Saturday, October 3, 2009
What is Mouneh?
Mouneh: the word evokes a feeling of home, security, nourishment, tradition, maternal instinct, and much more. For us Lebanese, it is indeed very much of our culinary traditions, and way of life. The word itself comes from the Arabic word mana meaning storing. In the past, especially in remote villages, mouneh was prepared during the summer months in order to be consumed during winter’s harsh days. The mouneh was the fundamental nourishment of the peasants’ meal. The main purpose was to transform foods that were to perish into foods with long shelf life. These in turn became durable, lasting throughout a whole season; thus preserving basic food groups.
Today, without the urgent necessity of preserving one’s winter foods, the mouneh has become more of a sociological act. For some, it is a way to keep our basic culinary heritage. For others, it is still very important to preserve one’s bountiful harvest for winter’s consumption to avoid any kind of waste. And yet, others have continued to make mouneh to stock food for security purposes, prepared as a moral crutch to ensure food abundance in times of political instabilities. As you can see, mouneh can take on many different aspects, but the basic idea encompasses one of preserving food.
Preparing one’s mouneh is an elaborate work and in yesteryears sometimes involved a whole community. Nowadays, it is rare to find a household that prepares every single type of mouneh item. Very often, one prepares the mouneh with the harvest of the lands worked and labored during the season. Some who do not own land; wait for the cheapest economical value to buy all their goods to make their yearly mouneh.
In order to understand the mouneh, it is best to define it. There are different categories involved.
The preservation of fruits is eminent. Delicious jams, marmalades, molasses, syrups, and jellies are made to preserve fruits of the season. The most popular and typically Lebanese fruits conserved are: apricots, bitter oranges, apples, cherries, dates, figs, mulberries, pumpkins, plums, strawberries and quince. There are different techniques involved ranging from preserving whole fruits in syrup to developing highly concentrated liquids to make very thick molasses. Each fruit entails creative recipes made with specific procedures, with traditional indications.
Vegetables are preserved in different ways. One way, involves soaking of vegetables in a basic pickling solution made of water, salt, and vinegar. Highly reducing vegetables’ water content to produce a thick paste is another option used for some recipes. Preserving vegetables, especially when delicately stuffed in extra virgin olive oil, is very much appreciated and quite common in Lebanon. In the past, drying vegetables on a string in the sun was a very common practice. Some recipes vary according to different regions of the country. Many innovations and creations have occurred from interactions with neighboring countries, thus increasing the numbers of recipes.
The olive harvest is one of importance in Lebanon. Because of high consumption of olives and olive oil in the Lebanese diet, the olive season is taken very seriously by farmers, producers, and consumers alike. Some families pride themselves on their olives and will take their precious harvest only to a trustworthy and loyal olive press to make their olive oil. Olive oil is preserved in glass jars or in square-shaped steel containers away from light in a cool dry place. It is of upmost importance for a Lebanese family to have secured his share of olive oil for the family’s yearly consumption.
Wild flowers, Aromatic herbs, and wild edible plants are abundant throughout undamaged Lebanese landscape. It is thus an important part of one’s preservation and mouneh storage. Families often plan field trips to spend a whole day on a specific area to pick nature’s offerings. Aromatic herbs are dried and ground to be used in traditional Lebanese recipes. One of the most popular and highly appreciated herbs is wild thyme called zaatar. Other wild edible plants are hand picked, washed carefully and preserved in pickling solution or distilled for medicinal infusions. An array of colorful wild flowers is dried to create perfumed bouquets for cold winter’s nights.
Up until about the 1960’s, in villages all around Lebanon, a fat-tail sheep was force-fed for months before the cold winter to preserve winter’s meat. The sheep’s main food was made of vine and mulberry leaves. Usually the woman of the house took care of this task. She would feed the sheep five times a day, every day. She would nurture it, massage it, bath it, and even sing to it. The sheep became totally dependent on the women, and thus became domesticated. It would be fed enough for him to become three times his original size with a huge tail full of fat called liyee. When the weather would get cooler, about mid September, the sheep was slaughtered. The by- product of the sheep would ultimately feed a family for a whole year. The traditional recipe for meat preservation called awarma calls for 1/3 meat and 2/3 fat. The fat is melted then the meat is added and cooked slowly over a low heat until the meat becomes tender. Today, awarma is still prepared, not so much for meat preservation, but for the exquisite and nostalgic taste that the recipe holds. It is very much appreciated in soups, in pies, and is typically fried with eggs in the traditional “fakr” – a curricular pottery recipient.
Dairy products are also an important feature in making one’s mouneh. In the past, lack of refrigeration made cow, goat, and sheep milk impossible to store. Thus, many recipes were produced to preserve the abundance of milk during a specific period of lactation of one’s herds. These recipes have been carried on from one generation to another and remain to be very popular and appreciated. To preserve milk and milk by-products, different techniques have been created including drying, preserving in oil, preserving in clay jars and in goat skin, and reduction. Recipes include the making of kishek, the making of darfieh with carefully washed and salted goat skin, the making of serdeleh with huge clay jars used as preserving recipients, preserving of labneh balls in virgin olive oil, the making of shanklish – the tennis ball like fermented cheese made from the whey of yogurt, and finally the reduction of butter to produce a clear clarified butter.
Grinding one’s wheat to make bread is not obsolete. Many families in Lebanon keep their wheat in a safe place and grind only when they are out of stock. Making paper-thin bread traditionally on a saj’ is an important aspect of mountain life. The authentic Lebanese bread maker will always keep wheat as an important part of his yearly preserves. Grinded wheat of different sizes are also preserved used in the most famous Lebanese recipes including the most popular Lebanese dish tabbouleh made with finely ground burghul.
Grains, seeds, and nuts are also important part of the staple Lebanese diet. Grains are made into savory stews and our very much part of the weekly Lebanese meal. Seeds and nuts are common in Lebanese recipes and one favorite is the pine nut which is harvested in the winter to be put on rooftops during hot summer days.
Distilling and owning an alembic is typical of the mouneh producer. The most traditional recipes include distilling orange blossoms in April, rose petals in May, wild plants throughout the year, and fermented grapes at the end of the summer to make our national drink arak.
The characteristics and elements of the mouneh can be very wide and rich. This is just a glimpse as to what the mouneh entails to our culinary heritage. It is an entity that should not be forsaken, that should be rediscovered, that should to be cherished, that should be replenished, and finally that should be kept alive. It is the mouneh of our ancestors, of our grandparents, of our parents; and the rest…the future is up to you!