I am like a little ant who keeps all types of documents and find herself with a load of papers and other stuff... I have decided to put away all my papers (and stuff), to class them in a proper way in order to continue my quest and begin a new project (baby blues again)! Upon returning to Lebanon, decades ago, I was always intrigued by how the Lebanese eat a specific kind of food during a religious celebration. One important document that I kept was a calendar written for the Souk el Tayeb newsletter, I'd like to share it with you. I feel it is essential that we know that these traditions exist. Our children need to live through these same traditions in order to keep them alive. A few days ago on the 4th of December during the feast of Saint Barbara (yes, my name) I bought some Atayef which are half moon shaped rolls of dough stuffed with curd, flavored with rose petal jam). It's festive, traditional, and part of our Lebanese identity. I shall copy word for word the article I kept to share with you this information.
Ashoura: Marks the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muhararram 61 AH (Oct, 10 680 AD). Tradition has it that every day during the 10 days of mourning, a different family cooks hrisseh, also sometimes called qamhiyeh, for the whole neighborhood. Hrisseh, a stew of overcooked wheat, is a typical dish in Christian tradition too. It is cooked for a very long time in huge copper cauldrons, on hot coals or wood fire, so by the end, the meat and wheat has dissolved into a thick porridge. Among the Christians, it is cooked in honor of the village patron saint (usually the Virgin Mary), or during summer feasts in the mountains.
Easter: The period of Easter lasts about 50 days. There are considered the holiest in the year. As in other religious celebrations, Lent, a 40 day period of fasting and penitence, is observed in preparation for Easter. The rituals of the Catholic Church differ from those of the Eastern Orthodox one and the dates of the two Easters only coincide once every 4 years. During Lent, the fast is observed until midday, when a frugal, often vegetarian meal is consumed. In the past, no joyous occasion could be celebrated during Lent and even today weddings are still not permitted.
Specific dishes are cooked in different parts of the country, like kebbet hommos (chickpea kebbeh) in Zgharta; kebbet yaqteen (Pumpkin kebbeh), and kebbeh hileh (Potato kebbeh) elsewhere. All these different vegetarian interpretations of kebbeh - virtually a national dish - were developed as a solution to not eating meat in Lent. Traditions says, that in the early days when Christianity was still forbidden and Christians were persecuted, a Roman officer sent his troops from house to house during Lent to see who was eating kebbeh and who was not so that he could find out who was Christian. The Christians got news of this strategy and developed their own, by preparing vegetarian kebbeh, so wherever the soldiers went, they found kebbeh and people were safe. Hence the name kebbet hileh, meaning trick kebbeh.
Another common dish eaten during Lent is cooked wild bitter herbs dressed with a little vinegar, in memory of the drink offered to Christ on the cross.
All desserts were free of butter, milk, and egg (vegan in fact) especially among the Orthodox Christians who did not consume anything of animal origin, even honey, during this period. sfouf b'debbes, a molasses cake, saved those craving for sweets.
When on Easter Sunday the bells ring to announce Christ's resurrection, people light candles in celebration and eat maamoul, prepared well in advance. This Easter biscuit is made from semolina and butter, flavored with orange flower water and stuffed with dates or ground pistachio, walnuts or almonds. In some areas instead of being stuffed, the biscuits are sweet and are flavored with thyme and marjoram.
Wheat, a symbol of life, is also used to convey the theme of rebirth with wheat-based dishes served at midday, as wheat soup with meat or as a dessert made from boiled wheat, pine nuts, almonds, dried fruit and orange flower water.
Eid el Fitr and Eid el Adha: Mloukhiyeh is the main dish found on the table during these holy feasts. It is often accompanied by chicken and rice, and depending on the location, we also find mashawi or kebbeh and the inevitable fattoush salad.
Many families serve "white" dishes based on yogurt or milk during the first days of Ramadan, including fatteh, koussa blaban or shish barak. These symbolize better days to come. Some desserts are specific to this holy month like osmalyieh (from osmali or ottoman) mafroukeh, qatayef, karbouj and of course kallaj Ramadan - a fine dough filled with special crea, fried in oil and dipped in syrup, almost a sweet version f a Tunisian brik. The cream filling is a sort of thick custard made with milk, sugar, a little flour and starch, gently cooked and scented with rose or orange blossom water. In some areas Kellaj is eaten unfried, soaked in orange blossom and rose water.
Druing Ramadan even the drinks are special when people serve qamareddine and jallab.
Before sunrise, there is souhour - a snack that helps sustain people during the day long fast. Some people eat nqouu, alo known as khshaf, a mix of melted dried apricot, dried fruits and nuts thought to help quench the thirst during the day.
Eid el Mawled and Seneh el-Hejriyeh: In celebration of the Prophet Mohammad's birth and during Muslim New Year, white dishes like shish barak, koussa and desserts like milk rice, mhallahbiyeh are eaten. Some families still perpetuate the tradition of boiling milk on the door step to make good days in the future. Dates are distributed and in some areas, special pastries called kaak el-abbass, a very basic biscuit made with flour, samneh, milk and sugar.
Saint Barbara: Saint Barbara's feast is the local Christian version of Halloween when children dressed in costumes go from door to door asking for treats. Saint Barbara was said to have lived in 3rd century AD, and she had to flee from her Roman father who refused to let her become a Christian and threatened to kill her. Among the miracles that saved her was the wheat that miraculously sprouted to hide her progress as she fled barefoot across the fields. Saint Barbara's day is celebrated with sweet qamhiyeh - boiled wheat served with sugar, orange and rose water, almonds, pine nuts and raisins. Other sweets include qatayeb - half moon shaped rolls of soft dough stuffed with walnut cream; and the qawwamaat - balls of deep-fried dough soaked in sugar syrup.
Christmas: Christmas Eve is celebrated with a laden table. The place of honor is usually reserved for a delicious oriental stuffed chicken: filled with rice, chopped meat, almonds, walnut, pine nuts, flavored with pepper and cinnamon. Another dish is stuffed chicken neck.
Years ago all the typical sweets were fried in oil and the family would gather around the stove where a pot of oil bubbled constantly ready fro frying the awwamaat (imbued with a hot sugar syrup), zlebyieh (long strips of soft dough, fried without sugar), and maakrun (fingers of dense dough, fried and immersed in hot syrup). These same sweets were prepared for the Epiphany (6th January) and it was the habit to fry them every evening after Christmas leading up to that day. These nights were named "Frying Nights" and the tradition remains until today. Note that on the 6th of January, flour and water was mixed together to make sourdough to be used as leaven to make bread throughout the year (a bit of mouneh knowledge there). Christ is said to come and bless the mixture, traditionally hung on a tree late at night.
It is also worth noting that some celebrate Jesus' birth by preparing meghleh, a rice based dessert with crawiah spices traditionally served to celebrate birth.
This article was published in the Souk el Tayeb newsletter Aug. 09, author is unknown.