To borrow a phrase from fashionistas, Middle Eastern food is “having a moment”. There has never been more interest in the bright, fragrant flavours of this region, and London now has more opportunities to try the cuisine than ever before.
Before you get lost in a whirl of dried fruits, sweet spices, verdant herbs and aromatic basmati rice, let The Holborn be your guide through the evocative scents and flavours of the region and share tips on the latest pop-ups to represent the region in a modern way. Sadly they will not be around forever, so hurry along…
The broad term “Middle Eastern cuisine” is problematic and misleading; imagine describing the very different cooking styles of France, Italy and Norway under the single term “European cuisine”. This part of the world is incredibly diverse, historic and complex. The Middle East is known as the “cradle of civilizations”, the source of some of the most ancient, rich cultures and cuisines in the world.
There are many shared dishes throughout the Middle East but each country has its own way of preparing them. Generally speaking, the food to be found in this region has same core values: seasonality, well-sourced ingredients and an emphasis on fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs and grains.
Increasingly, people are understanding that Middle Eastern cuisine is more than hummus, kebabs and falafel.
Although London restaurant stalwarts such as Alounak, Hafez, Mahdi and others have been keeping fans of traditional Middle Eastern food well fed for years, it is innovation which has caught the attention of modern urbanites. Trailblazers such as Sabrina Ghayour, with her fresh approach to cooking and writing about the food of Persian and Arab origins, or The Palomar with its famous “deconstructed kebab” have led to the cuisine finally getting the reputation it deserves.
The trend for street food has certainly played a part: people are more open to trying new things in an informal setting such as Eat Noosh (nooshlondon.com), a street food vendor serving Persian bites every Sunday at Chatsworth Road Market. Similarly, Koshari Street (http://www.kosharistreet.com/) offers a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ Egyptian-inspired street food experience whipped up by Anissa Helou, middle Eastern food writer and chef. Persepolis, a deli and grocery shop in Peckham has recently opened a small café area which allows guests to sample unfussy, home-style Middle Eastern food.
The powerhouse that is Ottolenghi cannot be ignored; his restaurants, TV programmes, cookbooks and national newspaper articles have done wonders for raising the profile of Middle Eastern food – and are responsible for changing consumer shopping habits. Supermarkets now shift surprising amounts of sumac, za’atar, preserved lemons, freekeh and other once-obscure ingredients.
As the trend takes hold, mainstream retailers are taking note. Leon have been riffing on Middle Eastern flavours for a while, Itsu has added khobez bread to salads while Comptoir Libanais, the all-day, brightly coloured canteen style chain is opening new venues in London and Manchester.
Even Alan Yau of Wagamama, Busaba Eathai, Hakkasan and Yauatcha fame is getting in on the act with the launch of Duck & Rice, a restaurant specialising in lahmacun (Turkish flatbreads) in Soho.
Opening soon is Berber & Q, a Middle Eastern and North African grill house to open in Haggerston in Spring 2015 from two ex-Ottolenghi chefs.
Bah Bah London is a Persian pop-up at The King & Co pub, running until the end of March 2015. “Bah bah” is Persian for “yummy” and a very apt name for the cooking from Bah Bah’s founder and head chef James Nicholson.
James has an Iranian mother and is interpreting the food he grew up on in an innovative way; not just by serving it in a pub in Clapham, but by translating the traditional dishes into small plates packed with quintessential bright, fragrant Persian flavours.
Most noteworthy are the addictively moreish and juicy kufteh (lamb and dried fruit meatballs with pomegranate and pistachios).
The kookoo sabzi (a sort of frittata loaded with herbs, walnuts and barberries) should not be missed, and it would be a shame to overlook the bademjan (smoked aubergine dip) – although it would be improved if the traditional kashk (whey) was used instead of yoghurt for the distinctive tangy flavour.
Bah Bah’s showstopper is the ghormeh sabzi, a hearty khoresh (slow cooked stew) made with small pieces of meat, kidney beans, dried limes and masses of herbs (usually a mix of parsley, fenugreek, chives and others), typically served with fluffy basmati rice. James’s version uses beef shin with roasted bone marrow which yields an amazing unctuous texture.
Bah Bah’s residency at The King & Co ends Sunday 29th March 2015
Ceru is a pop-up restaurant in Fitzrovia which will be serving food inspired by the Levant region (encompassing Cyprus, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel). The tightly packed, candlelit space is the brainchild of Tom Kime, who has travelled extensively around the area.
A beautiful kaleidoscope of dips is just the thing to accompany a list of cocktails incorporating some Levantine flavours. Highlights include Pancar (roast beetroot, yoghurt, garlic and pistachio) and Fadi (fried baby courgette purée with tahini, roast garlic, yoghurt & lemon) served with freshly baked pita.
Ceru’s signature Slow Roast Lamb Shoulder with Shawarma Spices, served thinly sliced to show off the intensely flavoured bark contrasting with the tender flesh.
A salad of shredded apple, pomegranate and pine nuts adds welcome, tangy crunch
There is also Kebab Karaz Spiced Baked Meatballs with sour cherry and cranberry making the flavours pop – a perfect foil for spiced roast potatoes with turmeric.
Ceru will be at 29 Rathbone Place until until 30th April
The Holborn also recommends these venues to sample innovative “New Middle Eastern” food:
Ottolenghi – http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/
The Palomar – thepalomar.co.uk/
Comptoir Libanais – www.comptoirlibanais.com
Yalla Yalla – www.yalla-yalla.co.uk/
Persepolis – http://foratasteofpersia.co.uk/the-cafe/
Gitane – gitanelondon.co.uk
Honey & Co – honeyandco.co.uk/