Mouneh: preserving the taste of tradition

BEIRUT: Umm Elias – the wife of a sixth-generation farmer – lives in the Chouf mountains, where the tradition of making mouneh, or preserves, from seasonal ingredients has held on to its place in daily life with more strength than in any other part of the country. “She’s in her 60s and she climbs apricot trees like a monkey ... a cigarette dangling from her mouth,” said food blogger Joumana Accad.

An accomplished food writer and cook, Accad credited Umm Elias and the older ladies residing around her house in the Chouf village of Deir al-Qamar for her mouneh knowledge.

Traditional Lebanese preserves are the building blocks of the nation’s food heritage. Without them, there would be nothing left of the basic dishes in which Lebanese take enormous pride.

Think stuffed grape leaves without the dried or brined leaves; manakeesh without zaatar or kishik; hummus without olive oil; kibbeh with no bulgur; fattoush with no sumac; breakfast without labne or apricot jam.

To be clear, mouneh comprises a range of basic foodstuff that is given an elongated shelf life by being pickled, salted, fermented, curdled, smoked, dried or distilled.

For most mouneh, it’s not the recipes that are difficult – most consist of little more than two or three ingredients – it’s perfecting the technique, something best learned by watching veterans of the trade do it over and over again. It’s the sort of cultural heirloom that people like Accad inherit from mothers, neighbors and grandparents.

Pride in Lebanese food – even when many in the country are recoiling into their respective communities – serves as a great equalizer, a unifier. So it is with anguish that Lebanon’s foodies watch the tradition of homemade, authentic mouneh die a slow and urbanized death.

“People don’t take their time anymore,” Barbara Abdeni Massaad said, sitting outside a collection of village producers at a pop-up market in an busy Hamra alleyway.

“The joy of cooking is a thing the past, now maids cook for the household,” said Massaad, who published a cookbook, “Mouneh,” three years ago dedicated to the subject. “Food should be the focus of our lives.”

The practice of making preserves – drying, salting, pickling – is traditionally associated with this time of year, historically the calm period before winter would blow through and limit mobility and availability of produce.

That’s certainly not the case for a country with incredible climatic- and biodiversity, Massaad said. Here, preserves are a yearlong chore.

In the chill of winter, women are busy turning carrots to jam, making grapefruit peel edible and doting over fermenting wheat that will become a bread starter to use throughout the year.

Production of mouneh, which relies on climate as well as crop and animal availability, is a very local activity. A commonplace jam in a northern village might be completely unknown to a southern one.

On a recent trip to Ehden, for example, a restaurant served among its dinner mezze a bowl of Zghorta cheese called darfieh alongside several slices of watermelon. Having driven up from Beirut that afternoon, the guests around the table eyed it with utter suspicion.

Darfieh is on Massaad’s list of endangered mouneh, foods that are becoming obscure to city dwellers and risk extinction. Carob molasses was another one, which Massaad said is delicious mixed with tahini and eaten with bread.

“It’s like peanut butter,” she said. There are only 25 producers of carob molasses left in the country.

Other endangered mouneh, according to Massaad, include serdeleh, a goat cheese from the Chouf region made in a terra-cotta bowl, ambarees, its near-twin from the Bekaa Valley, smoked green wheat kernels called freekeh, and labor-intensive pickled walnuts.

Not everything is in danger of being forgotten, however, and Lebanon has a long list of famous mouneh – many special to particular regions.

Olives and olive oil are in abundance in the north and Chouf regions. Down in the arid Bekaa Valley, dried vegetables and fruits are easily made and fermented milk is turned into kishik powder.

In the Metn region, which is rich with coniferous trees, pine nuts are gathered and added to other mouneh like apple jam. Around Sidon, citruses flourish and orange blossoms help flavor honey. While in the southern interior, areas like Nabatieh are known for herbs like zaatar, molokhieh and mixes like camouneh.

It takes no more than four hours to travel from one end of the country to the other. And yet a single national dish can have more than a dozen local renditions. That’s often due to the mouneh on hand.

Take for example, the diversity of kibbeh preparations.

Kibbeh Zghortawiyeh from north Lebanon are softball-sized mounds filled with awarma – a meat preserve made from lamb’s fat. In the south, a plate of raw kibbeh is likely to have a large scoop of spicy, locally made camouneh mixed in. And in the Bekaa Valley, balls of kibbeh are cooked in a kishik-flavored stew.

The Chouf region has best held onto the tradition of homemade preserves, Massaad said. It’s there that she found the most obscure mouneh, a pickled wild thistle root.

Massaad attributed the Chouf’s attachment to mouneh to its closely knit Druze community: “The Druze there, they are very much into nature and preserving their culture.”

In the villages around her house in the Chouf, food blogger Accad said there were still mills where someone could pay around 33 cents per kilo to have thyme or sumac ground into spices, and community presses where in the fall farmers unload crates of olives to be pressed into oil.

It’s a pride in the old way of doing things that is dying out among much of the population, and that’s what inspired Massaad to spend five years traveling all over the country to record mouneh recipes straight from their source.

The simplest way to preserve mouneh-making at home is for children to watch their own parents and grandparents, she said. Massaad even brought her 16-year-old son to work in a traditional bakery last month as a way to instill in him an appreciation for Lebanon’s culinary heritage.

Losing touch with the source of Lebanon’s most important preserves has bigger implications for Lebanese cuisine, as well. Recently Accad said she went to the corner store in Beirut to buy sumac. When she opened the bag she found it was merely citric acid dyed red: “I threw all of it in the garbage.”

Bakeries have also been called out for using cheap zaatar diluted with wood shavings or stale breadcrumbs.

“People either don’t care or they don’t have time,” Accad said. “It’s become a society just like in the U.S. where you have men and women having to work. That’s why you see restaurants all over saying ‘like mom’s cooking’ or ‘your grandmother’s cooking.’

“No one is doing it themselves, no one has time.”

The importance of Lebanese cuisine to the collective memory provides some hope for the preservation of mouneh, Massaad said. She will soon release her third book dedicated to mezze – all of which require one type of mouneh or another. Her next project will focus on dairy in the country.

Ecotourism also offers a bit of hope for Lebanese mouneh.

Hiking trips into remote areas are starting to offer things like olive picking and pressing. That nostalgia is reawakening an interest in the traditional foods, Massaad said. “What’s good is that Lebanese people are very romantic.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 30, 2013, on page 2.




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