Levantine cuisine has been booming for some time now and is considered one of the most exciting food trends in the world. Falafel, hummus and taboulé are among the best-known dishes of Levantine cuisine - but where this comes from, there is so much more to discover and enjoy! And the beauty is, super many recipes are vegetarian or even vegan and only require a few ingredients. So if you want less meat on your plate, but still want the full enjoyment, Levantine cuisine is the place to be!
I grew up with Levantine cuisine. I'm very happy about that and I'm looking forward to spreading the taste of the Levant and my family's recipes to the world with my blog. But let's start from the beginning.
What is the Levant? The sun rises in the east ...
The Levant is a region on the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The term Levant comes from the Latin levante or the Middle French levant and means something like "East" and "Orient". The term is derived from levare, by which the Romans meant sunrise. The Romans then referred to all the countries east of Italy on the Mediterranean as the Levant, but especially the Middle East.
I was born in Beirut in the 1980s. Lebanon is considered part of the Levant, but Israel, Palestine, Syria and Jordan are also part of it. Even though I declare many dishes here in the blog as Lebanese, these or variations of them also exist in the other Levantine countries. But my perspective is Lebanese.
I like the term Levantine cuisine because it means that this region and even beyond (e.g. Egypt and parts of Turkey) are very similar in terms of cuisine and there is a close kinship here. At the table, we are united by much more than we are separated by political borders.
Offshoots and influences
Even in other countries, such as Greece, you can still find offshoots of Levantine cuisine. For example, almost everyone knows mousakka - aubergines and minced meat as a kind of casserole. Even though the famous dish has undergone many changes, its origin can be traced to the Levant through its name. The word Mussaka`a means "the cold one" in Arabic. In the Levant, musaka'a is served cold as aubergines without meat in tomato sauce with chickpeas. Great, isn't it?
Why does Spain also have a Levant?
In fact, in Spain, the eastern part, that is, the Mediterranean coast, is also called the Levante. In other words, the coast that makes up the eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula and "faces" the sunrise. In culinary terms, however, Spain does not belong to the Levante cuisine. However, the mezze principle is familiar from Spanish cuisine - there it is called tapas.
What makes the region special?
It may sound a bit strange when I say it like this now, but for me, the Levant equals joie de vivre. Joy in the sunny, warm weather. The Mediterranean Sea and the great beaches. The super varied landscapes from the flat coast to the high, snow-covered mountains. You can sizzle in the sun on the beach on the same day and ski in the mountains in the evening. The flora is correspondingly varied. From sandy and stony stretches, to forests full of pine trees and cedars, to plantations of olive and fruit trees. And then there's that incomparably great food. Unfortunately, the region is extremely battered by political strife and wars, but if you get to know the people there, you'll know what I mean. No matter what happens, they pick themselves up again and try to enjoy life.
What is Levantine cuisine and what makes it tick?
Levantine cuisine has a strong tradition and, like any other cuisine, arose from the needs of the people and the conditions of the region. The food is often simple and consists of only a few ingredients. But what you can conjure up with them in just a few steps ignites an absolute explosion of flavour. So it doesn't always have to be a big and expensive purchase.
You'll find a lot in Levantine cuisine:
- Legumes, especially chickpeas and lentils
- Lots of fresh vegetables (e.g. aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes), often as a snack (cucumbers, peppers) in between meals.
- Lemons, sumac and pomegranate for a great acidity
- Fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint & coriander
- Best olive oil
The most common spices are:
- Cumin (cumin)
Through my experience and passion in Levantine cuisine, I have noticed that what makes the dishes special is often the perfect balance of sweet, fat, salty and sour. Very many dishes are prepared with plenty of olive oil and/or tahini, ripe tomatoes and a good dose of lemon and/or sumac. Often, smoky roasted flavours are then added - baba ghanoush is a perfect example of this. The aubergine is put on the grill and roasted beautifully on all sides. Then the now smoky flesh is refined with garlic, salt, tahini and lemon.
Even if it sometimes seems like you need a lot of exotic ingredients, you can actually get almost all of them at the supermarket around the corner. Special ingredients, such as sumac and za'atar, can easily be ordered online or found in oriental or Turkish supermarkets. In general, I recommend visiting the Oriental supermarkets because you can buy really excellent fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices without having to take out a mortgage.
What are the specialities of Levantine cuisine?
Just take a look around here: In my blog, I specialise in the cuisine of the Levant. So this place is teeming with delicacies from this region. Of course, you should have tried all the recipes, but if you ask me what the world knows about Levantine cuisine, I would say:
- Baba Ghanoush
- Shawarma (by the way, it even goes vegan!)
When people ask me what my favourite dish is, I usually answer: a complete mezze.
A mezze is the Levantine equivalent of Spanish tapas. You are served a whole table full of delicacies and can feast from A to Z to your heart's content. And being surrounded by a group of people you love, the mezze is not only sociable for me, but holds unforgettable moments - culinary and human.
In the Levant, by the way, they also love sweets. You've probably heard of baklava and the like. But they prefer fresh fruit much more than cakes, desserts, etc. I mean, they are right at the source of the most delicious fruits. I mean, you're right at the source of the tastiest fruit there. So you can never go wrong with a rich fruit platter.
The typical fruit varieties of the Levant include:
- Melons (watermelon, honeydew melon - anything called melon)
- Figs (preferably freshly picked from the tree)
- Prickly pears
- Citrus fruits
- Grapes (even as great wine!)
As you can see, you can get all this at your local supermarket.
What people in the Levant also like to nibble on are nuts and seeds! Freshly roasted nuts and seeds are a must when you receive visitors. People often bring each other delicious nibbles from the neighbourhood roastery. The tradition of roasting is still very much alive in the Levant. If you want to buy coffee, nuts or seeds, you buy them fresh from the roastery. The smell alone in such a roastery is beguiling. So if you are ever in the Levant, you should definitely visit a roastery!
Why is Levantine cuisine all the rage?
Well, if only I knew exactly. I rather wonder why Levantine cuisine is only now really taking off. On the one hand, I think it's because people are generally experimenting more and, due to increasing globalisation, it's also very easy to get hold of certain ingredients that simply weren't available a few years ago.
Another reason, besides the fantastic taste of course, is certainly the vegetarian and vegan movement. Although there are some meat dishes (especially at the BBQ) in Levant, most dishes are completely meat-free. Because of the protein-rich legumes, the food in Levant is rich even without meat. The beauty is that many dishes are simply vegetarian or even vegan by default.
Whatever the reason, I think it's a fantastic development and I'm thrilled to be able to pass on this delicious, simple and healthy cuisine to you and inspire you.
If you have any questions about the Levant and Levantine cuisine, feel free to write in the comments or send me an email.
First of all, I wish you lots of fun discovering the delicious recipes and of course enjoying them.