Christmas Mideast Style Memories Of Lebanon Flavor The Holiday For The Khawam Family. Now They're Sharing Their Recipes And Their Heritage.

Posted: December 18, 1988

When Marcelle Khawam recalls her childhood Christmases in the small seaport of Jounieh, in northern Lebanon, she sees gentle visions.

There are little girls in dresses of burgundy velvet trimmed in gold. Food simmers through the night, filling the house with scents of spice. Men sip Turkish coffee, play backgammon and tell stories of Christmases past. All is in a hush.

Marcelle's daughter, Caroline, 19, has similar recollections, but hers are more contemporary.

A helicopter throbs loudly overhead and drops candy for the children. Papa Noel barrels into Jounieh on a motorbike, shouting goodwill to all who can hear over the roar of the motor. The bike's luggage racks are laden with brightly wrapped gifts.

Jounieh, the old Khawam homestead, is, historically, a resort town just north of Tyre. It is also about 150 miles north of Bethlehem, which makes it part of the cradle in which Christianity was swaddled. The Khawams belong to the Maronite Catholic Church, one of the oldest denominations of Christianity.

"I think the nearness to the birth of Jesus gives special meaning to Christmas in the Middle East," Marcelle Khawam said. "And even though we are now in the States, our traditions are still with us."

The family came here in the mid-1970s. John Khawam is a musician and was considered one of the leading organists in Lebanon. Marcelle was an accomplished cook who spent a good deal of her time entertaining people involved in the arts and politics.

They have four children - Caroline, David (who was born shortly after midnight on Christmas Day 17 years ago), and twins Natalie and Jill, 13. The family resides in Northeast Philadelphia and operates a small Middle Eastern restaurant, Sahara, at 114 White Horse Rd. in Voorhees.

For this year's holiday, fittingly, the Khawams decided to feature at their restaurant a traditional 10-course Middle Eastern holiday dinner on Christmas Eve. The menu features many of the foods used to celebrate Christmas in the Middle East.

"Of course," Marcelle said, "dishes are made differently, depending where you are from, and everyone thinks theirs is the best. But what we do in Lebanon is pretty much traditional. Just tell me what people are eating and I will tell you where they are from. What country, from the sea, the mountains, the city, so on."

Like most peoples, Marcelle explained, the Lebanese have their Christmas preparations use seasonally available foods and incorporate symbolism. ''Tabouleh is a traditional Lebanese salad (made with cracked wheat and lots of parsley), but parsley is not always very available in December, so back home we usually use lettuce or spinach for Christmas."

Marcelle, 38, looks like an angel who has grown up. She gestures delicately when she speaks. "We make a pudding called mughli, which is made with spices. Usually it is made when someone gives birth to a baby. Even Muslims celebrate the birth of a child with mughli. So it is a symbolic offer of Jesus being born.

"Another Christmas favorite," she said, "was turkey." She was not sure just how long turkey had been a mainstay in Lebanon, but since the Arabic words for turkey translate literally to "Indian rooster," she seemed to think the bird was introduced from the "new world."

"Chicken or turkey was always the favorite for Christmas," she said. "I remember, as a child, going with Momma to the bazaar and shopping for turkey. She would bring it home and leave it on the stove to simmer all night. She would work all night making pastry.

"I used to help her by taking the nuts out of the shells. And I would clean the rice and roast the coffee and then grind it. They are all good

memories. The whole house is filled with good memories."

Marcelle said that although turkey was sometimes roasted, it was also prepared by boiling. "Momma would boil the turkey and then shred it and place it on top of the nut-and-rice stuffing. This way, everyone would get some turkey and stuffing. I think one reason chicken and turkey is used over other meats for Christmas is because chicken also represents the egg, and the egg symbolizes birth."

John noted that in the Middle East, as in many cultures, men do not participate much in the kitchen. He did recall, he said, a Christmas custom that the family carries on that is somewhat related to food.

"You take wheat or dry chick peas, or sometimes lentils," he said. "You

put them in a shallow plate with some cotton soaked in water. You do this about 15 days before Christmas, because it takes about that time for them to sprout. The sprouting is a sign of life. The kids do it. Sometimes you put them by the manger."

On Christmas Eve, the dinner is very light, the Khawams explained, with lots of sweets and nuts. Chestnuts, said Marcelle, are traditional. "We put them on the fire like marshmallows and roast them. We have dried figs, walnuts, dates and almonds. And only the small children receive gifts. The rest of the family exchanges gifts on New Year's Day."

Marcelle said that the serving of sweets symbolized the festiveness of the family occasion and the sharing of the "sweetness and spiritual uplifting."

"If two people have problems," she said, "this is the time to make peace. You are not accepted by God at church if you have hatred in your heart."

Marcelle said that Christmas was also a time of new clothing for the children, and that this was a custom among rich and poor alike.

For the Christmas Day dinner, soup - turkey or chicken - is a traditional course in Lebanon. Usually it is made with the giblets and prepared with escarole. Fried smelts are served as an appetizer, as well as the standard dips of hummus and babaghanouj.

There are greens with toasted almonds, pastries like baklava, farina pudding, an assortment of fruits and, of course, Turkish coffee or mint- flavored tea. Relishes include pickled turnips and pickled beets.

As Marcelle talked about pickling, John interrupted. "Your mother used to pickle the lettuce," he said. Marcelle agreed, yes, she did, but added, not usually for Christmas.

John smiled, shrugged and reiterated that overseas, men did not cook much, but he vouched for his wife's expertise. "She has very wide experience. She knows where and when to use just the right spices. I can fry eggs," he added with a warm smile, "but hers are different."


Here are three recipes from Marcelle that contribute to a festive Lebanese Christmas dinner.


1 fresh turkey, 10 to 12 pounds

Coarse salt


1 cup uncooked rice

1 pound ground lamb

1 teaspoon allspice

1/4 cup pine nuts

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


12 cups water

4 teaspoons salt

1 cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon allspice

6 bay leaves

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Clean the turkey, rub it with the salt, and wash it in cold water.

Make the stuffing by mixing together the rice, lamb, the one teaspoon allspice, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Fill the turkey cavity and neck with the stuffing, and secure, tying the legs together.

Place the turkey in a deep pot and cover with the 12 cups of water and the four teaspoons of salt. Bring the salted water to a boil and skim off the fat and foam. Add the cinnamon stick, the one tablespoon of allspice and the bay leaves. Cover, and simmer slowly for about four hours, until the turkey is fork-tender.

Remove turkey carefully from pot and place it in a roasting pan. Save the broth to use for soup, or freeze it to use at some other time. Rub the turkey with the butter, and season with salt and pepper. Place the turkey in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes for the top to brown. Makes six servings.


1 cup finely ground rice (available at Middle Eastern or natural foods stores)

1 tablespoon ground caraway (available at Middle Eastern or Greek groceries)

2 cups sugar

5 cups water

1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts

1/4 cup chopped almonds

1/4 cup chopped coconut

Combine ground rice, ground caraway, sugar and water, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken. When it thickens to a loose pudding mixture, pour it into custard cups. Combine the pistachio nuts, almonds and coconut, and sprinkle mixture over the top of each custard cup. Serve either hot or chilled. Makes six servings.

This tasty whole-wheat dessert has a farina-like consistency.


1 pound whole-wheat kernels (available at natural-food stores)

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon fennel seed

1 pound raisins

3/4 pound walnuts, broken

Pomegranate seeds, for decoration (optional)

Candied fennel seeds (available at Middle Eastern groceries)

Rinse the whole-wheat kernels in hot water and drain them. Fill a six-quart pot three-quarters full with water.

Drop in the drained whole-wheat kernels and bring to a boil. Remove the pot

from the flame and allow the kernels to stand for about four hours, until they open. Put the pot back on the stove and let the kernels simmer, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, until tender. Drain and let kernels cool.

Add the sugar, cinnamon and fennel seed, and mix well. Mix in the raisins and half of the walnuts. Turn the dessert onto a serving platter. Sprinkle the top with the remaining walnuts, plus the pomegranate seeds and candied fennel seeds. Makes six servings.

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