Food for thought: Middle Eastern charm
The Middle East probably earned its first bragging rights when it brought to the world the art of fermentation and wheat cultivation — two indigenous techniques that had never been practised before. But that was just the start of its unique culinary journey. As a crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, the area has long been a hub of recipe exchange, thereby imbibing flavours from all around.
An influential assortment of not just geographically but culturally significant territories (Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and others), the region boasts of a cuisine that simply refuses to be commonplace.
That, perchance, is one of the reasons why the food of the Middle East has fast piqued the interest of international palettes — and that includes Pakistani. Gone are the days when shawarma was thought to be on the bucket-list of a selected few; it has now become a perennial family-favourite. But don’t be fooled: there is much more to the region’s cuisine than just that. From the mouth-watering Mediterranean Meat Pies (sfeeha) and the Bread Bowl to the more traditional Hummus, Kibbeh, Baba Ghannouj and Falafel, each item is guaranteed to invoke salivation upon visual, oral or olfactory encounter. Try it out!
A fabulous appetiser, hummus is a simple yet divine Middle Eastern brainchild. Having recently tried the treat myself, it is not at all difficult to recall the mouth-watering blend of chickpeas, tahini sauce (sesame paste), lemon juice and fresh garlic served with olive oil and pita bread (you can also try the tomato and basil version for an added kick, or combine fruit with it to create the inventive ‘frummus’). Either way, the punch of flavours that the paste has to offer is simply over-the-top.
Fascinatingly, one of the most indispensable features of the Crossroads’ cuisine is the wide range of dips that it has to offer. Be it the silkiness of the feta cheese dip, the red-hot spiciness of the Muhammara (red pepper dip), the tangy creaminess of the Labneh (thick, strained, cheese-like yoghurt), garlic yoghurt sauce or tahini served thin, each dip is bound to become a must-have at the table.
Perhaps the most widely recognised Middle Eastern food is falafel. Indeed, the fried golden balls of chickpeas make for an incredibly light appetiser. Also used as a stuffing, falafel emerges as a scrumptious filler for both pita bread wraps and vegetarian sandwiches, where it can be tucked with tahini and yoghurt sauce and gobbled up in no time.
And then there is the exotic-sounding baba ghanouj (an egg-plant-based delight). Seasoned with garlic, tahini, lemon and parsley, its smooth, creamy texture makes it an ideal side-dish. Also worth trying is the savoury, semolina-based Couscous, which makes a delicious alternative to rice or potatoes. One popular version involves garlic and parmesan cheese and is absolutely delicious!
But it is the Middle Eastern seafood platter — a beautiful, crispy combination of shrimps, baby clams, cod fish and calamari — that steals the show. For the zesty seafood lover within you, the region is quick to offer the likes of Spicy Sautéed Jumbo Tiger Shrimp (think fresh garlic, tomatoes and jalapenos), served steaming-hot with rice, hummus and pita bread. The Moroccan-inspired Masterchef versions of Sumac School Prawns and Pan-fried prawns with Red Harissa are all lip-smacking treats, worthy of a banquet. Needless to say, the region will make you view seafood in a whole new light.
The gut-warming list goes on — there is so much more to try: Koosa, a lovely concoction of zucchini stuffed with lamb, rice and mint; Imsha’at (cauliflower florets fried in pickled batter); Shish Barak (meat dumplings served with hot yoghurt sauce); Oozi (a dish of roasted whole chicken, stuffed with rice and potatoes); and Aab-gosht (a tangy, Iranian curry-cum-soup of boiled legumes, meat and potatoes).
But when in doubt, make a kebab! With a choice of shish (skewer), lamb, shrimp, fish, chelo, kofta and many more, one just cannot relish the authentic Middle Eastern experience without trying one of these. Generally marked by lightness on the spice-index, these juicy servings are often made even juicier via the use of side-dishes (steaming rice streaked with melted butter/grilled vegetables/baba ghanouj).
And here’s where we irrevocably succumb to our sweet-tooth: did you know that Baklava was actually a Middle Eastern creation? Essentially a chunk of the phyllo-dough, layered with butter, cinnamon and nuts, then topped with honey or rosewater, the chewy baked sweet is simply to die for, with its chocolate version emerging as an even bigger hit. Nougats, chocolate-covered dates, Kanafa (phyllo-dough with cream-cheese filling) and semolina cakes are a few of the Crossroads’ signature desserts.
Fruit salads and fruit-based popsicles and jellies offer a more modern touch to the list, whilst those like al-Khabeesah (don’t let the name offend you) — a sumptuous pan-fried cake, glazed with rose-water, cardamom and pure ghee — take one’s taste-buds to a whole new levels of bucolic bliss.
Amongst beverages, saffron milk, ginger coffee, yoghurt drinks and both spiced and iced tea take the league, topping the consumers’ list of most popular.
“You never know somebody unless you share a meal with them,” they say — and what better way to get that done than to do it the Middle Eastern way, where food is all about purveying happiness? Be it baking or borrowing heat from the stove, cooking in clay pots or digging a hole and performing the task underground, the Crossroads employs a variation in technique to avoid redundancy on the platter. With healthfulness and freshness being unique to the diet, it is little surprise that the trend is fast catching on in Pakistani restaurants like Cafe Blue Ginger, Granny’s, Ghaffar Kebab House, Chillu Kebab Subhani, Port Grande and Arabian Nights. So whether you choose to literally don the chef’s hat at home or dine out, with Middle Eastern food, one just can’t go wrong.