A unique cultural history has helped to make Lebanese food the most popular of all Middle Eastern cuisines. For most of its past, Lebanon has been ruled by foreign powers that have influenced the types of food the Lebanese ate. From 1516 to 1918, the Ottoman Turks controlled Lebanon and introduced a variety of foods that have become staples in the Lebanese diet, including olive oil, fresh bread, baklava (a sweet pastry dessert), laban (homemade yogurt), stuffed vegetables, and a variety of nuts. The Ottomans also increased the popularity of lamb.
After the Ottomans were defeated in World War I (1914–1918), France took control of Lebanon until 1946, when the country won its independence. During this time, the French introduced some of their most widely eaten foods, particularly treats such as flan, a caramel custard dessert dating back to the 1500s, and buttery croissants.
The Lebanese themselves have also helped to bring foods of other cultures into their diet. Ancient tribes journeyed throughout the Middle East, carrying with them food that would not spoil easily, such as rice and dates. These foods slowly became part of the Lebanese diet. As the tribes wandered, they discovered new seasonings, fruits, and vegetables that they could add to their everyday meals. Exotic ingredients from the Far East (east and southeast Asia) and other areas of the world were often discovered by these early tribes.
The Lebanese diet focuses on herbs, spices, and fresh ingredients (the Lebanese rarely eat leftovers), relying less on heavy sauces. Mint, parsley, oregano, garlic, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon are the most common seasonings.
Bread, a staple food in Lebanon, is served with almost every meal, most often as a flat bread, or pita. It is so crucial to the Lebanese diet that some Arabic dialects refer to it as esh , meaning "life."
Fruit, vegetables, rice, and bread out-weigh the amount of meat eaten in the average Lebanese meal. However, the most commonly eaten meats, poultry and lamb, make up some of the country's most popular dishes. The national dish, kibbeh (or kibbe ), consists of a ground lamb and cracked wheat paste, similar to paté. Kibbeh was originally made by harshly pounding the lamb and kneading in the spices and wheat. Those who were unfamiliar with this practice often found it quite unpleasant, including the English food writer George Lassalle, who described it as "frightening." Some rural villages continue to prepare it this way.
Mezze, a variety of flavorful hot and cold dishes, is another important part of the Lebanese diet. As many as forty small dishes are presented at once as either appetizers or as a meal itself. Hummus (chickpea, sesame seed, and garlic paste), rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves, mashed beans, hot and cold salads, grilled seafood and meats (including kebabs, cooked cubes of lamb, peppers, and onions), and pickled vegetables are most popular. Lebanese meals are rarely served in courses, but presented all at once. Tabbouleh (a salad made with cracked wheat) and mujaddara (a lentil and rice dish) are also widely consumed.
Lebanon's variety of fresh fruits makes them popular after-dinner desserts. Melon, apples, oranges, tangerines, persimmons, grapes, and figs are great treats. Baklava, a sweet, flaky pastry, is usually associated with Greek cuisine. However, the Lebanese have embraced the dessert and normally prepare it with pistachio nuts, drizzled with rose-water syrup (the Greeks use walnuts and honey). Ahweh (strong, thick Arabic-style coffee) and the country's national drink, arak (a colorless alcoholic beverage made with anise, also called "Lion's Milk" because it is white), are most commonly served with dessert.