Friday, March 20, 2015

Why Middle Eastern food is the new Italian

Baklava at Babaji, Shaftesbury Avenue (Photo: Emily Rosselli)

Now I'm not sure if this is just a London thing, or if I'm guilty of assuming London is representative of the whole world... But Middle Eastern food is, like, so hot right now.

I'm not referring to 2am kebabs or the beige hues of houmous, pitta and falafel. These days, a Middle Eastern menu is more likely to showcase a rainbow of sunny, colourful, aromatic and exotic flavour combinations and sharing plates, evoking images of sun-drenched lands and lively bazaars.

And it seems this new way to eat has struck a chord with Brits - Middle Eastern food is booming. Could our love affair with Middle Eastern food be the real deal, or just a quick fling?

Middle Eastern flavours have become as ubiquitous as salted caramel or pulled pork, only this time we're talking about the eclectic and ancient cuisines of an entire subcontinent, so it's a lot less easy to get bored of.

Vibrant, sociable,  cheap, healthy and above all delicious, a Middle Eastern feast is perfect for a hot date, a girly midweek catch up or a comforting family lunch alike.

In its rapid bid to overtake Italian, Indian and Tapas as the go-to dinner of choice, the inevitable queues have started to snake down London streets for Ottelenghi-inspired restaurants like Yalla Yalla, Palomar, Arabica and Honey & Co.

Dips at Ceru, Rathbone Place (Photo: Emily Rosselli)

But it's not just about dining out - Middle Eastern food is remarkably easy to knock together at home. Thanks to the 'Ottelenghi effect', my day-to-day shopping habits have totally changed.

For most of my twenties, tomato, basil and mozzarella have been the core elements of any supermarket stop-off, if I wanted a fail-safe dinner with no thought required. If I was feeling fancy, I might even throw in an avocado.

But these days, I find myself subconsciously gravitating towards the new class of trolley staples - pomegranate, halloumi, mint, roasted red peppers, chilli, harissa, lamb and Morrocan topped houmous. With these bad boys in your basket, you are all set.

But, just like KFC jumping on the pulled pork bandwagon by releasing the Pulled Chicken Burger (which, I have on good authority from a certain KFC fan in my life, is just plain wrong), as soon as a food trend is booming, the variation of what's on offer widens.

Case in point - Tesco now has over 20 varieties of own brand houmous, some of which might make Yotam Ottelenghi weep into his za'atar roast chicken (although personally I have no problem with piri piri houmous).  But how long before we get our first McMoroccan Burger? And will suggesting a mezze feast for a special occasion soon become as uninspired as bringing a date to Pizza Express? I hope not.

To describe Middle Eastern food as a current trend feels flippant - after all, we're talking about the age-old national cuisines of Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco and Iran. These flavours have been here long before Londoners discovered them, and will remain long after we've moved onto the next big thing, whether that's Thai barbecues or Peruvian ceviche.

But while my favourite food is en vogue, I plan to make the most of the amazing stuff on offer. Here's what I've discovered so far:

Ceru, Fitzrovia

Baklava ice cream at Ceru, Fitzrovia (Photo: Emily Rosselli)

Lamb, aubergine, pomegranate, mint, pistachio and chilli - these are like buzz words that I instinctively pick up on  in a menu without even thinking.

So I was in heaven at Ceru, which is a tiny Fitzrovia pop-up restaurant where you can experience the sunny Mediterranean flavours of the Levant (Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus) under one roof.

Well, until the end of April that is. The cute little restaurant is only here for a few more weeks and then Ceru will be touring the major music festivals with its street food stall.

The waitress told us they're looking for a permanent home to return to after the summer, but for now, you need to hotfoot it down to Ceru's current residence in Rathbone Place.

When you get there, be sure to order the lamb shoulder, their ridiculously tasty signature dish (a steal at only £9); juicy and succulent slow-cooked lamb with fresh pomegranate and pistachio dressing and shawarma spices. OMG. The deconstructed baklava ice cream is also a must, with its crunchy, creamy textures and the enticing flavours of honey and almonds.

Babaji, Soho

The ceremoniously presented bill, at Babaji (Photo: Emily Rosselli)

I love Turkish food. And well, pizza is the goddamn love of my life. So imagine my excitement when I read about a new Turkish pizza joint opening up on Shaftesbury Avenue, the latest venture from Alan Yau, the man who brought us Hakkasan, Wagamama and Busaba Eathai.

The branding and decor at Babaji is second to none, with vivid cobalt blue walls, ornate brass embellishment, an open woodfire pide oven and beautiful little Turkish style water glasses. I adore the concept.

But don't be mistaken, this isn't a destination dining spot. The actual experience is no more and no less than a quick, tasty and informal dinner in Theatreland. We were in and out within an hour or so.

The crisp, oven-baked flatbread topped with chargrilled courgette, goats cheese and walnut was quite lovely, and the baklava was beautiful to look at, but that was where it ended - I even left one of them on my plate, unheard of for me. I'd go back to Babaji, sure, but not in a huge hurry, and not in a million years if I had to queue down the street. 

Gallipoli Bistro, Islington

Lanterns at Gallipoli Bistro (Photo: Emily Rosselli)

I've been to this unpretentious Upper Street restaurant a few times and every time I've booked, there's been no record of my reservation when I arrived. (And no, I hadn't accidentally booked a table at the other Gallipoli restaurant which is next door).  But despite never managing a successful booking without having a moment of panic at the door, I forgive Gallipoli Bistro as it's just so reliably good. 

Gallipoli is not a hipster hangout or a place to be 'seen'. But it is charming and atmospheric. Lanterns adorn every inch of the ceiling, and the menu is a classic and affordable mixture of chargrills and mezze. There's no gimmick - Gallipoli is cheap, traditional and tasty. When you can't be bothered to battle the crowds for a table at an 'it' restaurant, and you just want good Middle Eastern food in pretty surroundings, go here.

Persiana, your home

Persiana, Sabrina Ghayour (Photo: Emily Rosselli)

Finally, one of the joys of Middle Eastern food is that it's surprisingly easy to replicate at home. Especially now I have 'Persiana' by Sabrina Ghayour, a collection of food-porn photography and refreshingly non-scary recipes.

Inspired by my beautiful new book, I took a little walk up to my local Persian supermarket to buy some pomegranate molasses and sumac to prepare a feast for my boyfriend.

Sadly I dropped the bottle of the molasses as I got to my front door, which smashed to pieces and left my doorstep looking like a particularly gruesome stabbing scene.

But the end result was worth it - we cooked-up a feast of lamb and pistachio burgers, served with a simple tomato, walnut and pomegranate salad. The hardest bit of the whole thing was clearing up the red sticky syrup and shards of glass from my doorstep (and explaining the enormous blood-red stain to my slightly alarmed neighbour).

If, like me, you're still in the throes of your love affair with Middle Eastern flavours, here's a selection of recipes from Persiana to whet your appetite.

Roasted aubergine with saffron yoghurt, from Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour (Image:

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