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
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
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.
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
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.
Find out more
- Late@BBK event, Thursday 25 February 2016
- Professor Sami Zubaida
- School of Social Sciences, Philosophy and History