The Austin Chronicle

Mrs. Santa's Book Bag

By Mick Vann, December 7, 2012, Food

The Lebanese Kitchen

by Salma Hage (Phaidon Press, 512 pp., $49.95)

Phaidon Press is known for its traditional culinary bibles of national cuisines, including Spanish, Italian, French, Indian, Greek, and now its newest addition, The Lebanese Kitchen. The author, Salma Hage, is a 70-year-old grandmother from the mountains of the Kadisha Valley in northern Lebanon with over 60 years of experience in family cooking. Hage learned to cook from her grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, and sisters-in-law, and would often cook for her huge family. She also spent many years working as a professional cook. This is essentially her collection of generations of recipes from family and friends, with over 500 recipes in all. It is the definitive guide to traditional regional cuisine from Lebanon, the most exciting and creative food in the entire Middle East. With dishes coming from the steamy coastal plains, cool mountains, and fertile valleys, from street-food vendors, restaurants, and home kitchens, Hage covers every aspect of Leba­non's innovative cuisine.

Although the uncluttered and easy-to-follow recipes lack headnotes, you don't miss them; cooking from the book is like having a smiling Lebanese granny at your elbow leading you through all 11 chapters. The food within is amazing – the extensive section on meze and salads alone is worth the cost of the book. Toby Glanville's artistic photos dazzle and entice, enhancing the dishes and making it even harder to decide which recipe to choose. The food is seasonal and based on fresh ingredients, and everything you'll need comes from your local grocer. It's simply prepared, soulful, and unfussy – vibrant and earthy, with complex, layered flavors from the spices. Vegetarians and vegans will be giddy when they cruise the recipe index, but carnivores will delight as well. I never imagined all the ways lamb can be prepared, and eggplant lovers will salivate; every category gets the complete treatment. Hage has produced a valuable culinary tool that will be taken up by generations to come, all learning why Lebanese food is so damn good. The Lebanese Kitchen is brilliant.

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