Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

‘Mouneh,’ a Levantine Cultural and Gastronomic Gem

Mouneh
Lebanese villagers chop grapes in a machine before making molasses in the northern Lebanese village of Barhalioun, on September 24, 2020. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Dana Hourany

The Arabic word “mana,” which means “to store,” is the root of the term “mouneh.” The preservation of foods for the winter season utilizing seasonal herbs, vegetables, plants, and animal products continues to be a major tradition for rural peoples in the Levant.

Mouneh is made using a variety of methods that preserve different kinds of dairy products, pickled vegetables, cured meats, jams, marmalades, molasses, jellies, syrups, and dried herbs, to name a few.

Food preservation is not limited to the Middle East. Civilizations all over the world have passed on their culinary secrets to the following generation in order to preserve culture and history. However, it is witnessing a boom in the case of Lebanon, especially in the aftermath of the 2019 economic crisis. Experts in the culinary field and merchants note that the crisis has given mouneh the opportunity to seize the spotlight for its financial and health advantages, reviving a long-underappreciated tradition.

Similar ingredients are used in the preparation and processing of mouneh in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, yet these nations maintain their individuality by incorporating different ingredients and creating distinct traditional recipes.

For example, “makdous,” a common pantry item popular throughout the Levant, is a straightforward recipe that calls for young eggplants packed with walnuts, red peppers, chilli and garlic. According to Zeina Al-Zein, proprietor of the Lebanese mouneh store “‘makdous’ is particularly famous in the city of Baalbeck, and is produced according to traditional recipes, along with the dried fermented milk product, known as ‘kishk’.”

“Varying temperatures and weather conditions allow for different mouneh to thrive in different regions of Lebanon. It’s really up to us to know how to take advantage of our natural resources,” Al-Zein said.

History of Middle Eastern cuisine

Animal domestication and agriculture are believed to have been originally practiced by ancient civilizations that inhabited the Middle East. They devised fermentation as a way to make alcohol and extend the shelf life of food.

The Sumerians, Canaanites, Hittites, Babylonians, Arameans, Assyrians, Egyptians, Nabateans, and Ottomans all participated in the creation of Middle Eastern cuisine, which is primarily reliant on the cultivation of wheat, vegetables, and spices as well as the rearing of lamb, mutton, and poultry.

Ingredients such as olives, honey, sesame seeds, mint, chickpeas, and parsley are used across MENA countries which, despite culinary diversity, still relish in similar traditions.

In his 2000 book, Of Dishes and Discourse, author Geert Jan van Gelder, the former Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford University, wrote that generosity, alongside hospitality, were revered characteristics of old Bedouin tribes. Even in extreme poverty, the author said, tribes would not hesitate to overindulge their guests.

“Sharing one’s livelihood with members of one’s clan or tribe, particularly the poorer and weaker ones, strengthens the tribe as a whole, physically and morally,” Van Gelder said. “But hospitality extends beyond one’s own group, to complete strangers [as] the appropriate way to gain honor and glory for oneself, one’s clan and one’s tribe.”

Van Gelder notes that for elder tribes, food was bestowed with a social function that strengthened ties and expanded one’s glory and influence. Largeness, therefore, became a culinary norm passed down through generations.

According to Al-Zein, this largeness is present in mouneh-making customs, where huge quantities of food are conserved for the harsh winter months.

Because of their lack of resources, she explained, “each family used what they had on hand. For example, figs, apples, muttons, chicken, etc. were all utilized to make mouneh for the cold months, which families would consume for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

A surviving tradition

Global inflation rates and a gas crisis triggered by the Russian war on Ukraine have driven up mouneh prices, making products more difficult to purchase. Nevertheless, mouneh-making remains a staple custom despite the harsh conditions effecting many countries in the Levant.

Access to mouneh, for instance, has grown more difficult in Syria as a result of the difficulties in obtaining and sourcing the necessary ingredients. Even as the violence subsided, many Syrians were forced to give up or scale back on their mouneh-making, despite the fact that it remains a mainstay in crisis zones. 90% of Syrian households are currently living below the poverty line as a result of the subsequent economic crisis.

For Palestinians subject to continuous Israeli occupation, mouneh traditions are used as a means to express attachment and belonging to the land while also preserving heritage.

“After the Zionists occupied Palestine, stole our heritage, and tried to obliterate our identity, I decided to revive part of the heritage that we inherited from our forefathers through the production of home provisions that were used by our people before the Nakba of 1948 and carried them to refugee camps,” Yousef Ahmed Al-Mayari, mouneh producer from the Palestinian village of Akbara told Al-Araby.

As for Lebanon, a country weathering a severe economic crisis that has seen its currency losing 90 percent of its value, mouneh is still in demand.

“I started this business right before the 2019 crisis and I quickly realized that there was a lot of demand from the locals and the diaspora alike. The demand for homemade healthy items is still on the rise despite rising costs,” Al-Zein said.

Mouneh, a tale of old and new

Because of the quality of the terrain, soil, and weather that enable particular plants and herbs to flourish, each area in Lebanon, from the north to the south, is recognized for its distinctive mouneh production, Al-Zein continued.

“For example, kishk requires hot and dry weather conditions and Baalbeck in the summertime is a perfect location for its production. Despite the fact that other areas of Lebanon may produce it, our area is renowned for having the best variety,” she said.

Lebanon’s southern climate and soil makes for the perfect conditions to cultivate and produce thyme, bulgur (crushed wheat), and freekeh (green durum wheat).

The southeastern cities of Hasbaya and Rashaya specialize in fruity products such as jams, fruit roll-ups, and their famous grape molasses.

As for the north, and according to Jad Ibrahim, a mouneh producer in Batroun, his region is known for producing significant quantities of zaatar, a thyme and sumac mix that is usually sold alongside goods made with olive oil.

The “Seasons of Ramliye” mouneh shop’s owner, Ghada Shaaban, a native of the Mount Lebanon village of Ramliye, claims that the quince lokum and jelly were first popularized in her region due to the abundance of the fruit in the land.

“We launched this initiative to provide rural women a chance to become self-sufficient and provide for their families during the crisis,” Shaaban told Fanack.

“We structure our work around the seasons. We manufacture and market in accordance with what is freely available every season. People are drawn to the idea of well-being through food since no preservatives are added to the products,” she added.

Al-Zein and Ibrahim concur that Lebanese consumers have been gravitating toward healthier and organic choices, which has helped mouneh sales nationwide.

“Both the local population and those from abroad find the idea of homegrown goodness to be enticing. People now have access to knowledge and are more cautious about what they eat,” Ibrahim said.

A growing success

Ibrahim points out that his enterprise flourished in Batroun without the necessity for expansion. The seaside city continues to hold festivals, exhibitions, and other cultural and entertainment events and has grown as a summer tourist destination.

“Additionally, it’s an extremely profitable and liberating business. You feel less anxious when you work on something you enjoy,” he explained. “Most significantly, this operation is profitable, and customers are drawn to your products.”

While Al-Zein claims that new goods must be added owing to shifting market needs, Ibrahim maintains that his customers prefer products to remain traditional.

“Italian-made sun-dried tomatoes have lately been added to my list of mouneh. It’s what the consumers want, and I always work to update my products to meet demands,” she explained.

For this reason, Shaaban says they aim to combine various fruit tastes in their jams to keep the production new for the clients, while Al-Zein developed a vegetable soup made from dried vegetables as well as zaatar blended with nuts.

The internet has also been vital to the younger generation of mouneh producers, enabling vendors to perfect recipes, yielding a flawless and consistent output.

“Although we reside in a country rich in natural beauty and wealth, we have spent the majority of our lives relying on imports. This can’t go on. We must be productive and understand that, by harnessing Lebanon’s resources, we can resolve our financial problems without the need for foreign assistance,” Ibrahim said.