Kebab and Mezze in London – A preview to Late@BBK

This post was contributed by Emeritus Professor in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck. This text first appeared in The Middle East in London Volume 9 – Number 5 October – November 2013.

Prof Zubaida will be in conversation with Dr Alex Colas on the topic of ‘A Life Through Food’ on 25 February at Late@BBK – a special event open to staff and students of Birkbeck’s School of Social Sciences, Philosophy and History. Find out more here

Mantoo

Mantoo

A recent survey revealed that 41% of British households have hummus in their fridge (Guardian Shortcuts Blog 7 August 2013). This is an astonishing index of the degree to which Middle Eastern food, alongside curry and other selected items of world cuisine have been globalised, and in the process, transformed.

Taboule, essentially a Levantine parsley salad dotted with bulgar/burghul grains and tomatoes, is widely eaten in France, only transformed to a couscous salad. Supermarket shelves display a wide range of hummus, many unheard off in its native land, chilli, sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese and Moroccan hummus, which must come as a surprise to Moroccans. Kebab shops are on every high street, mainly offering doner kebab in the form of rotating meat loaves made in factories. European supermarkets now offer packets of ‘kebab’, slices of pork or turkey ready for the microwave. This globalised cornucopia is surely to be welcomed, but the discerning diner will also search for authenticity and depth, which can be found in plenty in the diverse range of Middle Eastern restaurants and groceries in London.

London’s landscape of Middle Eastern food

Hummus

Hummus

Middle Eastern food establishments dot the geography of London, following patterns of diaspora, settlement and commerce. At the heart of London’s West End is the Lebanese/Arab enclave of Edgware Rd and Marble Arch, into parts of Mayfair. The sound and smell of narguila smoke pervades the area, from the many Arab café terraces when the weather permits.

Groceries and supermarkets are emporia of every sort of Middle Eastern food: vegetables, olives and pickles, meat counters, cheeses, bakeries offering flat breads and pizza-like crusts of cheese and herbs, called manaqish, and jars and tins of everything. Restaurants, snacks and juice bars intermingle with pharmacies, hair dressers and estate agents, all announcing themselves in Arabic. These are mainly Lebanese establishment, catering to a clientele of Arab residents and visitors for whom that part of London is a focus, especially during the tourist season in summer.

Further up the Edgware Rd into Maida Vale and beyond to Kilburn and further west, there sprung many Iranian and Iraqi (mostly Kurdish) eateries and shops. Arab establishments have also spread in many suburbs: Shepherds Bush and further west to Acton and Ealing is a mixed area featuring foods of many nationalities, including Maghrebis alongside more Lebanese. One Moroccan food stall there has recently been written up in the food columns and awarded prizes.

Kensington, long frequented by the richer Middle Easterners, is home to many Iranian and Arab establishments. Turks have inhabited NE London, Hackney and Stoke Newington, and further north and east, where you find many ocakbasi grills, as well as restaurants catering for local workers and offering stews and pilafs (rice or bulgar). There is even an iskembe (tripe) saloon. From these original areas of settlement and commerce, Middle Eastern restaurants have now spread into all areas of London.

On the menu of these restaurants are diverse regional foods, but meat grills, kebabs, and mezze are constant items. Kebabs, of course, go beyond the vertical skewers of Turkish doner and Lebanese shwarma (also derived from Turkish), the best and original form being layers of meat and fat and not an industrial meatloaf. Cubes of meat and ground meat patties on skewers are common to all, though with different composition and seasoning, reflecting regional origin: the Iranian ground meat koubide tastes quite different from the Turkish or Lebanese kofte. Iranians also have distinct genres such as barg, sheets of meat rolled over a skewer. Chicken kebabs are ubiquitous, but, to me, lack distinction. Other grills include liver, kidney and sweetbreads. Garnishes and accompaniments are another source of regional variations.

Khosh mezze

Middle Eastern flatbread

Middle Eastern flatbread

Mezze is a Persian word, meaning ‘taste’, khosh mezze means delicious. It is widely, and wrongly, translated as hors d’oeuvres. It is not an opening course in a multi-course meal, but specifically related to drink, usually alcoholic. Items of the mezze repertoire can be meals in their own right, such as hummus, vine-leaves, bourek pastries (stuffed with cheese or meat), and so on. But they only qualify as mezze when served in small portions with drink, which is also the case with Spanish tapas.

The mezze repertoire is offered primarily by Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, as well as the many Middle Eastern and North African restaurants who have adopted these modes. Iranian restaurants have their own particular ‘starter’ dishes: aubergines in different combinations, wild garlic, musir, in yoghurt, sabzi paneer, an abundance of fresh herbs with white cheese, and kuku sabzi, a kind of herb frittata. Typically, prosperous Middle Eastern diners would not have considered the mezze as a meal, but would have proceeded to more meaty dishes. Now, however, especially in the globalised dining fashions, meals consisting of a variety of small dishes are popular and superseding the three-course meal: Spanish tapas, Italian cicchetti, Russian zakuski, and the ‘tasting menus’ offered by many restaurants. Mezze fits in very well with this trend. Many other restaurants are now eclectic in including items from all these different regional traditions.

Beyond kebab and mezze

Bulgur koftesi

Bulgur koftesi

There are, of course, many other genres of Middle Eastern foods, beyond kebab and mezze: stews, breads, pies, pastries and sweets, some of them offered in restaurants and leaking into globalised menus. Of the flat breads pitta has become most common in eateries and markets, convenient for sandwiches and wraps; lavash, thin flat bread, is especially good for wraps; Persian noun, is now more recognised in Indian naan. Pies and dumplings, especially kubba/kibbe/icli kofte, typically made with bulgar (cracked wheat) and ground meat, entered the mezze repertoire, and are also served as snacks and take-away, as has bourek, wraps or pies of filo stuffed with cheese or meat. Sweet pastries of the baklava family are widely offered in Middle Eastern establishments, and now in supermarkets, not always of appetising quality.

The typical everyday meal for many in the Middle East is a stew of meat and vegetables eaten with rice and/or bread. There are endless variations in modes of cooking, spicing, ingredients of vegetables and herbs, and rice cookery. This genre is not so well represented in restaurants. Iranians are justly proud of their refined rice cookery, and their restaurants reflect this taste: rice served with grills or the khoresht, stew, of the day. Turkish eateries in London’s ethnic enclaves, where local workers eat their lunch, offer a display of different stews and rice or bulgar.

London is now home to so many diasporic communities and their food, and the Middle Eastern contingent is very well represented, at both the gourmet and the mass catering levels, and items of their food are now prominent in the ‘fusion’ cuisines of the global scene.

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Routes and roots: a talk by Claudia Roden

This post was contributed by Rebecca Heald, a student on Birkbeck’s MSc Social and Political Theory.

I remember as a child my mother making us falafel as a treat. Whenever she did so, she would tell us the story of a couple in Cairo and how they would order falafel from the place below where they lived and hoist them up to their balcony using a pulley. At the beginning of their time living there they were young and lithe; but slowly, with the falafel and the convenience of obtaining them, they became round. I know now this story came from Claudia Roden’s legendary 1968 A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Roden is one of Britain’s most revered cookery writers. She was born in Egypt in 1936 into the extensive Sephardic Jewish community living there until the 1956 Suez Crisis. Once propelled into exile, she began to miss the food she grew up with and set about gathering recipes. Subsequently she explored and documented a number of cuisines and she has just published her eleventh book, The Food of Spain.

As in Roden’s other work, recipes become a vehicle for history and emotion. This book, like the others, is an extremely personal offering. Experiences over the five years she spent researching the book triggered memories she didn’t know she had. Roden’s family was descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492; her grandmother spoke an old Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino, and once immersed in Spain, traces of the old Muslim presence reminded her of the Arab and Jewish world she grew up in.

The starting point for her research was to ask everyone she met for their favourite recipes, what their parents and grandparents cooked, how they lived and what region they were from. Almost without exception the recipes confirmed that Spain is a country of carnivores. They also belonged to what Roden calls the “rural world”, going against the fact that now 80% of Spain’s population live in cities, not on the land, and seemingly in contrast to Spain’s now fashionable culinary avant-garde. The Catalan writer Josep Pla wrote that cooking is “the landscape in a saucepan”. For Roden, in recipes, there are also ghosts: she sees who was there before.

In the case of Spain, those who were there before include Jews, Muslims, Romans, Visigoths, French, Italians, Belgians, and Germans. In previous books Roden has used recipes to explore the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews: history, joys and hostilities. Here in Spain, Roden finds that much of the food tells the story of population movements from north to south, coast to mountain to centre, and also, importantly for Spain, the Spanish Inquisition. Pork is shown to be a tool of the Inquisition. Putting it in everything was proof of being Christian. One never knew when the Inquisition was coming, but it seems it often came at lunchtime.

Now many regions are proudly rediscovering their past, many of those Roden meets declare they are descended from conversos. Every dish has a story, and often this is something to celebrate. Upon eating Santiago cake, made of almonds, sugar, eggs and oranges, Roden declares, that none of the ingredients are local to Galicia and it tastes like a Jewish Passover cake. Her hosts are delighted and push her onto local television to share her observation. The area has been celebrating its Jewish history for tourists and on a local farm they have been reenacting weddings complete with ceremonies under a hoopa. Roden’s culinary analysis was welcome confirmation of the fact that in Galicia there were many Jews who converted rather than leaving.

Roden herself has summarized ‘Spain’s regional dishes are memories and people want to hold on to them,’ a sentiment to which The Food of Spain bears rich and delicious testament.

This event was organised by the Birkbeck Food Group, part of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

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The Food of Spain

This post was contributed by Evie, who also blogs at Saffron Strands.

It took Claudia Roden five years to research her most recent book The Food of Spain.  Sixty minutes was never going to be enough for this whistle-stop tour of the country and its cuisine.

Each visit Claudia made to Spain unearthed more food memories than she could have hoped for.  Each contact led to yet another person to meet.  She would talk food favourites, festivals and folk history in kitchens as “people open up in the kitchen, not in the living room”.  Most, be they workers or nobility, spoke of peasant cuisine being central to their food memories.

Claudia’s thesis is that Spain’s history of conquering armies meant a population on the move and tastes were, by necessity, unsophisticated. The aristocrats despised vegetables and ate meats, mostly game, though rabbits were left to the lower orders. In Bourbon and Habsburg times the Spanish nobility ate French cuisine. They followed the lead of King Philip V who employed cooks trained in the French court at Versailles. The current haute cuisine in Spain, she was assured, was a cuisine of “today”, though chefs claim to look to the roots of Spanish food for inspiration.

A quote from the Catalan writer Josep Pia “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot” was apt.  The diversity of the landscape of Spain has led to three styles of cooking: the sea; the plain; and, the mountains.  Claudia pointed out that, unlike Italy, dishes are not contained within regional borders.

The food of the wet, mountainous north was influenced by early French pilgrims walking the pathways of St. James, and by the maize, potatoes, beans and peppers brought back from South America by returning priests. The Visigoths introduced cider apples and pigs leading to dishes such as the Asturian roast pork with apples and cider.  The ebb and flow of religious intolerance can be seen in the foods of Jews who arrived in northern Spain to escape the rule of the Berbers in the 12-13th centuries.  To Claudia’s mind, the famous Tarta di Santiago is a good example.  In this sweet dish of almonds, eggs, sugar, butter and citrus she can see the Jewish Passover cake.

The hot, interior Plain was perfect for ranching and pastoral farming, feeding the rich on roast meats and the poor on “spoon” dishes.  After 1492, the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) remained in the region until the 17th century leaving a legacy of Moorish dishes which we learnt exceeded that of Andalucia.  The fried breadcrumb dish ‘migas’, now widespread in Spain, came about when the Moors were banned from eating couscous.

The coast and Balearic Islands shared the mild climate and cuisine of other Mediterranean countries.  In Cordoba, on the Ruta de Caliphate, Claudia had enjoyed aubergine soaked in milk, floured, fried and drizzled with honey.  Having eaten a very similar dish in Morocco, it was difficult to argue its origins did not lie in Moorish rule. Later, Catalans re-populated these Arab-taken areas and brought their cuisine to the mix.

In all regions the clergy exerted a powerful influence over food.  The Catholic decree that fish be eaten on Fridays resulted in salt cod being named as the preferred fish of many Spanish people today, even those living near the sea.  Pork was a tool of the inquisition.  This can be seen in some areas of the country where the sheer number of dishes containing a little pork is a clear sign that the Inquisition was active. On Saturdays the clergy would check for smoke from the chimneys of homes to prove both Muslims and Jews were compliant in their conversions.

As in many European countries, the monasteries were famous for the quality of their cooking and in the convents pastries were baked for benefactors.  Attempting to extract recipes, Claudia was frustrated to find the convent visited was that of a ‘closed order’, with only Sister Immaculata having dispensation to speak.  This significant problem was later resolved by an unintended invitation to the Sisters to become Friends on Facebook where they happily ‘conversed’.

Claudia Roden’s talk was enjoyable if a little disjointed.  The time limit left speaker and audience a little breathless.  A bit more time and we could have benefitted much more from her learned yet engaging approach to her subject.

Talk based on The Food of Spain by Claudia Roden
Pubished by Michael Joseph

This event was organised by the Birkbeck Food Group, part of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

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