Taste of Beirut
Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, Joumana moved to the U.S. in 1979 and is a former school teacher, pastry chef, caterer and translator. She started her blog, Taste of Beirut, in 2009 to share a window into the Eastern Mediterranean where Lebanese food mixes with Turkish, Syrian, Persian, Iraqi, and Egyptian flavors. Joumana was a finalist in the 2012 SAVEUR Blog Awards, has shared over 1200 recipes on Taste of Beirut, and published a cookbook, Taste of Beirut. Today, she works both in the U.S. and in Lebanon as a food stylist, recipe developer, menu consultant, and a cooking instructor.
I am so excited to have Joumana Accad of Taste of Beirut with me here on the show today.
(*All photos below are Joumana’s.)
On the Role Food Played While Growing Up in Beirut, Lebanon:
When you are born and brought up in one place, you don’t begin to realize how special it is until you move out of that environment into a completely different environment. And that’s what happened with me when I moved to the U.S. It suddenly dawned on me what the words fresh and local meant. For example, my grandmother who lived with us and she was in charge of feeding us, she would buy her fruits and her veggies every single day by lowering a straw basket and checking out the street vendors, and then even bargaining with them to do her marketing for the day. And then she would cook every single day, a fresh meal. And that’s something that when you live in a country like the United States or even in Europe, it’s something that you don’t have that luxury of time. I wanted, all of a sudden, being thrown in a new culture, you feel like you want to hang on to your roots and your heritage, but you don’t know quite how to do it. That was the impetus that got me started on the blog, wanting to blog about it.
I’ve always had an interest in cooking, it just was not encouraged when I was growing up. It was not something one would, at that time, encourage people. It was more like, “You need to go to college and learn something serious like law or business.” I had no interest in. But in the U.S., left to my own devices, whatever comes naturally is what you end up doing. To me, my interest in cooking was completely natural, and I did it on my own learning, sometimes calling home and getting tips. And it just gradually developed over the years. But I think the seed was there initially.
On Lebanese Cuisine:
It’s a simple cuisine with ingredients and techniques that recur for example. When you talk about Lebanese cuisine and dairy, you’re talking about yogurt. And I’m not talking about the sweetened yoghurt with the fruit at the bottom. I’m talking about the plain, a little bit sour yoghurt that is used for sauce. If you’re making a stew or a soup, that is used as a side dish. If you’re making a pilaf with rice or with bulgur, that would be the yoghurt. There’s a lot of legumes, chickpeas being one of them, beans, lentils, a heck of a lot of lentil dishes. Simple things like citrus, lemons, you’re always squeezing lemons either in a salad or on a soup or whatever.
It’s not a sophisticated cuisine. And once you’ve learned a few techniques… And now, there are some dishes that require some more sophisticated technique, but by and large, it’s a simple cuisine that anybody can learn and that anybody can make in less than 30 minutes.
On What a Typical Lebanese Meal Looks Like:
Well, for example, you would take, say, any kind of veggie that would be in season, say artichoke. If you have an artichoke, then you would make a stew with some artichoke. The stew would not have a whole lot of meat, it would have a few pieces of shank, maybe with some bone to give more flavor. And then at the end of that stew, to give it flavor, you always add a pesto which is basically you sizzle, in some olive oil, some cilantro and some garlic. You add that at the last minute for flavor.
We have lemon, we have tahini. Tahini is essential in a pantry. Tahini would be like the Lebanese or the Levantine equivalent of butter for the French. Because with Tahini, you make your hummus, you make your dressing for your salads, you make a lot of different veggies dressed with that tahini dressing. You boil them or steam them and you add that tahini dressing. You don’t use butter, you use tahini. And tahini is a paste that’s made out of sesame seeds. That’s about it.
On Her Cookbook:
So many people were telling me, “You ought to have a cookbook,” because I was getting such a good response from the blog and getting to be a guest on radio shows, and on television, and so on. I didn’t have to struggle really. I had a publisher who was interested, HCI, famous for publishing the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and they offered me that book deal, and I worked on it. And I basically wanted to include the core recipes that would exemplify Lebanese cuisine without going just crazy. So I just focused on that. And each recipe had a photo because I’m also the food photographer for the blog and cookbook.
I moved back to Lebanon since 2011 because I wanted to immerse myself in the cooking scene here, cook with local cooks. I thought that it would behoove me to have that experience under my belt, instead of sitting in Dallas writing about Lebanese cuisine by memory. It was a great experience, because I was able to spend half my time in the mountain and learn about country style cuisine, which is completely different from Beirut style cuisine, and cook with Lebanese cooks and learn from them some tips and techniques that I never would have had that exposure had I been still living in Texas.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
Oh, gosh! That’s an easy one. I don’t watch any.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
I used to subscribe to French food sites, it was called cook.com. It’s a paying site, but they have chefs, French chefs, and I learned a lot from it because I thought French chefs were very creative. And it was fun, interesting and fun. I also read a lot of blogs, and they’re usually in French from North African bloggers, because this is one cuisine I’m curious about and I don’t know much about. This is a very rich cuisine in terms of cultural history, variations, all these different tribes. It’s very interesting to me, so I’m learning. I like to learn more than just read a blog because it’s trendy or something.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
I like Instagram. To me it’s the best medium, because it’s quick and easy, and yeah, it’s an instant gratification. I follow a lot of world famous photographers, for example.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I can tell you my treasured, because I would not be in any kitchen if I don’t have it, it’s my garlic mortar. It’s a special wooden mortar specifically for garlic. I refuse to use that garlic press thing. It has to be mashed, and so you have to pound the garlic with some salt or something to make it pasty.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Oh, easy, eggplant. I used to hide the eggplants when I was in school, in elementary school, in the pocket of my apron, so I wouldn’t have to eat it. Of course, I have changed 180 degrees as far as eggplant is concerned in my adult years.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I’m on a constant search for deepening my knowledge of Middle Eastern cuisine. So for example, if I read a cookbook, I want it to not just have a bunch of recipes. That, to me, is not interesting. I want to know the why and the history behind it, and all this. So for example, there’s some cookbooks on Persian Cuisine that I’m really enjoying, because they really go in depth on the history behind the dishes and interesting works like that.
Well, there’s, for example…her name is Margaret but she wrote a book on Persian Cuisine. There’s also Najmieh Batmanglij who also published some beautiful book on Persian cuisine, beautiful photography. Those are cultures that I’m interested in, that I want to learn more about, and the cookbook does the job. It delivers not just recipes, but the whole holistic thing of the culture.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
Well, not classical. Classical makes me want to sleep. Anything from, let’s say, the late ‘70s onwards is good. My son introduced me to Linkin Park. And yeah, I’d go for Linkin Park. I’d go for something like from ‘80s, like Fleetwood Mac, I like this kind of stuff.