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What is Levantine Cuisine? A Pie Contest Primer

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Fatayer are savory pies from Lebanon and Syria, often filled with meat or cheese. Photo by goodiesfirst via Flickr

In case you hadn’t heard, KCRW’s Good Food Pie Contest will be returning for its 10th year on April 28, 2019. Sign-ups are now open, and we’re thrilled to present a marvelous special category this year inspired by The Fowler Museum at UCLA’s exhibit Dressed with Distinction: Garments of Ottoman Syria.

The Levant is defined as the Eastern Mediterranean and I fell for the collective cuisines from the countries in this area when famed author Paula Wolfert published “The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.” Think of the area of the Fertile Crescent, from Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Cyprus, Northern Greece, into the Balkans. The palate is varied beyond belief. The “C” spices figure heavily: caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin. Plus nutmeg, turmeric and spice blends like baharat or pastes like harissa. There is tartness from citrus, sumac, tamarind and vinegar.

And the doughs. Well, we had to get to the doughs, right? Filo was invented here, those transparent leaves that shatter with crispness when baked layered with butter or olive oil. So for sweet pies, think of baklava and its many iterations as inspiration.

But it’s the savory pies from these countries that are truly something to explore. The filo genre alone could fill volumes. Filo filled with squash or cheeses or soft curds of egg, stacked, rolled, folded or spiraled into a snake. Then there are fatayer, the meat and/or cheese pies of Lebanon and Syria. And that’s before we get to the individual pies, the borek.  Or the lahmajun of Armenian diaspora.

Doughs are lean or short with fat. Thin or thick. Flat or raised with yeast or baking powder. This is a category that you can really use to exercise your creativity and learn something new.