The Power of the Table
The Merrimack Valley’s Lebanese Food Traditions Bring Together Family and Community.
Don’t ever plan to leave a Lebanese home hungry.
That’s according to Bassam Geha, owner of the Phoenician Restaurant in Haverhill and Bishop’s Mediterranean in Boston. The Middle Eastern diet relies heavily on grains, fruits and , as well as a focus on hospitality. Combined, that means good food — and plenty of it.
So much food that Geha has to plan his diet carefully when he visits Lebanon. “There’s a saying: ‘You don’t have to answer yes the first time someone asks you to eat in Lebanon, because they are going to ask you five more times,’ ” he says.
Lebanese food isn’t new to the Merrimack Valley.
“There’s lots of Lebanese food that you can find; it’s become a mainstream item,” Geha says. “Hummus, baba ghanoush … shawarma (a shaved, roasted meat) was even mentioned in the latest “Iron Man” movie.”
When Geha holds a Lebanese event at the restaurant, he always instructs his waitstaff to leave the mezes — small appetizers — on the table for two hours, replenishing as necessary, before bringing the main meal.
“I tell them: ‘Don’t take it away, no matter what.’ ” he says. “People eat a little, sit and talk, dance, eat a little more. They go outside, eat again.”
One of the surprise popular choices on the mezes menu? Kibbe, or seasoned beef or lamb. “If we don’t have it, all hell breaks loose,” Geha says. “And it’s not just Lebanese customers. You’d be surprised at how many people are familiar with it in the Merrimack Valley.”
That familiarity traces, in part to Bishop’s, a restaurant in Lawrence that featured Middle Eastern specialties for more than 50 years before closing. Started by a Lebanese immigrant who originally sought work in the textile mills, it was well-known for its stuffed grape leaves and other Lebanese dishes.
Geha, who moved to the United States from Lebanon in the 1980s, worked at with his family. When the restaurant closed, he opened the Phoenician, hiring many of Bishop’s staff. Although there have been changes to the menu, many of the original items remain, especially traditional dishes like hummus, Geha’s favorite. (He has been known to eat it on steak, lamb and, occasionally, plain, with a fork.)
Carlo Berdahn, who owns the Andover restaurant Yella with his wife, Danielle, remembers growing up in a Lebanon filled with civil wars, religious persecution and political unrest.
“But food always had an immense power to bring everyone together,” he says. “Sitting at the table is a huge part of the culture. It’s like going to church; you can’t miss it.”
Berdahn, who describes his food as a modern twist on Lebanese cooking, has tried to re-create that atmosphere at his restaurant. “Food makes you feel taken care of, and we believe memories are made around delicious dishes,” he says.
Lebanese cuisine also fits with the current foodie trend of fresh, local ingredients. It’s rooted in a farm-to-table approach, Berdahn says. “Most homes have gardens they rely on, and everything they’re cooking is from the land to the pot.”
Recipes often are handed down from generation to generation. Although Berdahn attended a French cooking school, it was his mother who really taught him. “I still think she makes the best food in the world,” he says.
Like many traditional foods, making some dishes requirespassion and patience. They can be time-consuming to prepare.
“Everything is made from scratch. In Lebanon, there aren’t any ready-made ingredients. For example, you can’t go to the supermarket and buy tomato paste. You make it once a year and can it yourself,” Berdahn says.
That element results in fewer people preparing traditional dishes, says William Yameen co-owner of the Butcher Boy Market in North Andover. “People are so busy, and the effort to make the traditional dishes of any ethnicity can be Herculean,” he says. “Some of these recipes are getting lost as time goes by.”
Information on how to source and prepare ingredients before cooking is disappearing, too, according to Yameen. “That’s why it’s important to go to someone experienced, who knows what they are doing, when shopping,” he says.
Despite the work involved, many people still want the food they remember, Yameen says. That means making a streamlined version of a favorite dish, or purchasing it from a restaurant or store.
People looking for those traditional dishes this summer should consider a Labor Day weekend visit to Lawrence, where for the last 40-plus years Saint Anthony Maronite Church has hosted Mahrajan — a Lebanese word meaning festival. There’s music, dancing, children’s activities, raffle baskets and lots of food, including an entire tent devoted to favorite Lebanese sweets.
Foodies can expect to find kaak, a type of Lebanese donut, ghraybeh, a sugar and butter confection, and phyllo dough pastries stuffed with rose water and orange-flavored creams, says parish member and baker Bassima Aboujaoude.
Also available: katayef (sweet Lebanese crepes made to order), ma’amul (shortbreads filled with dates and nuts), baklava, and strong Lebanese coffee for people who cannot live on sugar alone.
Baking starts weeks in advance, says Aboujaoude, who shares cooking duties for the tent with several other women, including her sister, Raghida Ramey, and friends Leila Daou, Foutine Daher and Claudine Raad. No matter how many sweets the women make, there never seem to be enough.
Like many traditional cooks, Aboujaoude and her friends were taught by their mothers and by the church women who operated the festival before them. The recipes may vary slightly, but the message behind the treats remains the same, she says.
“We’ve always taken whatever the ladies before us used to do and tried to combine it with our own touches,” Aboujaoude says. “We’re putting everyone’s love in there.”
Butcher Boy Market
North Andover, Mass.
Saint Anthony Maronite Church
Other Local Resources:
Hassey’s Grocery & Mediterranean Food
Jocelyn’s Mediterranean Restaurant & Martini Lounge
Shadi’s Restaurant & Lounge
North Andover, Mass.