It’s 7am in Zahle and I just woke up to the peaceful sound of the church bells. 2 hours later, the serene smell of burning scents is overflowing from my neighbour’s garden; offering daily gratitude and humbly reciting “give us today our daily bread”. Is it Epiphany day? Or Saint Barbara’s day? Maybe the feast of Saint John the Baptist? Or Easter Sunday? Regardless! the oven is on high heat and the dough is resting and doubling in size.
Zahle is the largest predominantly Christian town in Lebanon and the Middle East, embracing more than 50 churches and daily feasts. The custom of sharing food and festivities after liturgical events is a practice that has been followed for ages! Some saints tend to be sweeter than others, and Saint Barbara is not only very sweet but also extremely generous. Saint Barbara’s feast day marks also the “Lebanese Halloween” where kids disguise in masks and knock on neighbours to collect money and candies. In my case, I did second and third rounds with no shame and came back home to a warm dish of sugared boiled barley – a tradition exclusively tied to this particular feast, when Saint Barbara tried to escape from her father. While hiding in the field, the wheat grew and sheltered her until she was captured by soldiers.
On Christmas day, Meghli which means “boiled” in Arabic, is served in recognition of the birth of Christ. Meghli is a traditional Lebanese dessert based on a floured rice pudding and spiced with anise, caraway and cinnamon; Garnished with shredded coconut and various nuts including almonds, walnuts, pine nuts and pistachios. The dish was traditionally served to celebrate the birth of a male heir, which is still a big deal in Lebanon but became in modern tradition a celebration dessert for any new born.
Another shared delicacy is Qatayef, a sweet dumpling filled with ashta cheese or nuts made on Epiphany day in January, and commonly served during Ramadan. Epiphany day in Lebanon holds a lot of meaning and hope. Women insert coins in a little dough as it is believed that on this Holy day, everything on this earth is blessed, specially wheat and water. Heaven doors are wide open, you can ask and pray for whatever you need and the Lord will listen. of course, as a teenager, I took advantage of this day and recited my list of needs for the entire year: from a Harley Davidson Jacket, to become an actress, wake up with blond hair, etc…until this feast started to make sense once I grew up.
During Lent, there are traditionally forty days marked by fasting, both from food and festivities. However, sweets in Lebanon are replaced by a sinless semolina cake called ”Sfouf”, infused with anis tea and turmeric powder and doesn’t contain any eggs or milk. Lent finishes on Easter Sunday with the breaking of boiled eggs and the consumption of Kaak, milk based rolls.
Unlike most feasts, Saint John the Baptist has a particular tradition in August. Each kid gets a rockmelon which is placed overnight on his/her pillow, the rockmelon represents the head of Saint John, the next day the rockmelon is cut to reveal the colour of the heart; if red, the kid’s life will be prosperous, if the heart is pink…the mother would hysterically buy another rockmelon and keeps cutting one after another until she gets the lucky red one.
It’s 5am in Sydney and I just woke up on the sound of parrots and crows. 2 hours later, the open Jungle feel of Sydney swapped to a typical western city where the difference between New York, London and Paris fades with people in black suits, commuting between stations and buses to their CBD offices; with an environmental friendly cup of coffee in one hand, and scrolling smartphones for bad news in another,…it’s not even 9am yet and I am already tired!