Middle Eastern cuisine is emerging

by Karen Weisberg
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Zaatar Eggs Benedict from the restaurant llili

 

Consumers may not be quite ready for octopus as an entree, but they’re probably willing to accept it as an ingredient in fattoush, a chopped salad common in Middle Eastern cuisine. As cuisines of the world continue to cross-pollinate, facilitated by international travel, returning military personnel, and the skills of chefs, Middle Eastern menu creations reflect a variety of both Eastern and Western culinary trends.

Taking a close look into two Middle Eastern-inspired American restaurant cupboards, the similarities are evident; one is linked to Bosnian traditions and the other to Lebanese, but both serve an array of “locals,” homegrown or originally from elsewhere.

With two Café Pita + locations in Houston, the first opened in 2007 and the second opened in 2012, Omer Okanovic, owner and chef for the enterprise, is proud to offer “the best Bosnian food in town.”

Although Mr. Okanovic speaks of the “balanced flavors” with no salt used in his kabobs and dehydrated vegetable seasoning (low sodium) used as a natural flavoring component, he admits some of his kitchen staff from Mexico “know how to spice it up;” plus, Tabasco and cholula (the spicy pepper blend from Guadalajara, Mexico) are always on the side of the table.

More authentically Middle Eastern, there’s ajvar (pronounced “eye-var”), a spread that’s a combination of roasted bell peppers, eggplant and tomatoes blended into a mixture easily dubbed “salsa” in Houston.

“We add some garlic, black pepper, a bit of lemon, then cook it down to reduce it,” he said. “It’s very popular all over the Balkans and goes well with grilled meats, chicken kabobs and for a unique hamburger.”

Lightly battered and deep-fried sardines and fresh, inch-long anchovies are popular delicacies at Café Pita +. The eggless batter is a combination of flour and a seasoning blend that includes salt, pepper, mild paprika, oregano and basil plus a pinch of cumin.

Omer Okanovic, owner and chef of Café Pita +

 

“When it comes to spices, we just want to give a little excitement to the meat; I’ve learned when you over-spice, you’re not enjoying the flavor of the food itself,” Mr. Okanovic said. “We love to use fresh vegetables, especially eggplant. We’ll prepare lamb shank with eggplant, tomatoes, a bit of garlic — the fresh vegetables add flavor.”

Similarly, for Pljeskavice, the traditional ground beef patty is mixed with “flavorful spices,” according to the menu description, and Mr. Okanovic confided it refers to a blend of garlic, pepper, onion, plus a bit of breadcrumbs — again, “not to over power but to complement the meat.”

A familiar feel

When guests gather to dine at Ilili, a Lebanese restaurant in the heart of New York City, the flavors are a Middle Eastern blend that seems familiar; perhaps only one or two spices per dish call out their regional roots. For example, the restaurant’s lamb shoulder includes citrus as well as minted garlic whip while the lamb chops are elevated by being “seared with zaatar salsa verde, herb roasted tomatoes. The chicken Taouh Duo features skewered breast/confit leg and thigh, sumac garlic whip/fines herbs salad, and the Aleppo/pumpkin chutney hits the right note when striped bass is served.

Admittedly, chef and owner Philippe Massoud spent a relatively idyllic childhood in the hospitality atmosphere of the hotel his family owned in Florida. Having absorbed the aromas, the buzz and camaraderie of the hotel kitchen as a child, Mr. Massoud, determined to become a chef, honed his skills at several Lebanese and Spanish restaurants including Burj al Hamam in Lebanon and the Don Carlos Hotel in Marbella.

He opened Ilili (pronounced “Eye-Lily,” in 2007); it’s “where tradition meets sophistication,” he said.

Soil and water drive cuisine

A substantial number of Mr. Massoud’s dishes are rooted in Middle Eastern traditions, but he likes to give his imagination free reign to play as well. He makes the distinction that, to him, there are actually two Middle Easts.

“There’s the Levant, including Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Egypt (though that’s more part of Africa), plus Syria, etc.,” he said. “Then, there’s the rest of the Arab world which is completely different in regard to its soil and water. After all, agriculture defines the food culture.”

Mr. Massoud holds to his hypothesis that the Ottoman Empire played a role over a period of 400 years in spreading the food ways among such a large number of people living throughout such a huge territory.

“In the Balkans, there’s taboullah, grape leaves (dolma), shish barak (pasta filled with meat served with yogurt); there’s also manti, a really, really small tortellini stuffed with meat and topped with sumac, dried mint, Aleppo peppers,” he said. “These (items) are served from Armenia to Albania, in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, etc. Where the food starts deviating, it’s related to agricultural capabilities and climate.”

In Mr. Massoud’s opinion, sumac is top of the list of spices already making their mark on menus; in fact, sumac is one of the first spices to cross over from Middle Eastern dishes to “mainstream” American, while Native Americans — long before the first settlers — believed in its medicinal attributes.

Sumac, the dark purple and red berries, is typically sold dried or ground. A sprinkle of the spice on fish, chicken, salads, etc., imparts a tart taste, and provides a good substitute for lemon juice.

“Chefs David Bouley, Jean Georges Vongerichten, and others, are all using sumac; it’s a very versatile spice because it behaves so differently depending upon how you use it,” Mr. Massoud said.

It may be “tart” in a sauce or “heavenly” when added to a lemon pie.

Then, there’s sumac’s “sister spice,” zaatar, a blend of sumac with various thymes, plus white sesame seeds.

But there are challenges, Mr. Massoud said. He warns that there’s quite a lot of “fake sumac” on the market that is adulterated with food coloring as well as “fake zaatar,” which may be blended with citric acid, in the marketplace. As in so much else, product developers need to do the research and know the purveyor.

Spices and sodium reduction

Taking a proactive stance in aiming to reduce sodium content in his recipes, Mr. Massoud believes he’s done everything possible, starting by cooking with the barest minimum. Then, on the table, he sets out a blend of sumac plus salt (a 75%:25% ratio).

“The tartness of the sumac will fool your palate to think you gave it some salt,” he said.

But even he ruefully admits it’s going to take a long time to re-educate taste buds worldwide.

While Mr. Massoud and his staff like to work with jalapeños as well as red chili peppers, No.1 in popularity at Ilili is Aleppo pepper, which is traditionally grown in Aleppo, Syria. It is used extensively and for good reason.

“It has just enough sweetness to fool you into thinking you’re tasting sun-dried tomatoes, plus just enough heat,” he said. “Our dry rub blend is one cup sumac plus half-a-cup Aleppo pepper — we use it for any slow-cooked meats such as pork shoulder, brisket, lamb, veal, etc. It’s really quite exquisite.”

Shawarma Korean Bi Bim Bop

 

Don’t bet on mastic — a fairly smelly resin — to be the next sumac, although it does have its promoters. The potent spice smells like incense when burned and is occasionally used as a flavor enhancer on barbecued meats and shawarma.

Fruit blossoms also have been used in Middle Eastern cuisines as flavor enhancers or seasoning. Today, orange blossom, sometimes paired with the floral flavor of lemon, is finding popularity in new sweet and savory combinations.

“We’re seeing orange blossom water and rose water in macaroons and marshmallow desserts served in a variety of restaurants,” Mr. Massoud said.

He’s also seeing orange blossom essence paired with lemons and Aleppo pepper for a sweet and savory sauce for scallop sashimi and other applications.

“The sauce creates a whole new dimension; we’ve taken the floral flavor of the lemon juice and paired it with another floral,” Mr. Massoud said. “These two essences are being picked up and used by chefs and now the top flavor suppliers have them in their inventories.”

Fond memories vs. reality

As corporate executive chef for Bell Flavors & Fragrances, Chris Warsow is at home discussing Middle Eastern spice trends while seated in his office in Northbrook, Ill., only five hours from Detroit, where he grew up enjoying those very same spices as part of the cooking he enjoyed within the well-established Yemeni and Lebanese enclaves of his own hometown.

“When it came to fast food, we had choices: Chinese, Italian, Mexican or Middle Eastern,” Mr. Warsow said.

From the Middle Eastern restaurants, fattoush, the popular chopped salad, generally included a dressing of olive oil, lemon, pepper, salt and sumac.

“The sumac is very predominant, either in the dressing or sprinkled on the salad,” he said.

Mr. Warsow suggests the citrus notes of sumac reduce the fattiness of lamb when sprinkled on after cooking. His fondness for Middle Eastern fast foods includes homemade pitas, shawarma and shish taouk, which is cubed chicken marinated with lemon juice, yogurt and garlic, skewered and grilled like a kabob. They stand out, as well as toum, the garlic paste he has a fondness for.

“It’s served along with shish taouk; toum ingredients, including garlic, salt, lemon juice and olive oil, are whipped together into an excellent paste — just make sure your date eats it, too,” he said.

Recently, Middle Eastern quick-service restaurants, including Pita Inn, have opened in several midwestern cities. Mr. Warsow added that Naf Naf Grill is a new addition to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue restaurant scene. He finds it’s pretty close to “traditional” in its offerings, and with employees making pitas from-scratch on hot stones in the front window provide an authentic and welcoming touch.

The traditional marinade for shawarma typically should include all spice, garlic, black pepper and lemon juice, Mr. Warsow said. In fact, for a recent trade show he prepared beef shawarma with its evident Middle Eastern notes, over a Korean rice bowl. The complete dish boasted spicy tahini sauce, Korean pickled vegetables, roasted beef shawarma plus spicy vegetables for a memorable Middle Eastern-Asian flavor fusion.

As research chef for International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., David Horrocks, CRC, is based at the IFF Creative Center in South Brunswick, N.J. Mr. Horrocks said almost all spices used in Middle Eastern cuisines, including nutmeg, saffron, turmeric, sumac, caraway, anise, all spice, cinnamon and fenugreek, are also used throughout the world.

“They’re interesting, unique and on the rise, but not used as often as Thai and Korean spices,” he said.

Sumac definitely has potential as a “mysterious” and “interesting” element with its acidity and brick red color.

“Hummus sprinkled with red sumac will make the acidity pop, while adding those ‘mysterious’ flakes on top,” Mr. Horrocks said.

Flavorful fun

But Aleppo pepper is not only more readily available on-line than sumac, but it’s also more popular today. Since chefs (and guests) are always looking for a new twist, Aleppo provides that since it is similar to an ancho but with more heat, Mr. Horrocks said.

“With the salt that’s added to dry it out, plus its bit of greater acidity, Aleppo chili is fun; it’s also a lot of fun to call out the name of the specific chili [for cache] on the menu.”

However, it’s zaatar of all the Middle Eastern blends on the market, which people are really gravitating toward. As a blend of varying amounts of oregano, thyme and marjoram (depending upon who is doing the blending), plus sumac and sesame seeds, Mr. Horrocks finds that the average consumer is intrigued by it — “and, it’s something chefs should know,” he said. “Zaatar, with its pop of acidity, is very easy to use, especially for summertime barbecues as a dry rub on lamb and beef prior to cooking.”

He also suggested combining olive oil with zaatar spice as a dip for bread, or using it on vegetables and meat, or to rub on feta cheese cubes as an appetizer.

Mr. Horrocks and Mr. Warsow agreed that a nuance of orange blossom added to lamb may be fine, but floral ingredients, even in a rub or marinade, need to remain “subtle nuances” in the background since they may easily overpower other flavors.

Mr. Horrocks said he is keen on using preserved lemon in order to create a unique flavor; he sees consumers are integrating it into everyday foods, not even realizing its Moroccan/Middle Eastern roots.

“In a restaurant, a chef can easily make a preserved lemon dish — perhaps rubbing the outside of chicken with preserved lemon and little pieces rub off,” he said.

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READER COMMENTS (2)

By Hannan 7/24/2014 12:49:05 PM
I am seeing that a great influence of Mediterranean Cuisines is visible from all recipes that you have shared.

By Khaleed Khan 7/8/2014 4:37:22 PM
Very nice article. Greetings and many thanks to Karen Weisberg, my favorite writer!