BEST BITES: A local offering of historic Lebanese sujek

Sujek, a spiced ground meat, has an ancient history and many variations

This is a yet another exploration into the world of spiced meats. Next month, a promised vegetarian dish.

Food connects us to our past and has a particular way of strengthening connections to each other and to the places where those bonds are strongest.

This is an indisputable fact, so a recognition of where we come from can offer a clear understanding of not just what we eat, but how and why we eat the way we do.

A quick trip through time and place, then.

Like most Middle Eastern cultures, Lebanese food is grounded in ancient Levant, a region that includes today’s Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Israel, and of course, Lebanon itself.

Situated between Europe, Africa and Asia, the country has been heir to an abundance of distinct flavours from all three continents. Its rich culinary history dating back thousands of years has focused on herbs, dried fruits, nuts and spices brought by nomads passing through. These many civilizations traveled throughout the Middle East bringing with them food that wouldn’t easily spoil. The cattle-herding Canaanites, seafaring Phoenicians, even the arrival of Persians and Greeks have each had a lasting impact on cooking techniques and ingredients, and in some cases, inspired the names of popular Lebanese dishes.

In more recent history — a mere 500 hundred years or so ago — Lebanese cooking has been predominantly flavoured by two occupying cultures that once held sway over the country. The Ottoman Turks controlled Lebanon for over 400 years, introducing an array of tastes to the land. They were defeated at the end of the First World War by France, who brought with them a very different cultural landscape, leaving behind the gift of pastries and desserts in 1943 when at long last the country was freed from occupation and achieved independence.

While we can make out the unmistakable flavours of these many cultural influences in the food, this distinctive history has shaped the country’s cuisine and has helped make Lebanese food some of the most popular Middle Eastern fare today. Perhaps the reason why the food is so exceptional is precisely because of its connection to these origins.

But let’s talk about Sujek. Also known as Sujuk, Sucuc, Soudjouk, Sudzhuk, Sudžuk, depending on where in the world you are. Traditionally prepared with ground beef and spices such as cumin, salt, paprika, and garlic, the Sujek you’ll find at Retour Bistro has all the makings of tradition rehashed.

“Sujek for us was originally fermented dried sausage made strictly from the butcher.” says Layla, co-owner of Retour Bistro with her husband Joe, “but it takes generations to change something.”

Her own Sujek evolved from her grandmother who simply didn’t trust the local butcher so she ground the beef herself, creating an entirely new recipe with a unique family spice profile.

As is the rhythm with inter-generational traditions, Layla’s grandmother’s Sujek has become hers — with a few modifications. It’s her mother who now makes the spice mixture for the dish. Cinnamon, cloves, cumin, paprika, coriander powder, fenugreek, and cardamon flavour the beef wrap today. And, thanks to her children, cheese and garlic sauce, pickles and sriracha have been added, providing even more revisions to the evolution of this recipe.

Small tweaks of tradition are thus baked into history.

When you walk through the doors of Retour Bistro, you’ll be greeted with Tfadallo — “welcome”. While there, help yourself to a slice of ancient Lebanese history that connects to its taste of place.

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