Sfiha (also known as lahm bi ajeen) is a specialty dish that can be prepared in up to a dozen different ways. It combines ground lamb, spices, onions tomatoes, peppers, and the occasional spice and pomegranate molasses on small rounds of pizza-like dough, with the recipe varying according to the region and personal taste.
Sfiha Preparation: Memories of a Road Trip
My fondest memories of Lebanon almost always revolve around food; a savoring of the entire process, from preparing the dishes to the glorious moment they are consumed. Sfiha had a particularly special place in my heart because its process always involved a road trip.
The day began at the local butcher shop, where the concoction of lamb, peppers, tomato, onion, and (just a little) spice was prepared. Next stop was the nearby bakery, where the precious meat mix was transformed into the Lebanese version of pizzettas, lahm bi ajeen. Watching the baker effortlessly and artfully section the dough, place the meat on the perfectly flattened down circles, slide them into the oven, then pull them out transformed is a real pleasure, rivaled only by the joy of consuming them, often with laban (yoghurt) as a dip.
Do you want to prepare Sfiha at home? Try Bethany’s recipe.
Baalbek: Roman Columns and Square Sfiha
If there is one place in Lebanon that is known for its meat-pie goodness, it is Baalbek. The City of the Sun is also the city of Sfiha, known for the delicious and unique way in which it prepares the dish. Rather than having them in pizza-like rounds, the Sfiha Baalbekieh is prepared in miniature, square pies. The dough is both soft and crisp around the edges, the meat mixture is seasoned to perfection, and the quasi-bite-sized shape means that you eat without keeping count. Most Baalbekans agree that sfiha became a staple in their local cuisine around a hundred years ago. It was originally called Sfiha Haidarieh, named after members of the Haidar family, chieftains and gourmands under Ottoman rule, who coined the recipe.
Wondering where to stay in Baalbek? Take a look at L’Annexe, our Family Member in the City of the Sun.
Over a century later, tourists flock to Baalbek for a look at its Roman temples and a taste of its incredible sfiha. There is a culinary je-ne-sais-quoi surrounding Baalbek and its perfecting of the dish. What makes the sfiha special there is a combination of factors: the freshness of the meat, the uniqueness of preparation, the depth of flavors, and the generosity with which Baalbekans prepare the dish, putting their heart, soul, and history into every square pie made.
Though Baalbek is the only place you will find square sfiha, there is, in fact, a variation on the recipe for every Lebanese. Head southwards and you might find the dish meat-fattier and dough-crispier. Beiruti bakeries often prepare their lahm bi ajeen with less spices, whilst residents of Tripoli may choose to have them with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. The Armenian take on the dish, called lahmajun, includes paper-thin dough with crisp edges and a spicy mix of meat, served with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
The beauty of sfiha or lahm bi ajeen is in its simplicity and versatility; a dish that spreads across Lebanese cities, towns, and bakeries with ease, finding its way into homes, hearts, and empty stomachs.