No matter how long you’ve lived in this city, there’s one cuisine that can be particularly tricky to understand. Unfortunately, it’s the most prevalent one of all: Middle Eastern. The very phrase ‘Middle Eastern cuisine’ pinpoints the difficulties – it’s a generalisation that fails to differentiate Lebanese food from Iranian or Syrian. And it’s hard to decipher the cuisine if you don’t know which restaurants to visit, or which dishes to try.
The easiest way to develop your knowledge of regional cuisine is to start with the ubiquitous mezze, a simple set of dishes served in nearly all Middle Eastern restaurants. We spoke to Canadian-born Palestinian chef Suzanne Husseini and Syrian chef Mohammed Bahzad of Al Hadheerah Restaurant at Bab Al Shams for the lowdown.
‘It’s okay to generalise when it comes to mezze,’ says Suzanne Husseini. ‘Mezze in Persian means “to savour” or “to taste”. I believe that mezze dishes should be packed with powerful flavours. Not everything should be spicy, but there should be a selection of sweet and sour and a play on flavours that tantalises and excites you with every bite.’
One of the biggest misconceptions about mezze is that it is served as a starter. It should, as Chef Mohammed tells me, be served alongside meats such as kebabs. ‘Mezze is not actually a starter in the European sense,’ he says. ‘It should be served with what you’d call the mains, because otherwise we don’t have any kind of jus or sauce to serve the meat with.’
This chickpea paste is one of the trickier mezze dishes to master. According Suzanne, the reason is because it’s such a simple dish, made with just a few ingredients, the most important being chickpeas and tahini (sesame paste). ‘Tip the balance and you ruin it,’ warns Suzanne. ‘Getting the right balance for houmous is key. This is what a lot of people have trouble with.’
Both Suzanne and Mohammed agree that houmous should be silky and creamy in texture, and white in colour – something that is dependent on the use of tahini. ‘Some restaurants won’t put enough [tahini] in because it can be expensive, so they try to reduce the tahini to save money,’ grumbles Chef Mohammed. Suzanne adds that conscientious chefs will ensure the creaminess of their houmous by rubbing off the skin of the chick peas in water once they’re cooked. This gets rid of the fibre, leaving the buttery pea. The more skin you remove, the creamier the consistency when you grind the peas.
‘Houmous should be creamy and nutty because of the tahini, and there should be a little tartness to it. Not so much that it takes over the dish, but you should be able to taste the lemon lingering in the background. And, of course, you must use fresh garlic, not powdered,’ says Suzanne.
The quintessential salad for the Lebanese mezze spread, made from bulgur (cracked wheat), parsley, mint, tomato and spring onion, garnished with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Chef Mohammed says the key to good tabbouleh is that the parsley should be crunchy when you eat it. ‘If it’s been marinated for too long, you’ll find that the freshness of the salad has been killed,’ he explains.
Suzanne laments that tabbouleh is a dish that is often abused by restaurants. ‘It’s hit the mainstream and people have gone way too far, turning everything into tabbouleh. Everything that’s mushy, and everything that has bulgur in it is all of a sudden named tabbouleh. I have a problem with that, because tabbouleh, again, is a very humble salad with five basic ingredients.’
The cracked wheat gived the salad a bit of substance, but Suzanne warns that its application should be limited to that of a sprinkling – an afterthought, if you will. ‘Whenever you see a tabbouleh where the cracked wheat is taking over and there’s just a sprinkling of parsley, alarm bells should start ringing!’
Mutabbal resembles a coarser version of houmous and, like houmous, also contains tahini, but the main event is aubergine. The problem with aubergine is that it can be very tasteless when baked – it has to be chargrilled to bring out its smoky taste. This causes headaches for some restaurants, says Chef Mohammed, because it takes more time to chargrill aubergine than to bake it, and if restaurants are serving large quantities of mutabbal (as many do), they may be inclined to bake it to save time.
Of course, timeliness doesn’t translate into quality and mutabbal made with chargrilled aubergines is worth the wait. ‘When you burn the skin,’ says Suzanne, ‘you get a smoky flavour that imparts the flesh of the aubergine, giving it that sweet, smoky, magical taste.’ If you want to make your own mutabbal but don’t have gas or a proper grill, Suzanne recommends putting the aubergine as close as you can to the element. It won’t be as smoky, but it’ll be the next best thing.
Possibly the most complex of mezze dishes, kibbeh is made from very lean meat that is mixed with cracked wheat and brought to life with fragrant nuts and so on. It can then be served raw, or fried in a torpedo-shaped croquette with a bulgur shell.
According to Suzanne, a restaurant can be judged by its kibbeh. ‘The shell can’t be too thick – it has to be thin and crispy and crunchy, and it should be moist and juicy inside. There’s a skill you acquire over time in making kibbeh.