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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Lebanon

WARNING: Terrorist threats and violence exist in Lebanon, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Lebanese Food - Lebanese food
Lebanese food

Lebanon is a country that is fortunate enough to have a huge number of local foods and animals as the weather and location of the country provides fertile lands. Due to this the land has always been densely populated as fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish are readily available.

Among the more common foods found in Lebanon are onions, garlic, eggplant, pomegranate, figs, dates, olives, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), grapes, wheat, and barley. The animals present were also numerous including sheep, chicken, goat, and more. These mammals were used to produce dairy products as well. Off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea there is also an abundance of sea life, which has historically been used for food.

Culinary Influences

Over time a few new ingredients were added to the Lebanese diet and cuisine, but these changes were small until the rise of Islam in the 600s. As this new religion rose to power, both Damascus and Jerusalem became centers of the religion and Lebanon, sitting between the two benefitted from their location and abundance of foods as Levantine cuisine was born and developed (sometimes Levantine food is referred to as Lebanese or Middle Eastern food in English today).

This diet, not dissimilar to Mediterranean foods consists of fresh fruits and vegetables as olive oil, garlic, and beans are used extensively and there is a noticeable lack of dairy products other than goat cheese, which is used sparingly. Hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, shawarma, and baba ghanoush are all considered excellent examples of Levantine foods and all originated in the greater Syrian area.

As trade and communication developed over time the diet of the Lebanese remained truly Levantine, however the definition of Levantine was slowly changing as new introductions were added to the diet. Foods present in the Mediterranean continued to be imported, such as lemon as spices from the east were also regularly integrated into the cuisine. Also as the ease of transportation continued Levantine foods were exported and today most of the Middle East eats a number of foods that are originally Levantine.

In the 1500s the Turks arrived and the food was again altered, but the two diets were already quite similar and each had been inspired by the other multiple times throughout history. The Turks still made an impact though as lamb became a more prevalent ingredient on the Levantine menu.

In the past century the influences left on Lebanese food have come primarily from the west as the French, who colonized the region, introduced more dairy products like cheeses, while "ethnic" foods are becoming popular as well. Today in the capital of Beirut there are multiple restaurants featuring Chinese, French, American, and Japanese food.

Staple Foods

Bread: bread is fairly common, but the variety of choice flat, like pita bread
Hummus: a dip consisting of mashed chickpeas (garbanzo beans), tahini, garlic, and lemon
Tabbouleh: a "salad" generally made of parsley, bulgur, tomatoes, garlic, and lemon

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Dolma: fruits, meats, and/or vegetables with rice stuffed in grape leaves, but sometimes also served in peppers or tomatoes
Kebab: numerous styles exist, but usually with a base of roasted lamb or chicken and vegetables in pita bread
Mezze: sampling of numerous dishes, generally including small plates up to grilled meats

Dining Etiquette

When eating in Lebanon there are a few etiquette rules you must know and follow, but first you must know if your host and other diners are Christian or Muslim as this may alter the dining rules in some regards. If in doubt on the present company, try to dress on the conservative side (see our Lebanon Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless they are related or married. While this is very uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow a local's lead.

Try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but be sure to greet every person individually and shake their hands (although some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women should touch so wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite sex). Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive.

If dining in a restaurant with Muslims don't order any pork products or alcohol as these foods are against the Islamic dining rules, although many Muslims in Lebanon do drink alcohol and many also eat pork; if eating with Christians there are no true dietary restrictions and even some Muslims consume these products so just follow the lead of the locals. Once the food is served follow your host's lead as he or she may invite everyone to begin serving themselves at the same time or may request that either you or the elders be served first. Try a bit of everything offered as turning down food is rude. If you finish your first serving, expect to be offered a second helping; turn this invitation down at first and only after your host's insistence should you accept more food.

Eat as the locals eat; in some settings this means eating in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), but for other foods and on other occasions, you should eat with your right hand; only touch your food with your right hand. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough and place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position.

If dining in a nice restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Many restaurants include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included a tip of about 15% is appropriate.

Celebrations & Events

Lebanon is a country that both Muslims and Christians call home and most of the country's most important celebrations are focused on religion. There are two major Muslim holidays in Lebanon, including Eid al Fitr, which is an event filled with numerous foods. These foods differ from family to family, but generally consist of various meats and fish as a base with other grains and vegetables on the side. This celebration occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days.

The second major Muslim celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

For the Christians, the Christmas celebration in Lebanon is extremely important as Christian families indulge in numerous foods. The most traditional food served for Christmas dinner in Lebanon is turkey, but this can be accompanied (or replaced) by other meats and side dishes. Dessert is perhaps the most enjoyable part of this meal though as it usually includes chocolate and liquor. However, each family has their own traditions and favorites, but generally the dessert options are plentiful no matter the family.

Drinks

Most people you meet in Lebanon will offer you coffee as most meetings and occasions begin with a cup. Coffee comes in numerous styles, with Turkish coffee and the local "Arabic" coffee being perhaps the most popular. Tea is also popular among the locals, but if you don't want either option, Lebanon has nearly anything you'd want; juices, milk, and soft drinks are available everywhere and all the popular international brands can be found.

Alcohol is legal in Lebanon and the Christian minority does consume various alcohols, however the majority of the country is Muslim and many Muslims don't drink alcohol, although many in Lebanon do. In the cities alcohol is quite common, but in more rural areas and in more conservative families alcohol is rarely consumed. In most situations there is no issue with visitors drinking, but if in doubt follow the lead of your local host or ask. The favored local alcohols are whisky and vodka, although beers and wines are also available. The local alcohol to try is called arak, which is an anise-flavored liquor and the national alcoholic drink, but not nearly as popular as other alcohols.

The tap water is generally safe to drink in Lebanon. If you do drink the water (or the ice or salads washed in the tap water), many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013