Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Middle (F)East

If New York is where one travels to shop, the Caribbean is where one travels to sunbathe, and South America is where one travels on one’s Gap Yah, then the Middle East is where one travels to eat. Or so I firmly believed when I set off there three weeks ago, and even more firmly believe having returned, undoubtedly fatter and with cravings for flatbread.

I fell in love with Moroccan cuisine when I first inhaled the scent of a lamb tagine. Admittedly it was in England, in the kitchen of the restaurant where I then worked, but it sparked a love affair that did indeed take me to Morocco and to more magical tagines (amongst other delights). Having worked my way through one Moroccan cookbook, I purchased the beautiful Arabesque by Claudia Roden, a guide to the cuisines of not only Morocco but of Turkey and Lebanon too. It’s a wonderful book, with notes on the culture of the three countries and how this affects the way they cook. A lot of the middle eastern food I make derives from Roden’s recipes.

So, having read Roden’s book cover to cover, and followed it up with the Lonely Planet’s section on Middle Eastern food, I set off to Turkey, Syria and Jordan with high hopes (and a large appetite...but that’s nothing new).

First stop, Istanbul. I found uttering the words “Shall we go and get a kebab?” an alien experience, having never succumbed to that student favourite in England: unidentifiable meat carved into an unnatural cone shape, dripping in fat and crammed into a pitta bread with some flaccid lettuce. This is a sorry state of affairs, because the authentic kebab is a beautiful thing, and one undeserving of such a massacre. The main difference between a Turkish and an English kebab is that the Turkish rotating cone of meat has visible layers of meat on it. You can believe that it is real, unprocessed meat that has simply been pressed together into a slab and spit-roasted, unlike the slick, greyish mass that graces kebab vans all over England. This is most obvious for the chicken kebabs, which I actually preferred to their lamb counterparts. In Goreme, Cappadocia, I ate an Iskender kebab, which is marinated chicken served on top of torn pitta bread in a spicy tomato sauce. In Istanbul, a lamb doner kebab in pitta bread with tomato and, oddly, chips. Why they put chips in the bread I am not entirely sure, but the kebab sans chips was very good. Speaking of lamb, I also sampled what the menu translated as “Turkish pizza”: flatbread topped with minced lamb and spices. Not a bad lunch for 2.50 lira, or £1.25.

Istanbul was also our first experience of the Middle East during Ramadan. The two main things I noticed were the increasing irritability and tiredness of taxi drivers and waiters, and the overwhelming sense of being stared at every time you lifted a bottle of water to your lips in the street. Much as I wanted to placate the locals and let nothing pass my lips from dawn until dusk, being unused to the heat, and doing a lot of walking, meant that this was never going to happen. We did, however, find ourselves inadvertently experiencing Ramadan, Muslim-style. Arriving at a kofte restaurant recommended in my guidebook, we were greeted by a large queue out of the door. We were eventually ushered into the bustling restaurant and seated at a table for six with food and drink already laid out on it: bread, salad, water. Puzzled, we eventually realised that everyone else was sitting, staring at their food and waiting for the announcement that they could finally eat it. We decided to wait too, though the waiters said we didn’t have to. We finished the salad, and they brought us steaming bowls of soup (lemon and chickpea, I think), followed by plates of kofte (minced meat and spices) with pickled peppers. The kofte were delicious, and it was great to be sitting eating in a place with so much atmosphere.

Some other excellent Turkish delights included imam bayeldi, a dish of slow-cooked aubergine in olive oil with tomatoes and spices. It translates as “the imam fainted”, and there are various theories as to why, the main one being because the dish was so delicious, although I prefer the theory that he fainted when he discovered just how much olive oil the dish contained (aubergines really are the sponge of the vegetable world when it comes to soaking up oil). In Goreme we ate a local speciality, gozleme, which is flatbread stuffed with various fillings and cooked on a griddle. I had one with minced meat and spices, and another with cheese. Another local speciality there is the testat, or “pottery kebab”. This is a dish of meat cooked inside a sealed terracotta pot, which is broken open for you at the table – quite a spectacle to behold (see left). You have to order it at least three hours in advance to allow for the slow cooking time. We ate two, a meat one and a chicken one, at a lovely little restaurant where we sat on carpets around a low table and ordered half the menu, including a dish of baked okra, more gozleme, and an aubergine stew. I suppose it is the Turkish equivalent of a tagine. Also in Goreme we sampled borek, which is a coil of filo pastry with various fillings, oven baked and served with two sauces: spicy tomato, and yoghurt. I had the nazar, or minced meat, version. Possibly one of my favourite dishes from Turkey.

Of course, no mention of Turkish cuisine is complete without a nod to baklava, the ultimate in sugary goodness. I couldn’t even wait 24 hours to sample some after arriving in Istanbul: we quickly tracked down a baklava shop, and the friendly owner gave us a mixed box to take away. I’ve sampled many different forms of this teeth-crumbling confectionary, including milk and hazelnut, pistachio and chocolate, walnut, and custard, but my favourite remains plain pistachio. There is nothing as delicious as that first bite of syrupy, buttery, crispy, wafer-thin pastry. Although the subsequent bites are pretty good too, as I discovered when I ate five pieces in quick succession. Soon followed the greatest sugar headache of my eating life so far. It was worth it. I returned to that baklava shop three times. I ate variations in Damascus that were nice but not as syrupy (including an interesting triangle-shaped one that was filled with custard and made with vermicelli soaked in syrup round the outside), and in Amman that featured custard as well as nuts, but the Turkish variety remains my favourite.

Onto Syria, where prices halve and the amount of food doubles. The way to eat in Syria is mezze, all the way. Although all the restaurants seem to offer an odd mix of French-influenced dishes, my advice would be to order as much mezze as takes your fancy, and enjoy attempting to finish it all (I guarantee you won’t – even with six of us, we struggled). All our Syrian meals began with a big basket of flatbread and several dishes of mezze, and often ended with a complimentary platter of fruit, which we were often far too full for. There was also an occasion where some Syrians celebrating a birthday at the next table shared their enormous chocolate mousse cake with us, and we soon wished we hadn’t eaten so much flatbread. We had mohamara, a dip made of red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses; moutabal, burnt aubergine mixed with yoghurt; baba ganoush, burnt aubergine mixed with olive oil, garlic, peppers and tahini; hummus (which needs no explanation, although hummus beiruti, hummus with meat and pine nuts on top, is a lovely variation); fattoush (salad of vegetables, toasted pitta bread and sumac); tabbouleh (bulgar wheat, parsley, and lots of lemon juice); beef stir-fried with mushrooms and onions; deep-fried mushrooms with garlic dip...

One of my favourite Syrian mezze dishes is kibbeh, which are lemon-shaped patties made of bulgar wheat, minced meat, pine nuts/walnuts and spices, and deep fried. They are crunchy and incredibly moreish. Apparently before the invention of food processors, Syrian women used to pound the meat and wheat together using special pestles and mortars, and you would be able to hear the grinding all through the villages; it was the test of a cook’s skill. I think every meal I ate in Syria featured kibbeh of some description. Later when I found them in Amman, it was like some sort of homecoming.

Another dish I was keen to try was fatta, a breakfast dish consisting of meat and pitta bread layered in a tahini sauce. However, it wasn’t quite what I expected; I imagined a thick layer of meat and break with a dollop of sauce on top. What arrived was a huge bowl containing some chunks of chicken, flakes of bread, and an absolutely enormous amount of tahini, garnished with a thick layer of olive oil and toasted pine nuts (see left). The first few mouthfuls were delicious, but the sheer amount of rich sauce and total fat content was overwhelming, and rendered the dish unfinishable. Not something I could eat for breakfast every day if I didn’t want to be lifted out of bed by a crane – I would indeed be fatter if I ate fatta with any regularity. Luckily we had also ordered saaj, a Syrian sandwich made of flatbread with various fillings: one of my favourites is za’atar, a thyme and sesame seed spice mix which is mixed with olive oil and spread on bread. I also bought an enormous bag of the stuff from a street vendor for 50p, and thought with dismay of the same sized tub I had purchased in Oxford for £3 a few months earlier. Later in Amman I found a za’atar pizza; bread spread with thyme and olive oil doesn’t sound like it could be particularly addictive, but it really is.

One of the joys of Syrian food is its prevalence on every street. As we struggled through Aleppo with our bags, having arrived after an epic journey from Turkey, confused by the Arabic street signs and unable to find our hotel, we passed one of the main food-selling streets. Even amidst all the chaos, I was entranced by the huge piles of fruit and vegetables; more aubergines than I’ve ever seen in my life; a bakery bringing huge trays of freshly-baked bread out onto the street; vendors selling cheese in strange knot shapes, piled up in huge vats; a man forming chickpeas into falafel and deep-frying them; mountains of dates, dark and glistening. In Damascus they eat shwarma, the Syrian equivalent of a doner kebab; marinated meat sliced and piled into flatbread with a garlicky yoghurt sauce. The people in Aleppo are the friendliest I have ever encountered; wherever we went, we were offered handfuls of food. We passed a shop selling Syrian sweets, and were immediately inundated with samples to try, including some delicious marzipan and pistachio sweets, and little slabs of apricot paste – apricots pureed with sugar and set like toffee. I was still finding samples in my bag days later. In Damascus you can find candied fruit for £2.50 a kilo. I recalled my trip to Nice a year ago, where a box of four small candied clementines cost the best part of 10 euros, and purchased a large wooden box of candied oranges, apples, dates, lemons and plums.

In Aleppo I attempted to buy some figs from a street vendor (there they were, piled up high, properly ripe and oozing ambrosial syrup, a sight you will never see in England, where figs arrive underripe, rock hard and woolly-tasting, and are best consigned to the bin), only to be led down the back of the market to the vendor’s friend, who requested to have a photo taken with me on his phone. After obliging two other Syrian men with photos, the vendor piled up a tray with figs, spent a long time selecting a perfect bunch of grapes, and then presented me with the whole thing for free. And oh, those figs tasted good. On the way out of the market we bought some bread; I expected it to be hard and rather bland-tasting from the way it looked, but it turned out to be the most delicious brioche-like creation, with a thick layer of sugar crystals on top. Also divine was the date-stuffed brioche loaf which we succumbed to as well. You simply have to look curiously at any food item in Aleppo to be obligingly presented with a sample: we nibbled bits of falafel, date bread, dates, apricots, pancakes, fresh pistachios, having set out to sightsee rather than eat. Perhaps, being unable to eat themselves because of Ramadan, the locals were enjoying the food vicariously through us. Either that, or they are just genuinely hospitable, generous people who are proud to show off their food. And so they should be.

Food is quite literally everywhere in Syria, a fact that was driven home when I saw a man cycling down Aleppo’s manic roads with a huge carcass strapped to the back of his bike. It was probably a sheep, and had been skinned but otherwise left intact, and there it was just hanging off the back of his bike. Similarly, a walk through the meat section of the market is enough to turn our delicate English stomachs, as you see fish writhing in pits on the ground, waiting to be killed, and whole carcasses hanging up in windows, as well as sheep’s heads piled up high, and various entrails. It really does drive home how sterile our shopping experience is in England, where meat is packaged in plastic with very little to link it to the animal it originated from. Unlike in England, there is a real sense of abundance to food shopping in Syria; everything is piled up high in huge bags or crates, and stall holders will grab handfuls of dates, spices, fruit, vegetables, cheeses, pistachios, and pile them into bags for you. Buying things in small quantities raises eyebrows, as I discovered – clearly everybody was shopping for the breaking of the Ramadan fast, and therefore quantity was a priority.

Breakfast on our first morning in Aleppo opened our eyes to the delightfully named “King of the Vitamin”, one in a long line of Syrian juice bars that I am missing greatly now I have returned home and find a small bottle of smoothie costing about £3. You could smell the fruit hanging up outside these stalls metres away. They will chop, peel and juice, and present you with an enormous tankard of fresh fruit smoothie for the absurd cost of around 50p. My favourite was a pink-coloured mixture of (I think) banana, orange, strawberry and kiwi. They also sell marinated cheese paninis for 25p; the cheese was halloumi-like in texture but tasted like feta. Better than any panini you’ll find in the UK, I guarantee. You can present the vendor with an empty 1.5litre bottle, and have it filled with fresh orange juice, squeezed before your eyes, for £1.50. Found on restaurant menus everywhere is a “lemon and mint” drink, which is basically still lemonade mixed with fresh mint. It sounds odd, but is incredibly delicious and immensely refreshing in Syria’s 35+ degrees C. Also found on the streets is a curious creation that looks and tastes a bit like Ribena, and I believe is made with water, sugar, ice and dried berries. I was sort of forced into accepting one by a street vendor, and was very glad I had done, especially as it contained lots of ice and I was still acclimatising to the massive increase in temperature between Turkey and Syria.

And then to Jordan, which seems to have a lot of food in common with Syria. Here we finally sampled proper falafel, after being unable to find it in Damascus due to street vendors being closed for Ramadan. We sat down at a “restaurant” in Amman that was really more of a fast food stall that spilled out onto the street (cockroaches scuttling over the ground all part of the experience). A man approached carrying a large metal bowl from which he scooped handfuls of falafel onto a napkin in the middle of the plastic table (there was no cutlery in sight). We were then given a huge basket of flatbread and two bowls of dip: one was hummus, the other fuul (an Egyptian mix of fava beans and spices). Later the waiter brought six steaming glasses of mint tea, sweet enough to cause instant tooth decay. The total cost: £1 each. The falafel was delicious: small, crunchy and incredibly addictive. Also good was a meal we had at “Cairo Restaurant”, which was just barbecued chicken served with bread soaked in the spicy cooking juices, and rice. Simple but immensely satisfying after a seven hour border crossing by bus. Another dish I was urged to try by Lonely Planet was mensaf, a Bedouin dish of lamb spit-roasted and basted with spices and served with rice and a yoghurt sauce. We went to a restaurant where the menu was entirely in Arabic, so the easiest option was to just ask for mensaf. It arrived, a big bowl of yellow rice topped with a piece of slow cooked lamb, tender enough to eat with a spoon, and a big bowl of rich yoghurt sauce. No one managed to finish the dish, such was its richness. Delicious, though. 

In Aqaba I had to try the sayadiah, a local dish of fish served with spicy rice and caramelised onions, and a tomato sauce. It was enormous and wonderful; the fish had been battered and fried before being placed on top of a mound of fragrant rice. Other good things eaten by the Red Sea included a dish of labneh, creamy cheese spread on a plate and topped with olive oil, crushed garlic and walnuts. I could still taste the garlic several days later, but it was worth it; so delicious mopped up with flatbread. Mufaraka potatoes with egg was a pleasant surprise; it was a sort of mixed up Spanish omelette, cooked diced potatoes fried in spices with beaten egg. The owner of our hotel on our last night presented us with a plate of home-made baklava; it was just as good as the stuff I had in Turkey, possibly even better for being free. It followed a nice dish of grilled fish, which tasted wonderful after a hard day’s snorkelling (and probably observing said fish swimming around the coral reef...)

And now I am home, decanting my za’atar into a jar and flicking through Claudia Roden’s book to find recipes for everything I have eaten over the last two and a half weeks. No doubt tomorrow’s trip to Tesco will be a depressing affair, and I will be dismayed at the paucity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the price of smoothies, the meat in plastic trays and the lack of friendly vendors offering me pieces of falafel or handfuls of pistachios to sample. On the  plus side, there are several countries that are no doubt eagerly awaiting me and my stomach. Next stop, Lebanon, methinks. 
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