months.
And now we have the milk - on with the cooking.
Ten litres of milk we've collected
will be reduced to about two kilos of labneh.
The first step is to heat the milk.
Yes, you get that... It's like a skin.
-It forms at the bottom.
-Yes, I know.
Made using only yoghurt and milk,
labneh is healthier than similar foods like cream cheese,
and can be served with meats and meze,
but is most popular at breakfast.
But it is just the best breakfast,
because it's a real kick to start the day,
cos it's got that hit of acidity,
that little bit of sharpness,
that little bite first thing in the morning.
So it really wakes you up -
but at the same time, it's quite gentle because of its creaminess.
Once cooled to the right temperature, the yoghurt is added.
Not so much cooking, as alchemy.
-OK, so it comes up...
..to boil, then down to 45.
At 45? Yeah.
It is this thing where simple things
are often not as simple as they look.
This is one of those things.
Something tells me that Ibrahim
has never needed a written recipe for labneh...
..and I suspect neither will his children.
Who taught you to make labneh?
Once strained, salt is added,
and then it is left to ripen for 24 hours.
-It's so good.
It does coat your mouth, but deliciously so.
Not in a horrible, sweet, cloying way, in a very refreshing way.
-That was great! Fantastic.
Labneh is widely believed to have originated with nomads,
as a way to preserve milk -
but it clearly has a permanent home in modern Lebanese life.
As well as dairy, ingredients such as grains and pulses
are a mainstay of daily meals.
Whether combined with fresh produce or judicious amounts of meat.
I'm curious to find out more about
this affordable and healthy food culture.
So I'm travelling to the village of Ammiq,
on the western edge of the Bekaa Valley, to meet Rima Jabbour,
a cook whose vegetable and grain-laden dishes
are stuff of local legend.
I was just thinking these look fabulous tomatoes...
Where do you...? Where do you get most of your fruit and veg from?
You grow your own.
Ah! It's always the best.
SHE REPLIES IN ARABIC
It's always the best.
Traditionally, meat was expensive,
so people relied heavily on what they had at their fingertips -
fresh vegetables in the summer, and grains throughout the year.
Would you say that what you are cooking now,
is this very much what most families would cook for dinner?
Today, Rima is cooking a vegetarian dish, burghul banadoura.
Its main ingredient, bulgur wheat,
is a healthy source of plant-based protein.
Oh, look at that!
Once soaked, it's added to the pan of chopped tomatoes,
onions and sweet peppers,
and just a sparing touch of Rima's very special secret ingredient.
So this is home-made tomato puree?
Ah, that's a good load.
You make it with your own tomatoes -
and do you do a lot at once, do you do a big store?
Industrial quantities of tomato puree are not the only thing
Rima stores in her larder.
Thrifty housekeeping means dried grains and pulses
are also bought in bulk.
That's a lot of lentils!
So with all your ingredients that are dry and they're stored,
I wonder how long you could go without going to the shops.
Just cooking every day.
I can barely go a week.
Can I have a look in your cupboard?
It's this fascination
with what other people make their daily meal with.
Not nosy or anything...
Ah, so cassia bark...
It has very much the same effect as cinnamon,
but it is a slightly cheaper version.
Oh, my word!
A mixture of exotic flavours such as fenugreek, cloves and nutmeg,
seven spice is an incredibly useful spice blend,
and found throughout the Arab world, and beyond -
and no two jars are exactly the same.
This is a little magical mystery tour of spice mixtures.
I mean, I'm getting the hint,
some of them are clearly very soft and gentle.
These mixtures seem very warm and earthy.
They are not hot, I'm not getting any notes of chilli.
They are just very fragrant, and...
..I mean, quite peppery.
Do you make your own spices?
So, do you buy that, or do you mix it?
Ah, you see, I love that way of shopping.
These dishes of cheap and filling ingredients may be simple,
but such considered use of flavourings mean
they're never boring.
It's absolutely delicious.
I think the secret is your home-made tomato puree.
That's what the secret is. It's completely natural -
and I think it makes such a difference, I really do.
You know, it always feels a privilege
to cook and eat someone's home food -
but, fortunately, in this case,
I'm not the only one who gets to taste Rima's incredible cooking.
Rima works at a rather special restaurant,
hidden away above the fields and pastures of the Bekaa Valley.
Tawlet Ammiq is a restaurant with a difference...
..and I'm not just talking about the view.
You feel as if you could reach out and touch Syria, you are so close...
..but actually, what you come here for is what's happening inside.
This is a very, very special restaurant.
The menu celebrates local food traditions
by employing a small army of home cooks
to showcase their age-old recipes and techniques.
People from all over Lebanon
think nothing of driving hours to get here.
The buffet is an A-Z of Lebanese home cooking.
Fattoush, in all its fresh glory -
and, of course, all the ingredients are grown locally...
..and, there's tabbouleh -
heavy on the parsley, and lighter on the wheat, around here.
Got feta and olives.
Got a cucumber sweetcorn salad.
Kibbeh, kibbeh nayyeh,
and numerous one-pot, home-style stews,
known collectively as tabkhat.
SHE SPEAKS ARABIC
I've never seen nuts used this way, just handfuls of them.
Look at these kebabs.
Got cauliflower, got tomato...
Everything cooked here by local cooks, people who live in this area.
People come for miles to eat this.
There's not one single thing here
that I don't want to sit down and eat.
Oh, garlic, basil!
Beiruti socialites, tourists and expats
sit beside local families here,
all drawn to quality ingredients,
prepared with passion and love.
This, to me, captures what Lebanese cuisine is all about -
shared tables, shared heritage and shared food...
..and I leave with a sense that there is a bright future
for that most precious element, home cooking.
I'm so glad that I came here to the Bekaa Valley.
Coming here has allowed me to do something very special,
and really is the essence of why I came here,
which is to see what people are actually doing in their own home -
how they're eating, how they're cooking,
what they're doing with their food.
It's not just a peep in somebody's larder,
it's a peep inside their life.
That's what it is.
Nigel Slater embarks on a Middle Eastern food adventure to explore some of the oldest and grandest cuisines in the world. His first stop, Lebanon, exemplifies Levantine cuisine but is also influenced by its position on the Mediterranean. The flavours, colours and fragrances of the region have travelled the globe but Nigel sets out to eat and cook with the people who make the dishes every day - home cooks. Nigel also explores the landscapes and ingredients, which define the recipes and dishes that have been passed on through generations.
Nigel starts his journey in the capital, Beirut, at the end of Ramadan, where he is invited to celebrate Eid with a local family, before travelling south to Nabatieh near Israel and east to the Beqaa Valley close to the Syrian border.
On his journey, Nigel explores the resilience of the country and its people, their survival and preservation through decades of war, and sees how this is reflected in their pride in their culture, and most importantly, in their food.