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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London’s history: The ups and downs of an unrivalled metropolis

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, a PhD candidate in History at Birkbeck. His research focuses on the port of London from 1889-1939.

London and the NationLondon inspires love or hate. No-one is indifferent towards the capital, and that’s as true today as it has always been. London has suffered disasters and celebrated triumphs through the ages, but its status as the UK’s largest city has been constant. The capital is unique and the dominance it exerts upon the nation’s affairs is unmatched by the role of other capital cities in other countries.

Having been born, bred and employed in London, I was keen to learn more about the capital’s history at the London and the Nation conference at Birkbeck. The event, organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre, was also an opportunity to test some early research undertaken as part of my PhD studies at Birkbeck.

Professor Jerry White, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, opened the event on 10 July by highlighting how London has always been different from the rest of the UK, and he traced the roots of anxieties about the capital’s dominance and “adamantine metropolitan hubris” to the eighteenth century. White continued by emphasising how London’s fortunes have fluctuated in the twentieth century. The interwar period witnessed the “age-old lure of London.” Population growth, suburban expansion, industrial development and rearmament saw the capital expand hugely. In 1939, 20 per cent of the UK’s population lived in the capital

But restrictions were to follow with limitations on office growth and decentralisation, all leading to inner city problems in the 1970s. Michael Ward, Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also referred to decline in his presentation, showing how London’s population bottomed out in the 1980s at 6.6 million. Surprisingly, the capital’s population has only just surpassed its previous 1939 peak of 8.6 million.

The world’s greatest port

My presentation showed how the port of London was in a crisis at the turn of the twentieth century. Its standing as the world’s greatest port was in jeopardy as the waters of the Thames were too shallow for the draught of the new, large steamships. Rival dock could not invest in dredging and dock facilities because of ferocious competition. Following a Royal Commission to investigate these problems, the capital’s dock companies were nationalised in a £23m takeover and the Port of London Authority was born in 1909. By 1927, the PLA – a public trust – had spent £12m on improvements in the port of London, including dredging a 50-mile channel in the Thames and building the George V dock, complete with electric cranes and refrigeration facilities.

The transition from a chaotic port to a coordinated one was largely inspired by, and achieved, because it followed similar transformations in other ports, notably Liverpool and Glasgow. Legislative action and multi-million pound civil engineering projects began on the Mersey and the Clyde in the 1850s and were used as a blueprint to grant the port of London a new lease of life in the early twentieth century.

London’s dynamic past – a familiar tale?

Guy Collender

Guy Collender

I kept on making parallels throughout the conference as I learned more about London’s dynamic past. I realised that the challenges and opportunities facing London today, although different in detail, bear an uncanny resemblance to previous eras. Let me elaborate.

In 1913, the port of London was the heart of imperial and international trade (it lost this crown to New York during World War I). In 2015, London is booming, its population is at an all-time high and the capital is increasingly referred to as a city-state. Before WWI, major infrastructure projects were underway to dredge the Thames and expand the docks. Today, London is investing in infrastructure to accommodate its growing population. A prime example is Crossrail – Europe’s largest construction project. It is due to open in 2018.

However, as history has shown, this is no time for complacency. The breakdown of international cooperation and the outbreak of WWI undermined world trade and ships were diverted from the port of London. The capital’s port never regained its status as the world’s greatest port. Similarly, storm clouds are on the horizon today. Problems in the Eurozone and the question mark about the UK’s future in the European Union are creating uncertainty – a bad situation for the global economy and London’s financial sector. Let’s hope there is no catastrophe around the corner, and let’s hope policy-makers reflect upon London’s history when they take decisions affecting its future.

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A walk into London’s past

This post was contributed by Graham Fifoot, who is currently enrolled on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies

Great-Fire-of-LondonAt one o’clock on Thursday the fourth of June 2015, an important crowd gathering took place at St. Paul’s Cross within the churchyard precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the very place where victory was announced over the Armada, where books were burnt by Cardinal Wolsey, where four Gunpowder plotters were seen publicly punished, as well as where the book-trade took off in a big way – we were to meet Professor Vanessa Harding who was fully prepared to be our expert guide for London’s nearby streets and pathways.

I think many questions were circulating amongst us all in anticipation: Can we possibly envisage an old London as experienced by past Londoners? How do past maps of London compare to our more contemporary and familiar ideas?

Fully equipped with our Wenceslas Holler maps of London (a London just after the Great Fire), we began by walking beyond Paternoster Row, along Cheapside to discuss the seventeenth century frontage offering a tantalizing glimpse of where the old street had once been.

We were to continue along the old ‘Goose Lane’ (that no longer exists) towards Bow Lane, to stop in the Bow Churchyard and discover the bronze ground studs for indicating the boundary of the churchyard. As we walked further along London’s streets, we could visibly see implemented (or about to be implemented) changes to road layout, boundaries as well as past marks of property ownership. Along Fenchurch Street, we viewed the Drapers and Vintners companies with their coat of arms, and found how the old stream of Walbrook had now become a named street.

Then, passing along Wittington Ave and the Leadenhall Market to St Helen’s Church – we were able to view the extent to which the Great Fire had had an impact, as well as stop by the Shard to pass judgment on the continuing redevelopment of our contemporary London (probably to the horror of Professor Vanessa Harding!).

On continuing to the Guildhall Yard (also hit by the Great Fire) we were able to view where the Roman amphitheatre may have stood before progressing further to Little Britain and Aldersgate Street.

In fact, what originally stood as a one and a half hour appointment with Vanessa, quickly became (by overwhelming crowd demand and opinion) a fantastic two and a half hour overview of the surrounding streets of London.

By the end of this walk on a most glorious summers day, our assembly realised they had experienced something special. Now the old maps of London began to make more sense and the London of John Stow and Strype more imaginable thanks to the company of Birkbeck’s own expert, Professor Vanessa Harding…

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London Connections: ‘The Mediated City: A Tour of Media and Mediation in West End London’&‘London: A Renaissance City ?’

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Birkbeck Arts Week on Wednesday featured a double bill of London events. First off a West End walking tour guided by Dr Joel McKim and Scott Rodgers who promised us that we’d be using the city to rethink the way we use media, and using media to rethink the way we see the city. From Fitzroy to Leicester Square (both spaces re-fashioned to reap the rewards of film industry activity, from ‘Georgian’ location to Red Carpet stargazing) we tracked the spores of London’s media creatures. We inspected a protected Banksy under the shadow of the BT (formerly GPO) Tower and submitted ourselves to airport-type security to peer in at the ants nest that is the BBC Newsroom. Whereas George Val Myer’s Broadcasting House (1932) looks like an Art Deco liner bearing down on Oxford Circus, the Apple Store occupies Regent House (1898), built on the site of the former Hanover Chapel in Regent Street, like a cathedral. Scott pointed out the Venetian mosaics over the ubiquitous logo, showing that when it was built the building already had connections with Paris, New York, St Petersburg and Berlin.

Venturing into Soho we passed the artisanal post-production houses, rendering, digitising and generally buffing up the raw material for untold hours of viewing, and in Soho Square found the ducal palaces of film production, the address for the likes of Twentieth Century Fox.  Joel told us how the film and tv industries had benefitted from the fibre-optic digital networks installed by banks for high-speed transfers, and how companies like Sohonet were now enabling post-production on the same film to take place simultaneously in London and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, just round the corner in Dean Street is Rippon Newsagent’s, which has been distributing media from its Georgian storefront  since 1791.

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Dodging the crowds round the Eros Statue, we learned about the history of advertising in Piccadilly Circus, where flashing lights have been selling soft drinks since 1908. Perhaps, suggested Joel, the Piccadilly screens may at some future point be used for purposes other than advertising, as in the innovative Times Square Arts collaboration with contemporary artists, or the transnational project that used public screens to link Seoul and Melbourne. We reached Leicester Square in time for the five o’clock serenade from the Glockenspiel Clock to hear about the plans for the replacement of the Odeon West End  with a 10-storey hotel and cinema complex which Rowan Moore, in the Guardian, describes as being ‘the architectural equivalent of the premium-priced vats of tepid Coke on sale in the foyers of multiplexes’.

The re-development will mean the end of the Hand and Racquet, the pub in Whitcomb Street which is apparently named after a nearby tennis court used by Charles II, a sports facility roughly contemporary with the publication of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) which Dr Stephen Clucas considers to be the final flowering of the English Renaissance.

In the session which asked the question ‘London: A Renaissance City?’ Stephen Clucas spoke up for some of the powerhouses behind discoveries in the Natural Sciences in the mid-to-late Sixteenth Century as coming not from the city, but from the periphery of London. Specifically the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot, who lived in the grounds of his patron Henry Percy’s  Syon House in Isleworth, and the astronomer and astrologer Dr John Dee who lived just downstream at Mortlake. We heard how in 1575 Queen Elizabeth called on Dr Dee in order to have a look at his ‘scrying glass’ but didn’t disturb him because he had just come from his wife’s funeral. Dee had a library of over 2000 printed books in Mortlake, and Henry Percy had one of the largest libraries in Europe, although the ‘Wizard Earl’ had to make do with regular deliveries of books when he did a seventeen-year stretch in the Tower for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

The Earl was lucky to get away with his life. Dr Brodie Waddell told us how in 1590’s London, anyone found guilty of Grand Larceny, which meant the theft of anything of the value of one shilling or more, was sentenced to death. Those found guilty of lesser thefts would be tied to a cart and whipped through the streets. The population of London had doubled in the years from the mid-16th Century, to reach over 140,000 by the year 1600. Refugees from religious persecution in Holland flocked to the city and provided cheap labour. Bad harvests led to a three-fold increase in the price of flour between 1594 and 1597, and following the ruinous attempts to contain the Tyrone rebellion in Ireland, demobbed soldiers added to problems of vagrancy, crime, social disorder and sedition.

The backing track to the extraordinary developments on the Elizabethan stage was more likely to be the sound of apprentices rioting, or the plague bell, than the colloquy of classical scholarship. Dr Gillian Woods made the point in an analysis of Shakespeare’s most brutal play, Titus Andronicus that in the early 1590s, Shakespeare shows his villainous characters, the rapist brothers Chiron and Demetrius and their provocateur Aaron, ransacking classical authors for a guide to depravity and then adding new tortures of their own devising. And in a marked departure from classical convention, Shakespeare presents much 0f the violence on stage ‘thereby forcing the audience to examine a development of what is at the heart of the Renaissance endeavour’.

Dr Susan Wiseman concluded the session by paying tribute to a group of dedicated (or perhaps obsessed) men and women who took it upon themselves in the late 19th Century to record and preserve London’s ancient monuments and buildings. Chief amongst them was Charles Robert Ashbee, editor of the Survey of London. As Sue pointed out, many of the buildings photographed for the Survey are commonly used to illustrate Dickens’s London, whereas they actually provide an extraordinary visual record of London before the Fire. The 1590’s façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopsgate has been preserved in the V&A, but The Oxford Arms, a 17th Century coaching inn, was demolished in the late 1870s.

England came late to the Renaissance party, and none of the speakers at the session seemed confident to give a full affirmative to the ‘Was London a Renaissance City?’ question. But one thing was clear, that from Dr Dee plotting the course of Jupiter’s moons from the roof of Northumberland House on the Strand, to today’s digital pioneers developing the future’s equivalent to Dee’s ‘scrying glass’, London has incubated a pursuit of knowledge and artistic endeavour with all the energy and innovation of its classical antecedents.

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