Tour the Middle East via your tastebuds
So, dear readers, we left our heroine teetering on the edge of the Metro platform having explored the myriad lanes and alleyways of Meena Bazaar, Cosmos Lane and the lesser known restaurants of Bur Dubai. She’d faced salty, smokey, sour, smooth, spicy and sweet under the guidance of ethnic eats explorer extraordinaire, Arva from I Live in a Frying Pan and lived to tell the tale. She was ready for another adventure.
Actually no heroine; that eager eater was me – willing guinea pig for the prototype outing being road-tested for Frying Pan Food Tours. But I was ready for more, so piled into a Mini driven by the intrepid Foodiva, accompanied by The Hedonista and headed for one of the oldest parts of Dubai called Deira. Using Shrek-style-Puss-in-Boots-eyes on a policeman (and it actually working) to avoid being given a traffic fine (long story) we met Arva, our dear tour leader, at our first restaurant.
Of the diaspora of the Middle East, the Lebanese have travelled furthest and widest, and like many emigrants, they often used food to make their living, setting up restaurants and catering firms. This is probably why Lebanese-style dishes have become widely recognised as ‘Middle Eastern’ food, but it’s only part of the picture in this large and varied region.
Jump on my magic carpet for a taste of the Middle East…in one small part of Dubai.
EGYPT Say the word koshari, an assembly of rice, pasta, lentils, fried onions usually served with tomato sauce, to an Egyptian and their eyes usually light up. The faded grandeur of this restaurant combined with huge TVs showing Egyptian soap operas in black and white and the few patrons smoking sheesha took me instantly to Cairo. But the promised koshari didn’t materialize – this was a test tour after all and I could see Arva make a mental note “never trust the manager when he states categorically that they serve koshari on a Wednesday”. There were authentic goodies to be had though;small fluffy, slightly grainy breads fresh from the oven, piquant pickles and ful medames which is another dish that Egyptians have a passion for, made of fava beans (which I call dried broad beans) cooked with onion, garlic, parsley and lemon juice. Tammiya (Egyptian falafel) made of broad (fava) beans rather than the usual chick peas were a lovely shade of green inside with a fresh taste. A bronze pigeon resting on a bed of rice and chicken livers was delivered and looked rather grand but we all paused not sure how to deconstruct the bird for sharing. Perhaps a Frying Pan 101 to eating a pigeon should be part of the tour? Two things to note 1. there is not much meat but it’s quite rich and gamey 2. be careful when ordering hamam ma’shi or you could end up asking for a stuffed bathroom (hammam).
With the sun setting, the roads filled with cars ferrying people home at the end of the day and passing pavement cafés where sheesha-smokers were relaxing we crossed the road to:
IRAN I love the contradictory pairing of things (and there were lots on this tour). The outside of this restaurant was ablaze with coloured lights framing a heavy wooden door, Medieval-style lighting hung from the ceiling, parchment illustrations hung on the walls, all to the backdrop of a large fish tank. I’m new to Iranian food and the unani principles of hot and cold that are applied to ingredients, but learning fast (thanks to Ariana Bundy). I was glad to see mast o khiar placed on the table, a cooling dip of yoghurt mint and cucumber, with some crispy bread, nan-e lavash, some aubergine dip made with tahini, garlic, fried onion and mint – kashk badmejan – plus the usual salad that graces most Middle Eastern tables. What is it with men and meat? The look on the faces of the males at our table when an enormous chelo kabab arrived! The mixed veg and chips were superfluous but the mound of rice and barberries – zereshk polo – (complete with butter portion resting on top) completed the feast.
Taking time to view this part of Dubai from pavement level was so rewarding and made me remember outings when my girls were small to ‘Dubai Summer Surprises’ events. Our steps led us past a stray cat staring into a fish and chip shop and into a brightly-lit joint with a bread oven to experience just one of the foodie delights from:
LEBANON When I lived in Saudi Arabia, the highlight of supermarket shopping (and the fact my husband had to drive me there!) was the bread oven in the centre where fresh manakeesh was made. My favourite was spread with za’atar, a paste of herbs (usually thyme), sesame seeds, sumac and olive oil. After trekking in the mountains of Lebanon, and returning to Beirut, our coach was forced to halt as one trekker deemed it impossible not to stop by his favourite bakery; the Lebanese love their bread.
Here in Deira, chefs were doing an efficient job at baking breads and pizzas at speed, the long-handled peel darting in and out of the oven. With bread on the table of the last two restaurants, did we have room for more? The gusto with which the steaming hot manakeesh was torn apart, cheese strings trailing from table to mouth, proved that no one can resist good, simple fresh bread especially stuffed with moreish fillings. The sujuk filling was new to me, an alluring purple shade due to the use of sumac in this salty, spicy, slightly dry, beef sausage. Arva cleared up something that had bothered me for years. ‘Why do some people call it manousheh?’ This is the singular she explained, manakeesh (pronounced man-eye-eesh) is plural. The walking food encyclopedia does it again.
YEMEN There are two countries in the Middle East that I regret not visiting when I had the opportunity and Yemen is one of them. All the Yemenis I’ve met outside the country have been kind, genuine and generous to a fault, from the man who comes to my door to try to sell me carpets (“you want to sell your car? I buy it. I pay you in cash and carpets.”!) to the charming PRO who told me jokes to distract me from my blood tests (extreme needle phobia). Apart from zhoug and Yemen’s role in the discovery of coffee, I know absolutely nothing about the food. The entrance to this restaurant was intriguing, we passed by a large cushion-lined platform surrounded by discarded shoes – it reminded me of the outside of a mosque. Through twists and turns there were glimpses into curtained rooms and then we were slipping off our shoes and being guided into our own private tent (complete with air conditioning). Our waiter knelt, flicked his wrists and suddenly the floor was covered with a thin plastic sheeting where he started to place dishes of salad and fresh herbs. We were all grinning; it was a bit like being a child playing house under a table covered with a sheet. The mandi arrived – meat cooked to succulence in an underground oven (tandoor or tanoor) thought to have originated in the Hadhramaut province of Yemen- served with spicy tomato sauce and rice and eaten with our fingers. We also had chicken mazbi – cooked over coals rather than in the oven. We could have stayed in that cosy tent for the rest of the evening, tearing off spicy morsels to eat and lounging on cushions. However, we were on a food tour fact-finding mission, road-testing for the perfect culinary adventure, and had one more destination.
JORDAN There’s a special place in my heart for Jordan as it’s the first country I visited in the Middle East when I started to explore the region. The people were welcoming, the natural landscape varied and magical, the breadth of historic sites jaw-dropping. I caught the Roman-ruins bug in Jerash. I can’t really remember eating anything different from the usual Arabic food there (hummus, tabouleh, fattoush, mixed grill). I certainly didn’t taste goat cooked in fermented yoghurt otherwise known as mansaf. Strong-tasting and unusual and I liked it a lot especially as a few rain-drops fell while I was eating it (apologies for the confusion caused to people who live in the UK by this last statement).
The Egyptians claim falafel as their invention but they are now ubiquitous. The fava-bean tomato-filled ones we had here were top of the falafel charts. I think some baklava was served but I was too busy sticking my lens into large dishes of it and missed the boat. Not so with the kunafa. My very English culinary upbringing means that milk puddings are part of my DNA and the Middle East yields many delights in that area. We all dug our spoons into a portion of kunafa bil jibn, a creamy concoction of fine pasta, ground semolina and soft cheese. I took the dainty malmoul home in a napkin as there was no way I could eat another thing, not even these pretty date filled pastries.
Other foods we gave a passing nod to were the inevitable (but potentially brilliant) shawarma stands and masgouf – fish cooked Iraqi style by spicing and skewering then roasting over wood and charcoal. With road-signs in English, international brands lining the shopping malls, and the colonisation of some parts by other cultures, Dubai sometimes doesn’t feel very Middle Eastern but strolling round this part of Deira tasting our way round the region was as though the carpet had indeed been magic.
What’s your favourite dish from the Middle East (please don’t all say hummous!)?