The Coolest Country You Know Nothing About

Friends, in the last weeks we have had some pretty extreme weather. Seemingly just a few days ago, I felt as if my face would melt off because of the oppressive heat. When I began writing this post, there was a hurricane watch and I was looking out the window and wondering when the rain will stop long enough for me to take out the recyclables!

On the positive side, the cooler weather seems to have arrived, which is great news for me. Fall is my favorite season and I welcome the cooler temps. Last Monday marked the start of the Jewish New Year 5779, and we celebrated the holiday Rosh Hashanah. New beginnings are fun for everyone and on Rosh Hashanah the tradition is to eat sweet foods like apples and honey, yummy breads and cakes. Who can’t get behind that?!

I wrote another post about the holiday here so you have a bit of cultural context and/or want to salivate over the delicious holiday recipes! Many parents have thanked me for writing the post so they can explain the Jewish New Year to their children.

Kids' Cooking Classes | Westchester County, NY

Feast from the Middle East

You probably know by now that in each of our kids’ cooking classes we feature a region of the world. This summer, in one of our kids’ cooking camps, we focused on the Middle East.

Our menu included Spinach and Onion Fatayer, Lebanese Red Lentil Soup, sweet Mint Tea and Lebanese Butter Cookies called Ghraybeh. We made some of the dishes with some products that I was given by my friend Mai of Almond & Fig and our friends at Ziyad Brand.


Those who know me can attest that I am crazy about Middle Eastern foods...Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli, Palestinian….#allthecuisines. The flavors and textures are so robust yet also can be subtle and delicate. I am also pretty passionate about teaching our children about the world and creating opportunities for understanding across cultures in our kids’ cooking classes.

When I ask the kids where the Middle East is on the World Atlas I always have with me in class...I’m usually met with blank stares. (Come on, DOE give our kids some geography skills!) Then, I move closer to them with the atlas open and ask them to read some of the names of the countries they see on the pages. A bit more response because they start to recognize some of the names (sometimes)…

Knowing the kids’ usual response to my questions about the location of countries like Lebanon and Syria, this summer I made a plan to make that part of the world a bit more memorable for the kids. I appreciate that we all learn in different ways, and I thought showing them some visuals and them listening to some relevant fun facts may just start a positive association about the region. Plus, giving them some trivia cred to use with their friends which is always fun!

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester, NY

I thought to myself, what would help the kids to have an experience of the country rather than just hear about it….

I gathered my hamsah, I left my Moroccan Tagine at home because I was already schlepping a ton of stuff, and let my fingers do the walking on You Tube. Let’s face it, we adults barely like reading any more and prefer watching videos….for kids, video is the only choice for them!

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester, NY

How Many of These Do You Know?

1) The Hamsah, also known as Khamisah, or Hand of Fatima, is an ancient middle eastern amulet symbolizing the hand of G-d. The symbol is an upward-facing hand with an eye in the middle. Both followers of Islam and Judaism believe that the hamsah symbolizes protection and is meant to bring its owner happiness, luck, good health, and good fortune.

2) We talked about the images that come to mind when they think of from stories they might have heard from the Middle East. Things like Jasmine, Aladdin, camels, sand, deserts, genies, palm trees and the like came up. They couldn’t believe it when I told them that Lebanon has no deserts in the entire country and that there are 15 rivers in a country the size of the state of Connecticut !

3) When I asked the kids in the class how many languages they speak besides English, there was silence. It sounded unreal to them when I told them that most Lebanese children speak 3 languages: Arabic, French and English!

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester County, NY

4) I told them that Lebanon is one of the top 10 most popular shopping destinations in the world. Nike, Louis Vuitton, Polo and H&M all have shops in the big malls in Beirut. I loved seeing their faces change as their brains tried to digest what they were hearing….Middle East….shopping…stores they recognized… was amazing!

5) They all looked at each other when they heard that 70% of children in Lebanon are in private schools! When I told them that of the 10 of them sitting at the tables, if they were in Lebanon, 7 of the students seated would be attending private schools. That impressed them!

6) Most people in Lebanon wear the same kinds of clothing as we do here, what is known as “Western-style” clothes.

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester County, NY

7) The most popular sports in Lebanon are Football (Soccer), Basketball and Rugby with Weightlifting gaining in popularity.

8) When I told them that out of every 10 adults, 1 is a doctor in Lebanon. Comparing to the US and Europe, where 1 out of 100 adults is a doctor, they couldn’t believe there were so many doctors in Lebanon.

9) There’s almost an equal amount of Muslims and Christians in Lebanon. There’s also another religion known as Druze, which is similar to Islam. The kids were surprised that everyone in a Middle Eastern country wasn’t Muslim. I really live for these paradigm-changing moments.

10) The first law school in the world was built in Beirut!

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester County, NY

The Menu

Many parents are surprised to know that some of the most popular dishes we make in my world cuisines curriculum are Middle Eastern foods. Since most kids aren’t familiar with Middle Eastern cuisine aside from the hummus they may eat with pretzels, I knew that I would have to explain the foods we would make in terms of comparing them with foods they have heard of before.

By far, one of the most popular dishes we make is called Fatayer {fah-tai-yah}. There are many varieties and fillings, and the way I describe them to the kids is that they are like empanadas with Middle Eastern flavors! Over the years, I have seen some trends in what kids enjoy both preparing and eating, and this recipe gets high marks in both! You should TOTALLY try it at home with this recipe!

Kids love making dough, and the dough for this recipe is a good one to make because it doesn’t have to rest or rise for too long. Like empanadas, there are essentially 2 parts of this recipe that we prepare: the dough and the filling. You may not believe me...but the filling that we make in class is the one with spinach, onions and Arabic spices like za’atar and sumac. And they LOVE IT.

Now that we are getting into the Fall season and warm, dough foods are Fall’s jam it’s the perfect time to try making it yourself at home. Don’t let the recipe or special spices intimidate you. You can find Sumac here and you can find Za’atar here.

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester County, NY

When my friends at Ziyad sent me the package of goodies, I was more than a little excited. I saw so many possibilities of dishes I could prepare with what they sent me to try out.

Here’s what I envisioned when I took out what was in the box…

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With the almonds and dates, I could make almond milk by covering the almonds with water, and soak them for at least 4 hours, or overnight. Once they're soft, it's time to blend them. Strain the water from the almonds, and place the soaked almonds in your blender. Add 1.5 cups of water.

(Note: I drink almond milk in my tea twice daily but never use any nut-based products with the kids).

With the olive oil and red lentils, I would make Lebanese Red Lentil soup.

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester County, NY

With the za’atar and olive oil, I would make Lebanese pizza.

Kids' Cooking and Baking Classes | Westchester County, NY

My friend Mai gave me even more ideas on her amazing website on how to use Pomegranate Sauce and other gorgeous Middle Eastern recipes! Here’s her link for Pomegranate BBQ Sauce! Amazing! Here’s a fun recipe for a Cauliflower and Freekeh dish from Zana and Za’atar. Let me know what you think of the recipes!