You may not have a chance to explore a Moroccan souk to shop for your supper, but it’s easier than ever to try the exotic flavours of Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and Syria with authentic restaurants and Middle Eastern grocers right here at home. Here's a primer.
By CINDA CHAVICH
A hint of cumin, a dash of golden saffron, the sweet heat of Aleppo peppers, and all manner of savoury slathers to scoop up with warm flatbreads — it’s the makings of a Middle Eastern feast.
And though you may not have a chance to explore a Moroccan souk to shop for your supper, it’s easier than ever to try the exotic flavours of Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and Syria right here at home. Whether you’re dining out for falafels and shawarma or setting out a meze platter of olives, hummus, grilled halloumi and sweet baklava for your guests, the traditional dishes of the Levant are approachable, economical and infinitely sharable.
Often vegetarian, or at least built around vegetables and legumes, a Mediterranean diet appeals to the healthy and environmentally-conscious consumer, too. And with star chefs like Britain’s Yotam Ottolenghi (author of the break-out cookbook Jerusalem) elevating the simple ingredients with creative new combinations, it’s stylish, too.
Which may be why we’re seeing a surge in this kind of cuisine around the world.
Victoria Chef Joel Pollock was such a big fan of falafel, he perfected the recipe and built his own Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant, Yalla, around the popular street food. A visit to Israel and the West Bank galvanized his love of the region’s flavours, inspiring his own variations on the themes of hummus platters to share, with savoury toppings like sautéed mushrooms or roasted squash; kale salad with chewy bulgur and cubes of fried halloumi cheese; and hand-cut fries dusted with Yemeni-style Hawaij spice mix to dip into a creamy yogurt sauce. There’s even a house-made version of Israeli lemonana, a slushy lemonade drink made with fresh mint.
Abdallah El Chami (a.k.a. Dallah), the co-owner of Victoria's Suberbaba (now with locations in Vancouver), had a similar epiphany. After developing a following for his Lebanese-inspired catering at The Dallah Menu in Vancouver, El Chami joined forces with partners from Tacofino and Café Medina to create the stylish new diner downtown.
It’s another scratch kitchen devoted to all things Middle Eastern, many dishes base on his own Lebanese roots. You might find him rolling the house-made, sourdough pita breads to fire into their custom Woodstone oven, grinding chickpeas for the made-to-order falafel, or pickling turnips in fuchsia beet brine to serve alongside. It’s fresh and fast food, traditional falafel, chicken shawarma or steak kebab offered with mix-and-match presentations ranging from wraps to grain- or green-based bowls. A sweet ending comes in the form of a crisp, golden cookie, scented with earthy turmeric and rose water.
Like Yalla, Superbaba is a casual concept with counter service and take-out options. Another great spot to find house-made salads, spreads, pastries and imported Mediterranean ingredients for a casual meze meal is Fig Deli.
Yasser Youssef is the gregarious owner, often behind the deli counter greeting customers. Youssef arrived in Victoria from Lebanon 30 years ago to attend university and never left – first introducing locals to Middle Eastern food at his Lakehill Market, then expanding to create the full service Fig Deli.
He’s the guy to ask if you have a question about a Middle Eastern ingredient or recipe. The region is home to people from many ethnic backgrounds, from Arabs and Turks to Israelis, Persians and Kurds, but all share similar food traditions and ingredients, he says. Every country has it’s own version of traditional dishes, tweaked to reflect local tastes.
Harissa is a case in point, a spicy red pepper paste with roots in North Africa that morphs with the chilies in various regions, whether it’s the famed Aleppo peppers of Syria or the smoky-sweet urfa variety from the Gaziantep region of Turkey. Garlic and olive oil and cumin are also part of the mix, sometimes rosemary, thyme and lemon. The spicy zhug of Israel is a variation, as is the Turkish biber salcasi. You’ll find the condiment, in all of its iterations, on the shelf at Fig and Youssef recommends using it in rubs and dressings, or adding it to soups and sauces for a kick of authentic flavour.
There are other essential ingredients that you’ll want for your meze meals – cumin, sumac, olive oil, bulgur, couscous, dried fruits and nuts and pomegranate molasses. The latter – a thick, sweet reduction of pomegranate juice – is the secret to Youssef’s Hot Fish and muhammara, a pepper and walnut spread that, along with hummus, baba ghanouj other house-made dips, is among Fig’s best sellers.
You’ll also find sweet and savoury baked goods here. A favourite is the warm round of olive bread, filled with tapenade and rolled into a pull-apart knot for noshing. Or try a variety of phyllo pastries, including spanikopita, baklava and bougatsa, a flakey packet oozing lemony egg custard.
As Syrian refugees establish their families in Canada, Youssef says its likely we’ll see more Middle Eastern restaurants, bakeries and food businesses spring up across the country. Already Victoria has Saraya Hot Bread, a food company launched this year by Ibrahim Hajibrahim and his wife Ranim Khochkar. The couple, recent refugees from Syria, are making traditional foods, including dolma, lentil fingers, breads stuffed with peppers, and mumhammara, and retailing them in the deli section of local Red Barn Markets.
It all makes planning your own Middle Eastern feast easier. You can include an array of dishes including fattoush, tabouli and bulgur salads, chickpea-based hummus and falafel, squeaky slabs of fried halloumi cheese, kibbeh and lentil stews, and flatbreads served alongside a variety of dips. Simply offer an array of spreads, breads and cheese for a casual buffet, or add a hearty lentil soup and a rustic main like braised lamb stew or chicken with bulgur pilaf for a more formal meal.
Like Ottolenghi’s modern melding of eastern Mediterranean recipes – sourced from Christian, Muslim and Jewish cooks – sharing these foods bridges cultures in new, positive ways.
It’s the perfect chance to gather friends around the table for an exotic taste of the east, a colourful, sunny antidote to a west coast winter.
THE MIDDLE EASTERN PANTRY
Stocking up on Middle Eastern ingredients? Here are some pantry staples.
Aleppo chilies – The Aleppo pepper is a medium-hot, sweet chili that’s grown in Syria and in Turkey, usually available dried in flakes.
Bulgur wheat – Bulgur is cracked whole wheat kernels that have been steamed and dried. Look for coarse ground bulgur for pilafs, finer grinds for tabbouleh salad. It’s high in fibre and nutrition, with a nice, nutty flavour.
Couscous - Couscous is a kind of grainy pasta (you can find extra large pearls of Israeli couscous and coarse or fine instant couscous). It’s traditionally made by rolling semolina by hand over a fine sieve, suspended over a steamy pot of simmering stew.
Dukkah – An Egytian spice mix, dukkah includes ground nuts, fennel, cumin, coriander and paprika, and is perfect to sprinkle over roasted vegetables, hummus or lentils.
Fig Jam – You’ll find a lot of dried fruit featured in Middle Eastern recipes but fig jam, flavored with anise seed, is a unique product from Syria. Try a dollop on a crostini topped with fried halloumi cheese.
Halloumi – This unripened, salty cheese has a high melting point, so holds it shape and browns nicely when pan fried or grilled. Serve as a starter, on toast or atop a salad, or cut into fries, toss in flour and paprika, and deep fry.
Halvah – This confection is made with ground sesame seeds (or other nuts) and sugar, a caloric and dense sweet that’s eaten as a snack across the Middle East.
Harissa – A chili pepper paste made with cumin and garlic
Labneh – Labneh is thick, strained yogurt – like Middle Eastern cream cheese – to serve alongside falafel and other dishes, or top with tapenade to scoop up with pita bread.
Olives – Olives may be green, cracked, semi-ripe, black, sun-dried, but all are first salted, cured and fermented. Whole olives are better quality than pitted, and you don’t risk biting into a pit that’s been left behind. Try a selection from Kalamata and Castelvetrano to Nicoise and Moroccan.
Phyllo – Paper thin phyllo (filo) pastry comes boxed and frozen, ready to unfurl and layer to make baklava, spanakopita, borek and other sweets and savouries.
Pomegranate Molasses - In Iranian, Arabic, Lebanese and Turkish cooking, an unsweetened pomegranate syrup or molasses, made by reducing pomegranate juice, is added for an intense sweet and sour flavour. Try it brushed over meat for grilling, in marinates, dressings and dips.
Preserved Lemons – Look for jars of Lemons preserved with salt to add an intense and bright citrus flavour to tagines, stews and sauces.
Sumac – The ground, dried red berries of the sumac bush add a tangy, citrusy flavour to food
Tahini – This creamy sesame seed butter is the basis for sauces and dressings (when combined with garlic and lemon juice), and an essential ingredient in hummus.
Za’atar – This classic spice blend is based on dried wild thyme (zahter) with sumac, oregano, salt and sesame seeds and is used to season eggs and grilled meats, or mix with olive oil to spread over grilled manoushi (a Lebanese, pizza-like flatbread) or use as a dip with pita.