Belly dancing and hummus – Swedes fall for Lebanese

The war that tore through Lebanon in the 1980s brought 15,000 Lebanese to Sweden. One result of this is that Swedes are becoming connoisseurs of Middle Eastern cooking – and belly dancing – as Rami Abdelrahman reports.

Swedes have been experiencing Middle Eastern cuisine of one sort or another for about a thousand years, but with Middle Easterners forming the bulk of ‘new Swedes’ of today, native Swedes are once again discovering cooking from distant shores.

The first contact between Swedes and Middle Eastern food can be traced all the way back to the days of Viking trade with the Islamic Empire in the 1100s, but perhaps the most obvious links between Swedish cooking and the areas around Turkey and the Levant have their origins in the reign of Karl XII in the 18th century.

Karl, who travelled to Turkey more than any other Swedish King, imported meatballs and dolmar (vine-leaf rolls filled with meat and rice) recipes to 18th century Sweden. These both soon became Swedish national dishes, with the vine-leaves in the dolmar replaced by the more readily accessible cabbage to become koldolmar or ‘cabbage dolmar’.

Today, immigration means that new flavours from Turkey and the Middle East are once again being felt on Swedes palates. Turkish Kebab shops are perhaps the most obvious example of this, but more sophisticated Middle Eastern food is also growing in popularity.

Lebanese restaurants in Sweden might not yet be ubiquitous in the same way as Indian establishments are in Britain, for instance, but the Phénicia restaurant in Stockholm’s Östermalm is one of a growing number of eateries in which Sweden’s immigrant communities are sharing the joys of their cuisine with an appreciative Swedish public .

The restaurant offers its sharply-dressed customers a wide selection of Lebanese delicacies, while they listen to Lebanese folk ballads sung by 1980’s diva, Fayruz. A belly-dancer (who in a multicultural twist hails from Brazil) shakes her hips every evening, dancing between the tables as diners polish off their desserts.

Similar restaurants, plus or minus the entertainment, can be found around Sweden.

At Byblos in Örebro, the staples include a mezze bar buffet, and daily specials such as lamb chops with rice or grilled vegetables. In common with many other Lebanese restaurants, the entertainment is a crucial part of the mix. Owner John Bandick found that this attracted a very different crowd to the one he expected.

“I expected a lot of Lebanese immigrants to come for the music and the food. surprisingly that was not the case – the restaurant was always reserved by Swedes who didn’t want miss a chance to indulge in dancing,” he explained. “Most customers come here to try for the first time, but once they discover the relaxed atmosphere, they increase and extend their visits.”

When Bandick’s restaurant opened in 2003, he was surprised to meet Swedish women who were experts in belly-dancing. They encouraged him to start a 1001 nights-style Lebanese evening once a month.

Sweden’s boom in Lebanese restaurants is an indirect result of the war that tore through Lebanon in the 1980s. Around 15,000 people fleeing the conflict took refuge in Sweden between 1985 and 1995.

“It took them a while to understand how to do business in Sweden, and by the early 1990s one restaurant had opened in Stockholm. A few years later, Stockholm had over nineteen restaurants, and later they spread all over the country,” says Bandick.

Swedes instantly took to the exotic flavours and Middle Eastern culture introduced by the new restaurants. This prompted some establishments to expand from modest beginnings as small Falafel shops, to high-end restaurants with evening entertainment and sophisticated food.

Swedes like Lebanese restaurants because they offer varied menus at cheaper prices than other restaurants, Bandick thinks. A major client base is vegetarians, for whom Sweden’s traditional meat-heavy cuisine gives few options. Others are attracted by the fact that Lebanese cooking is generally low in fat.

“Thirty percent of my customers are meat-eaters, who come here because we used low-fat meats in our dishes, the remaining seventy percent are vegetarians who come here because most of our dishes consist of vegetables and grains.”

Arvid Öberg, is a vegetarian 22-year-old student, who finds Middle Eastern cuisine ‘interesting and suitable’ for his diet.

“When I travelled to the Middle East to do some research, I lived with a Palestinian family in Jordan. They cooked a different vegetarian dish for lunch and dinner every day for almost a month, they had many ideas for vegetarian foods,” Arvid said.

He brought back a list of recipes, but his favorites were Gallaye (Seasoned tomato dip, eaten with crunchy pita bread), and M’nazalle (Boiled potatoes cooked in tomato soup, mixed with parsley, onions and served with rice).

For people like Arvid and for Middle East immigrants themselves, finding ingredients is not always easy. Research conducted out at Lund University found Swedish immigrants from Middle Eastern descent had been forced to change their diets due to the shortage of certain foods, such as Mlokheye (a leaf vegetable also known as Jew’s Mallow, which is similar to spinach). But as more immigrants have arrived and as more native Swedes have taken to Middle Eastern cooking, Swedish stores have started to cater for growing demand.

Canned Middle Eastern foods, such as Hummous, Warak and Baba Ganoush (mashed, seasoned eggplants), Ful Medames (cooked broad beans, an Egyptian breakfast dish served with olive oil), and Falafel (Fried balls consisting of broad beans and chickpeas), are now all available in supermarkets such as ICA, Coop or Hemköp. Halal and kosher meats are only usually available in specialized Arab and Jewish stores, however.

Even this could soon change: as the popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine grows, demand for the products looks set to keep increasing. As for Lebanese restaurants; their place at the heart of the culinary establishment looks set only to strengthen.

A quick Guide to Lebanese Cuisine:

A typical dinner starter includes Mezze dishes like Warak

(Grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables, marinated with lemon, parsley and oil), Bastirma (seasoned, dried cured beef), Kibbeh nayye (spiced, minced raw lamb meat), tabboule (a salad-mix of parsley, bulgar, tomatoes, mint, red onions, in seasoned lemon juice), Mana’eesh (Thyme, sesame baked on round pieces of dough), and labne (a type of yoghurt cheese).

Just when diners think they’ve had enough, the main dish is served, usually consisting of grilled, marinated meat and chicken, served straight from the grill to dishes by waiters. A usual selection of dips would include hummus (chickpea, sesame paste, lemon and garlic dip) and Tsatsiki (A Greco-Turkish yoghurt mix with cucumbers, onion and garlic), and hot chili mixes.

Most Lebanese restaurants also offer a large selection of Middle Eastern sweet wines, champagne, beer, and Arak (a colorless, sour, aniseed-flavored and distilled Lebanese alcoholic drink, turning white and sparkly once mixed with water and ice).