We Lebanese love to label ourselves as the center of the culinary world. Yes, our Mediterranean diet does the body good, and foreigners swoon over wafts of our delectable food (they really do!). But who knew that some of the dishes we prize and cherish as our own can be found in other countries’ cuisines, almost identical in appearance and uncannily similar in taste, too? Did you ever think you could find a sambousik look-alike in South America, for example?
Let’s locate where in the world some of our Lebanese favorites are dressed under the guise of a different name.
Omelet is a universal dish formed by beating eggs rapidly and cooking them in a frying pan. Sometimes omelets come folded around a filling such as cheese, veggies, meat, or any combination thereof. In Lebanon, 3ejjeh generally consists of scallions and parsley or cored zucchini. In India, the omelet contains finely chopped green chili peppers, onions, coriander, salt and cumin. Spain’s tortilla relies heavily on cubed potatoes and is thus heartier.
Ftayer bi sele2 are triangular turnovers caching Swiss chard or spinach, diced onions, tomatoes, sumac, and other herbs. Our northern Mediterranean neighbors in Greece craft something remarkably similar called spanakopita, a burek-style phyllo pastry stuffed with chopped spinach, feta, onions, and eggs. Spanakopita can be baked in a large pan or shaped into individual triangular portions that double as a snack.
An empanada, best described as a turnover, can be found in Latin America and Southern Europe. The counterpart to the Lebanese sambousik, this starter typically stuffs a variety of meat, cheese, vegetables or even fruits and can be baked or fried. Argentina is famous for more creative ingredients, like boiled eggs, olives, raisins, and, during the Lenten season, fish. In Indonesia, panadas are filled with spicy tuna and chili peppers.
Stuffed cabbage rolls, or what we call me7she malfouf, are common to the ethnic cuisines of the Balkans, Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. The Poles refer to them as “little pigeons,” stuffing cooked cabbage leaves with a mixture of mince pork, beef, and rice or barley before allowing them to simmer on the stove. In Romania, they are known as sarmale and are traditionally served on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, while in Sweden, they come with the essential lingonberry jam.
Kebbet batata or batata bil saniyeh layers puréed potato, a meat and onion stir-fry, more purée, and finally a blanket of bread crumbs, often crushed kaak. Shepherd’s pie, originating in the UK, is a meat pie encased by mashed potatoes. Thus named because it incorporates mutton, beef is another popular option, and either meat can be supplemented with diced carrots, green peas, and onions. A molten cheddar topping elevates the dish beautifully.
Danielle was born into a Lebanese household in Southern California. Growing up, she constantly found herself living between two realities: outwardly, she was an American girl who loved swinging on the monkey bars and reading The Baby-Sitters Club. Inwardly, she was Lebanese, speaking Arabic at home and forbidden from attending sleepover parties.
With age comes awareness and self-confidence, and Danielle learned to embrace these differences. She accepted that she'd forever be suspended between two worlds, and that she'd be like a tapestry, one culture woven into the other. As she grew older and worldlier, Danielle promised herself she would one day settle in Lebanon.
And here she is. Three college degrees and a few consulting gigs later, she is now in her parents’ homeland, working in strategy management, fleshing out her blog Beirutista, and contributing to Bitfood. Danielle gets her hair coiffed several times a week, like any proper Lebanese girl, and she loves the traditional mezze. But she still prefers peanut butter to Nutella. And her American accent is unmistakable.