A Recipe for a Lebanese Breakfast, From a Maronite Catholic Chef
“Passing down recipes,” says Grace Abi-Najm Shea, “is such an important part of passing down traditions.”
A native of Beirut, Lebanon, Grace Abi-Nam Shea lives an American life, thanks to her parents moving to Arlington, Virginia, many years ago. They had little education and sparse funds, but family members helped out. “Our uncles helped us set up,” she said, “and a neighbor, Christian Strasser, an active Catholic who helped us get settled here. They are my second family.”
To start their life anew in America, her family decided to open a Lebanese restaurant called Lebanese Taverna. “Both parents cook,” she said. “My mom comes from a long line of chefs. My granddad was a chef, so she had cooking in her genes, and by all counts she had to work.”
And her father’s idea about running a restaurant was to bring their country closer to his family, she noted, and to those Lebanese around us. “It was his passion and my mom’s talents, and it worked,” she said. “Now there are 13 restaurants later. We all grew up cooking in every aspect of the cuisine.”
Neither Grace nor her four siblings cook in the restaurant, but she and her brothers test the recipes with their mother, though she does not do any actual measurements, because everything is from memory. “I am so glad I have the recipes and my children know them as family recipes,” she said. “Each recipe comes with a special memory, such as ‘whose favorite dish is this; eating it for a special holiday; and other memories.”
“I am doing that with both sides of our family,” she said. “My husband is Irish, so food transcends all sorts of things. Passing down recipes is such an important part of passing down traditions and shows the basic need to feed oneself and to find resources around you.” She added breaking bread with one another is for her more than just nourishment of the body but nourishment of the soul. Not surprisingly, Grace does a lot of cooking.
Active in their faith, she said her family belongs to the Maronites, an Eastern Catholic church in full communion with the Pope. “We went to Mass every day at Our Lady of Lebanon in Washington,” she said. “We closed our restaurants on Sundays as that would be our only family time outside the restaurant because everyone worked there, and that was our Sunday ritual. We would eat together and get together with the Lebanese community around us. We connected our faith with our culture, and when we moved here there were many Middle Easterners.”
She noted that her mother is still the most religious person in the family. “She watches Lebanese religious television shows and puts on Mass every day,” she said. “That has been getting her through life. She couldn’t focus on anything except Mass, hymns, Psalms.” Of course, added Grace, in Lebanon there are many Catholic landmarks, such as a statue of Saint Charbel, a Maronite monk, and many religious pilgrimage sites.
How she ended up marrying an Irish Catholic, though living in the Lebanese community, turned out because her parents sent her to a local Catholic school, Saint Ann Catholic school in her neighborhood. There she became friends with the Shea family, who are customers of the original Lebanese Taverna. “One of the daughters offered to drive me home from school,” she said, “and then to come home with her and not just to the restaurant. They became my second Catholic family.” And, as it turned out, the family had two boys, one of whom became her husband later in life.
Obviously proud of her Lebanese heritage, Grace said that Lebanon itself is a sign of hospitality, and a sign of offering, because it is more than just having something to eat.
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Recipe: Mom and Dad’s Fūl
“There is nothing more quintessential than fūl for breakfast in Lebanon,” she said. It’s only part of the meal which usually consists of olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheeses, zaatar and, of course, pita bread. This is topped with olive oil and if you ask my dad and Dany (brother), you can’t have enough!”
- 2 cans fava beans
- 1 can chickpeas
- 2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed in mortar and pestle
- Bunch parsley, chopped
- Juice of one lemon
- Olive oil
Empty the cans out into a colander and rinse well to get off the film that comes in the can with the water. Transfer to a pot and cover with about 2 inches water and boil. Cook until done, about 20 minutes and only a little water remains.
In a separate bowl, add garlic and lemon juice. Swirl to combine. Pour beans over and use the pestle to partly mash, leaving half of the mixture not completely mashed. Add the olive oil and mash a little more. You do not want to mash completely. Bring the consistency to your preference.
Top with additional olive oil (be generous) and chopped parsley. Serve in bowls and put more olive oil on the table along with all the Lebanese breakfast accompaniments.