At a new venue on Lourensford Estate you can get to know the tastes and traditions of Lebanon. Attend a cooking workshop at Ghenwa’s Culinary Club and you’ll come away with more than new recipes. By Magriet Kruger
On a perfect Winelands morning, sunlight filtering through oak leaves, I find myself puzzling over sumac spice. It’s a deep red powder with a lemony flavour and fresh acidity, and a cornerstone of Lebanese cooking. Before me are bowls with three different versions of sumac: hand ground, industrially ground and synthetically produced sumac. I’m at Ghenwa’s Culinary Club on Lourensford Estate for an introduction to the country’s cuisine and Lebanese chef Ghenwa Steingcaszner is extolling the spice’s virtues.
In Aley, the Lebanese mountain town where she grew up, when the winter snows arrived, fresh produce was scarce. That’s when sumac, which is an antioxidant and source of vitamin C, became prized for more than its flavour. There the traditional way to prepare sumac is to crush the dried berries in a linen bag. The result is a coarse powder that you can add during food preparation or sprinkle over finished dishes. Ghenwa describes it as red velvet, which beautifully captures sumac’s precious nature.
Back to the three types before us. I sprinkle a bit of each powder over the palm of my hand to taste each. The synthetic one isn’t particularly flavoursome – like coloured sawdust, Ghenwa jokes. The commercial one is a very fine powder, perfectly adequate for cooking. But the standout is the homeground version, with sumac berries from a plant tended by our chef’s mom. “Be careful with that,” she admonishes, “I’m giving you my mom to work with.”
The tastes of Lebanon
During the course of the cooking demonstration, Ghenwa unpacks the hallmarks of Lebanese food: the ingredients, tastes and values that characterise this Mediterranean cuisine. We sniff shot glasses of rosewater and orange blossom, admire costly mastic (an aromatic resin) and learn about za’atar spice mix. This is not only a cooking demonstration but a tour of the country’s traditions and its history.
As we nibble on thin-leaved crackers, she reveals that this Lebanese snack is the same as Italy’s carta di musica. A local prince took them to Sardinia where the sprinkling of za’atar made way for rosemary and salt. Alongside descriptions of traditional ingredients, Ghenwa gives insight into food’s health benefits and shares cooking tips. It all happens at a mile a minute, every fact delivered with her irrepressible energy.
You must tear the salad leaves for fattoush by hand, cutting makes them go bitter. Dessert should be made first: when the senses are fresh and before the scents of food on the stove can muddle things. Tabbouleh takes equal parts tomatoes and parsley – and did you know it is an aphrodisiac?
With plenty of these interesting and entertaining asides, she demonstrates five Lebanese dishes. In addition to the tabouleh, there’s rooz maa dajaj (chicken with rice) and eggplant fatteh. Some of the participants try their hands at shaping sambousa (pastries filled with lamb mince). Dessert is kinafeh, a baked pudding topped with pistachios.
Food is a celebration
Then it’s time for a Lebanese feast. We sit at an oversized oak table as Ghenwa describes the mezze before us. There are 16 mezze in all, each more pretty and flavourful than the last. Don’t make the mistake of some guests who thought this spread was the full fare. You wouldn’t want to miss out on the mains made during the cooking class or forgo the traditional desserts.
Ghenwa and her husband, Geza, who serves as the wine steward, are personable hosts. They want their guests to feel comfortable and this is also why they’ve styled their venue as a club. This is a place where you can be at leisure. When you sit down to a meal, you won’t be rushed out to make way for the second seating. It is also a place to enjoy new experiences. Besides the cooking workshops, they host food and wine pairings, music recitals and belly dancing classes. Don’t be surprised if Ghenwa puts on Arabian music for an impromptu display of this sensuous dance.
Between the authentic Lebanese food and her stories of the country’s culinary traditions, you’ll find yourself transported. While some of the mezze (think hummus and baba ganoush) are widely known, there are many new dishes and exotic flavours to discover. “Eating is cultural,” she says. Her cooking workshop certainly offers an inviting glimpse into the soul of Lebanon.
“Food is a celebration, it lifts up your mood,” she continues. Time spent with Ghenwa exploring Lebanese food is a delicious mood booster.
Good to know
Cooking workshops cost R750 per person, minimum 10, maximum 16 participants. Visit ghenwasculinaryclub.co.za to view scheduled classes or book your own group session via firstname.lastname@example.org or on 072 952 3348.