When we think about a Mediterranean diet - considered one the most balanced and nutritious cuisines in the world - we typically think of focaccia breads, olive oil, pasta and pizza.
But Italy isn't the only country that boasts glorious food that's as good for your body as it is for your taste buds.
Travel slightly further East and you'll find that Lebanese cooking is just as wholesome and is perfect for the longer days and rising temperatures of summer. With refreshing salads and cooling dips, it makes for moreish picnic dishes, perfect post work snacks to accompany wine and great BBQ sides.
If you're a vegetarian or looking to cut out meat, Middle Eastern food is also varied, colourful and exciting with zero meat required.
And with an emphasis on vegetables and pulses, Lebanese dishes have a reputation for being simple and affordable to make, where few ingredients can be turned into a very tasty meal.
Is your mouth watering yet? We turn to chef Mona Hamadeh's upcoming cookbook A Lebanese Feast (out on 6 August) for five of the best vegetarian recipes from the region...
Herb and Bulgur Wheat Salad (Tabouleh)
Tabouleh is the most popular traditional dish in Lebanon. Apart from being one of the healthiest foods, you will never tire of eating it. It’s served as a starter, for snacks, and for afternoon tea followed by other sweet cakes and pastries. Basically, tabouleh is served on every occasion where food is required.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
200g finely chopped parsley, with end stalks removed
30g finely chopped fresh mint
1/4 tsp ground black pepper (optional)
70g (1 small) onion, chopped
500g tomatoes, finely diced,
1 tbsp reserved
50ml lemon juice
100ml olive oil
1 level tsp salt
25g fine burghul (bulgur wheat)
- Rinse the parsley and mint and allow to drain in a colander.
- Meanwhile, rub the ground pepper, if using, with the onions, using your fingers (doing this stops the onion from smelling stronger after chopping).
- Combine the onions with the tomatoes in a bowl.
- Add the lemon juice, oil, salt, parsley and mint.
- Add the burghul and mix all the ingredients well.
- Garnish with the reserved tomato and serve with lettuce or tender cabbage leaves on the side.
Cook’s tip: "You can do all the chopping in advance. Add the dressing and the burghul just before serving."
Cheese Crescents (Sambousak Jibneh)
Sambousak is always served at parties along with other pastries. Suitable for buffets, snacks and canapés, it is often served as part of a maza spread. For such events they are made bite-sized.
Preparation time: 30–40 minutes, plus 30 minutes for pastry to rest
Cooking time: 15–20 minutes
30ml oil, plus extra for frying
Pinch of salt
220g plain flour, plus extra for rolling out
200g feta cheese
100g (1 small) red onion, chopped
25g chopped flat parsley
- To make the pastry, rub 30ml oil and a pinch of salt into the flour until it becomes a little crumbly. Adding a little water at a time, continue to rub until the mixture forms a smooth non-sticky pastry.
- Wrap with clingfilm (plastic wrap) and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Crumble the cheese with the tips of your fingers then mix in the onion and parsley (no salt is needed as feta cheese is usually salty).
- Roll the pastry onto a lightly floured surface and cut into 8cm circles.
- Place 1 teaspoon of the filling in the centre of each circle, fold over and squeeze the edges firmly together to close. Starting from one corner, pinch and twist the edges all the way round to the other corner to create a decorative edge.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the sambousak over medium heat to brown on both sides.
- Serve warm.
Cook’s tip: "You may bake the sambousak if you prefer to avoid frying. Bake in an oven preheated to 220°C/425°F/gas mark 7 for 10–15 minutes."
Artichoke hearts (Mehshi Ardi Showki)
Artichokes are very popular in Lebanon when in season. They are used in salads, served with lemon and oil dressing or stuffed and baked either in a lemon, as here, or tomato sauce.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 35 minutes, plus 40 minutes’ baking
12 frozen artichoke hearts (no defrosting required)
350g (2 medium) onions, cut in half and thinly sliced
60g crushed walnuts
A little ground black pepper
25g plain flour
30ml lemon juice, plus juice of 1/2 lemon for boiling the artichokes
A little chopped parsley, to garnish
- Cook the artichokes for 10–15 minutes in boiling water. Drain, then add salt and the juice of 1/2 lemon to prevent them turning brown.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
- To make the filling, heat the oil and sauté the onions until they turn slightly brown. Add the walnuts, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper, stir and remove from the heat.
- For the sauces, melt the butter, add the flour and stir for 2 minutes, then gradually add a little water at a time, keep stirring until it has all been added. Stir in the lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
- Fill each one of the artichoke hearts with the onion and walnut mixture, and place in an oven dish.
- Pour the lemon sauce over the filled artichokes.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes until the tops of the artichokes are are slightly crispy.
- Garnish with a sprinkle of chopped parsley for a touch of colour.
- Serve with basmati or Lebanese Rice
Cook’s tip: "Most people prefer to shallow fry the artichoke hearts in a little oil for a few minutes to brown slightly before filling them, particularly when they are fresh and add to the flavour."
Fried Aubergines with Tomato Sauce (Batinagane Mekli Ma Banadoura)
Bursting with flavours, this dish is a must-try. When a Lebanese person says they are having a ‘mixed fry-up’, it means fried aubergines, onions, courgettes and potatoes, and it’s always served with tomato sauce.
Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus 1 hour to salt aubergines
Cooking time: 30–40 minutes
2 large aubergines
50ml olive oil
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 or 2 chillies (optional), deseeded and chopped or whole
400g fresh tomatoes, chopped
A little chopped parsley, to garnish
Cooking oil, for frying
- Slice the aubergines into 1cm thick pieces. Sprinkle with plenty of salt and leave in a colander to drain for 1 hour (salting aubergines reduces the amount of oil they absorb).
- Heat a little cooking oil in a frying pan and fry the aubergines to brown on both sides. Or, if you want to avoid frying, use a griddle, brushing the aubergines with oil, and brown them on both sides.
- To make a tomato sauce, heat the olive oil, add garlic and chilli and stir for 30 seconds; do not allow the garlic to turn brown.
- Add the tomatoes and fry with the chilli and garlic for 5 minutes.
- Either serve the tomato sauce on the side or spooned over the aubergines.
- Allow to cool and sprinkle with chopped parsley.
- Serve cold with bread.
- I am passionate about aubergines, so I like to enjoy this dish on its own just with bread. It can also be served as a side dish with a main course.
Cook’s tip: "I am passionate about aubergines, so I like to enjoy this dish on its own just with bread. It can also be served as a side dish with a main course."
Cauliflower in Tahini and Coriander Sauce (Karnabeet Be Tahini)
Tahini, made from sesame seeds, is such a rich ingredient, especially when cooked. The tahini sauce in this dish turns a cauliflower into a flavoursome, filling meal.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
1 large cauliflower (1–11/4 kg), divided into florets
30ml oil, plus a little to
500g (2 large) onions, sliced
6 cloves sliced garlic
For the sauce:
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp salt
40g coarsely chopped coriander
Ground chilli, for sprinkling (optional), or use paprika for colour
- Rinse the cauliflower, sprinkle with a little salt, drizzle with a little oil, and place on a shallow baking tray to allow browning. Bake in an oven preheated to 220°C/425°F/gas mark 7 for 30–40 minutes and it becomes slightly brown and tender.
- Heat 30ml oil and sauté the onions and garlic until soft and slightly brown.
- To make the tahini sauce, add the lemon juice and salt to the tahini and mix with a spoon until dry and fluffy. Adding a little cold water at a time, keep mixing until you have a thin, runny sauce (tahini will thicken when cooking). Taste for salt and add a little more if liked.
- Saving a little coriander for the garnish, add the rest to the tahini sauce.
- Transfer the cauliflower to a deep ovenproof dish.
- Add the onions and garlic, pour the tahini sauce over the top and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.
- Sprinkle with chilli or paprika and serve with Lebanese Rice (page 264) or plain rice and lemon wedges.
Images: Little, Brown Book Group