Lamb on the grill gets a culture-clash makeover
By Jim Shahin,
I suppose you could say I have lamb in my bones. I grew up in a Middle Eastern home, and the meat was at least as common as beef or chicken.
At Thanksgiving, we would include a rice dressing called hushwee, infused with ground lamb. In summertime, our wara aieesh, the term I knew for stuffed grape leaves (known more popularly as dolmas), were filled with lamb, rice and cinnamon and cooked in a broth flavored by lamb bones. Those bones were like dessert; everyone gnawed on them and scooped out the marrow in a swoon after the meal.
My mother, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, didn’t need to take a butchering class. I remember watching her flash a knife through the fat and cartilage of lamb shoulder and legs, cutting the meat precisely into right-size sections.
It was common for us to drive two hours from our home in mid-Michigan to the farmers market in Detroit, where my mother trusted the quality of the meats because Arabs and other Arab Americans, as passionate about lamb as she, worked many of the stalls.
“Trusted” might not be quite the right word. When entering one of the small markets, I would trail behind her, a little embarrassed, as she would harangue the poor guy behind the counter.
“Is it fresh?” she’d begin her inquisition.
“Yes, yes, of course,” the man would answer through an Arabic accent.
My mother’s eyebrows would narrow.
“I don’t want it if it’s not fresh,” she would say.
“It’s fresh,” the man would reply. “Fresh. Look. Fresh.”
He’d pick up some of the red meat and hold it in front of her. Mom would give it the once-over with a diamond-cutter’s eye.
“Hownee,” she would say, which roughly translates as, “Bring it here. I want to smell.”
The guy would raise the meat closer to her nose. My mother would inhale delicately, a trust-but-verify type of sniff.
“Ma badeesh dihin!” she’d say. I don’t want fat. Her way of saying: Okay.
You don’t have to be Lebanese to go a little lamb crazy at this time of year. Spring lamb is a treat and, somehow, it signals the beginning of grilling season. I don’t feel as if the season has really begun until I grill some lamb, typically kebabs.
Years ago, I visited Lebanon, and lamb, you might say, was in the air. My cousin and her family whisked us from one restaurant to the next, this one with a natural waterfall, that one on a mountaintop overlooking the rippling blue Mediterranean Sea.
All of them had one item in common: grilled lamb. Menus typically offered it sliced from a rotisserie (shawarma), stuffed into a sausage (maanke, mild; suuok, spicy) and as a loin with an olive oil and herb sauce (sharhat ghanam). But the go-to dish was inevitably grilled kebabs (lahum mishwee).
The waiters made a show of using a round of pita to slide the cubes of meat down the skewer, along with the grilled onions and tomatoes, onto an oblong platter. The performance seemed somehow to heighten the lovely, hot-off-the-grill aromas. The lamb was tender, with mild spice and a light char from a wood-fueled grill. Kebabs in my home and in Lebanon generally were served with mezze of hummus, labneh (sour cheese spread), baba ghanouj (smoked eggplant dip), warm pita, olives, feta, tabboulehand/or a green salad with a lemony dressing.
I could not help comparing the restaurant kebabs in Lebanon to the ones my mother made, and I could never decide which I thought was better. I learned from my mother, as she had from hers, how to select and cut lamb. But my education was more intentional. I was a boy, after all. The male members of a Lebanese family were not expected to learn how to cook. It wasn’t until my 20s that I asked my mom to show me how to butcher a section of lamb.
Neither of us knew it at the time, but my newfound knowledge led to what my mother would regard as a culinary criminal act.
I moved to Texas, where I discovered flavors of the Lone Star State and the Southwest. I began pairing some of those flavors with traditional Lebanese foods: cilantro instead of mint, hominy rather than garbanzos, lime in lieu of lemon and jalapenos in dishes where no peppers had existed.
I called the fusion cuisine Leb-Tex. Why would anyone reinvent that which was perfect, my mother wanted to know. Had I no respect for tradition? The worst offense was slow-smoking the kibbeh, arguably the Lebanese national dish, which, often shaped like a small football, is finely ground lamb mixed with bulgur wheat and filled with pine nuts, seasonings and coarsely ground lamb. (Having whetted your appetite, I promise to write about Leb-Tex in a future column.)
My Southwestern take on shish kebab didn’t sit all that well, either. Even as I paid tribute to my Lebanese roots, I was nonetheless thoroughly Americanized. Rather than marinate the lamb chunks in lemon juice, as is standard not only in Lebanese but in other preparations, I bathed them in lime, garlic and cilantro. For the finishing touch, I added a chili pepper to the skewer. The zesty result is a Sun Belt take on a Mediterranean favorite.
I tried making Texas mezze as an accompaniment, with guacamole, chile con queso, deviled eggs, queso blanco, pickled okra and tomato salsa. But that was a bridge too far even for this heretic. Instead, I served my Southwest kebabs with Lebanese standards.
Follow Shahin on Twitter: @jimshahin.