Middle Eastern food explained

From homemade hummus to the haute cuisine variety (yes really!) Discuss this article

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When discussing food, we often describe cuisines in such broad terms that the sense of smaller regions’ distinctive styles and flavours gets lost. While labelling food by its origin is necessary (not to mention practical), there’s a tendency to overlook the diversity within a region. For example, ‘Chinese’ food is never just noodles, and ‘Indian’ (despite what many Brits may say) is so much more than chicken tikka masala.

The ‘Middle Eastern’ label is perhaps the most misleading, because it refers to dishes from numerous countries spanning several continents (‘MENA’ is another problem altogether, because it brings North African cuisine into the equation). Yet for all Middle Eastern cuisine’s geographical diversity, the majority of us are only familiar with staples such as hummus and moutabbal.

This, according to Dubai’s Ewaan head chef Mokhtar Elkholy, is largely to do with the expectations of visitors to the region, who will order more predictable dishes as a result of their limited exposure to Middle Eastern cuisine in their home country. This means many people overlook treats such as date ravioli (a marriage of Arabic and Mediterranean traditions) and traditional Arabic seafood stew (a nod to the Middle East’s rich seafaring heritage).

Chef Mokhtar also points out that Middle Eastern cuisine’s diversity isn’t simply a result of geography, but also religious influences. ‘One thing to remember,’ he says, ‘is that Islam is not just reflected in daily prayers and chores, but also in the dining habits of people in the region. Halal cooking [exemplifies this].’

In the UAE, Mokhtar feels there has been a conscious effort made by some Middle Eastern venues to serve more traditional dishes, in an attempt to maintain the identity of local cuisine. On the other hand, it’s inevitable that Middle Eastern food here will evolve in keeping with the city’s cosmopolitan tastes.

Mohammad Jammoul, sous chef at Khaymat Al Bahar at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai, believes that the aim of many local chefs is not to create complex variations of traditional foods (as their European counterparts have done in the past). Instead, he explains, they prefer to fine-tune their technique for better, more delicious results – which, incidentally, seems to be the current trend in Europe.

‘The uniqueness of Middle Eastern cuisine comes from the simplicity of the combination of ingredients,’ explains Mohammad. ‘Instead of reinventing the dishes to create new and contemporary Arabic cuisine, the secret is to fine-tune the techniques to produce amazing Middle Eastern food.’

However, the UAE’s best known TV chef Khulood Atiq, has recently launched a cookbook of Emirati recipes, which takes a slightly different approach. Sarareed documents Emirati recipes and tells the story behind each dish. Khulood told Time Out Abu Dhabi: ‘I have adapted the traditional recipes to make them more appealing to today’s health-conscious youth. For example, despite the fact salads do not feature heavily in Emirati cuisine, I’ve created a number of new salad recipes and included them in the cookbook. At instances I’ve also lessened the amount of oil I use in the dishes, however, for purposes of maintaining tradition, I’ve also ensured I mention original measurements of each recipe. All of that being said, nothing beats classic Emirati recipes. I love making traditional Emirati seafood dishes as well as traditional Emirati bread.’

So whether you want to liven up conventional dishes yourself, or be more experimental when ordering at local restaurants, living here in Abu Dhabi is your opportunity to do so. Here we recommend four less ‘mainstream’ Middle Eastern dishes, and three places to try them.

By Time Out Abu Dhabi staff
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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