BEIRUT

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Lamb takes center stage during holiday

BEIRUT: Around 200 sheep graze at a sprawling Bekaa Valley agricultural research center, blissfully ignorant that they’ve been spared this weekend as Eid al-Adha revelers butcher and cook thousands of their fellow animals into delicious holiday meals.

“Because of Eid, you have a lot of people – even people who didn’t go to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage – they would tell the butcher to please slaughter a sleep. One-third goes to the poor, one-third to a friend and one-third to the family to eat,” said Hilal Dbouk, director of American University of Beirut’s Agricultural Research and Education Center, located 14 kilometers away from Baalbek.

“Tomorrow, if you visit the butchers, they would all be open. And if you go to Mecca, you would see millions of sheep being slaughtered.”

Year round, beef and poultry lead Lebanon’s meat markets for their abundance and relative inexpensiveness, said agricultural and culinary experts.

But lamb will take center stage for Eid al-Adha, when everything from the tender boiled lamb head to the rich, flavorsome lamb shanks feature on weekend menus across the country.

The Eid celebrates the story of Abraham, who is believed to have offered his only son as a sacrifice to God, who then spared him and allowed Abraham to sacrifice a sheep in his place. And so the tribute to the animal began.

Lebanon’s revelers usually celebrate the holiday, which began Thursday at sundown, by purchasing new clothes for the family, visiting friends and relatives, taking children to amusement parks or out shopping, and eating massive lunches and dinners together – with lamb as the main course.

Ritual slaughters have become rare in Lebanon. But some of the country’s more religious opt for buying the whole animal when possible.

Men can be seen on the side of the rural roads with a small flock of sheep for sale, and small-scale ritual slaughters of a couple dozen sheep still take place outside Beirut, Dbouk said.

Once at the local butcher or regional slaughterhouse, a prayer is said, the neck cut, the blood drained and the meat sold or donated en masse or by the cut.

“In Lebanon, 99.9 percent of the sheep is eaten, and the wool they sell it,” Dbouk said.

The lambs will be served up in all their renditions: the less unusual brains, found at almost any sandwich shop; delicacies like ras nifa, boiled sheep’s head, available at restaurants in Qasqas, Barbir and the southern suburbs; typical home-cooked fare like stuffed lamb’s neck; and Western-influenced recipes using cranberry and prune sauce, said Rima al-Khodr, a Beirut-based catering chef.

Khodr prefers to buy her lamb meat from the butcher pre-cut. Her recipe for stuffed lamb’s neck calls for the specific cut deboned – then stuffed with rice, onion and spices, sewn up, slow cooked and served with a medley of roasted almonds and pine nuts (see recipe).

Those opting out of cooking this holiday can sample the five-station buffet at Phoenicia Hotel’s Mosaic, which is offering its usual fare in addition to chef specials for Eid al-Adha Friday and Saturday ($70 a person). The buffet will feature typical Eid desserts like pistachio-stuffed maamoul, said a Phoenicia Hotel spokeswoman.

“Every day is different. Sometimes there is lamb, depending on the chef that day,” the spokeswoman said.

Other holiday events around the capital include a kids’ day Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at Souk Ayyas in Beirut Souks organized by Joue Club, and a weekend charity event at Saifi Village near Beirut’s Martyrs Square.

The Saifi Village event Saturday from 2 to 8 p.m. will host yoga for adults, and face painting and candy for children. All proceeds of the event will go toward organizations helping the families who lost their homes in last weekend’s attack in Ashrafieh, said a spokeswoman for Solidere.

Beirut Arab University also collected clothing, food and cash for the Eid.

And many individuals are taking the initiative to donate meat through a trustworthy butcher or through Muslim charity organizations such as “Sandouk al-Zakat,” said Rima Alsammarae, 24, of Beirut.

Keeping with the custom, Alsammarae will be donating lamb meat.

“I’m not particularly religious, but my family is Muslim, and there are aspects of the religion I really admire, such as giving to the poor,” she said.

“Eid al-Adha is a reminder of what you have and what you can give. This is why I’m following tradition.”

Stuffed lamb’s neck

Ingredients:

- Lamb’s neck deboned

- 2 medium yellow onions

- 2 gloves of garlic (optional)

- 2 1/2 cups of rice

- Vegetable oil

- Dry raisins (optional)

- 1/2 cup almonds and pine nuts (toasted)

- Cinnamon stick

- Spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, sweet pepper, salt, black pepper, bay leaves

- Twine (thread to sew lamb together)

Method:

Buy the lamb’s neck deboned from the butcher.

Spread the neck out and rub the inside with a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, sweet pepper, salt and black pepper.

Separately, chop the onions and mix with one cup of raw rice, chopped garlic, a dash of vegetable oil, pepper, salt and a pinch of cinnamon. Add dry raisins to mixture, if desired.

Stuff the neck with the mixture and sew like a pocket all the way around the edge with twine.

In a hot saute pan with a little olive oil, brown the outside of the lamb on all sides. Cover it with hot water, add several bay leaves, the cinnamon stick and salt and pepper, and simmer for two or three hours until very tender.

When meat is finished, set it aside and keep the water. Add the rest of the rice, about one-and-a-half cups, to the stock with a dash of each spice, and cook until fluffy. In a separate pan toast the almonds and pine nuts.

Take twine out of lamb. Mix all the rice together, top with tender, cut lamb’s neck and garnish with toasted nuts.

Recipe courtesy of Rima al-Khodr

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2012, on page 2.

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