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When it comes to the Middle East, public opinion in the UK is always going to be somewhat divided. On the one hand, it’s the cradle of civilisation; the birthplace of numbers, agriculture, and fermentation. But for many this ancient significance is forgotten, overshadowed by modern instances of extremism and civil unrest. However, over the last couple of years Middle Eastern cuisine has been gaining serious support in the UK. And as Brits sample the Levantine flavours, they’re beginning to develop a taste of the rich culture that exists beyond the conflicts.

‘Middle Eastern cuisine’ is in fact something of a misnomer, each country possessing its own distinct flavours and local dishes. Having said this, there are some common threads found throughout. Vegetables often take the central role, with chickpeas replacing meat as the main source of protein. Olive oil and honey also feature prominently, as is the case with other Mediterranean cuisines. The result is that Middle Eastern food is an extremely healthy option, rich in nutrients and low in fat.

Piquillo Pepper and Goats Cheese Couscous Salad
Much of the credit for its recent success in the UK is owed to Yotam Ottolenghi and his partner Sami Tamimi. “Whomus?” I hear you ask. The pair opened the first Ottolenghi restaurant in 2002, serving up a variety of Levantine dishes. Their focus was on simple but inventive flavour combinations, high quality seasonal ingredients, and a colourful, exuberant atmosphere. The restaurant was an instant hit, and over the next ten years they opened three more branches in the same simple deli style, as well as a more sophisticated Soho location called Nopi.

During this time the pair also released a string of cookbooks, with big results: their recipes quickly becoming the benchmark of successful dinner parties, with their once-rare ingredients turning into store-cupboard essentials.

Wheat Berries edit
And the Ottolenghi effect has far outstripped his personal empire. Middle Eastern style chains have been popping up all over London. Yalla Yalla, which started out in Soho in 2008 now has three branches and a travelling stall. Similarly Hummus Bros are now serving their chickpea delights from four London locations. While Covent Garden’s Koshari Street, the Egyptian fast food vendor backed by Anissa Helou, looks set to be the next big success story.

The trend has also had a serious impact on supermarkets: sales of Tahini – a key ingredient for making your own hummus, have risen by nearly 40% since last year. Sumac is up 23%. Sales of harissa have boomed by 62%. While preserved lemons have seen a rise in sales of nearly 72%!

Mixed Fish Yuzu Ceviche on Trio of Tostadas with a Japanese Twist of sauces
But when Waitrose are stocking 10 different types of own label hummus, is this trend becoming a bit hysterical? Is there a point at which we should stop eatin’ Eastern and focus on our own national cuisine? I’m inclined to say no. Given the increasing worries about obesity rates in the UK and the established links between eating well and staying healthy, we should encourage any trend promoting fresh, healthy ingredients.

Equally, as touched upon earlier, there is a genuine cultural lesson to learn. Middle Eastern states are too often thought of negatively in the west. Much of our experience of the area comes through the press, which almost always contains bad news. We end up seeing the region as a perpetual war zone, an arid desert full of violent religious fervour. But this is such a misrepresentative depiction! Each of the countries in the region has a rich and extensive history, a fact unsurprising given that they have been inhabited since the dawn of civilisation. And the events the media cover make up such a minority of the peoples’ lives. Like us they spend most of their time working, relaxing, cooking, and eating. And as you prepare a tabbouleh or some fresh baba ganoush you forget about ISIS and the Arab spring, and you really get a sense of the similarities between us, and of the hidden joys of the Middle East.

 

By Ben Schroder, Marketing Intern

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