As Muslims piously adhere to the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the period of Ramadan, it would be timely to reflect on one aspect of their culture. The magnificent Middle East has continued to allure and captivate us for centuries. A resilient land which once combined the regions of the Maghreb, Levant and Khaleej overflows with a rich heritage, where royal dynasties dominated. A tradition that showcases the finest of literature, architecture, art and succulent cuisine.
The latter aspect of the Middle East displays refined cooking methods supplemented by hand ground spices, combining a symphony of colour, texture and good taste. This ancient cuisine has its roots in the Persian and Turkish empires which excelled in agriculture, in a region that extended to the lands of the Fertile Crescent. The food of each Nation is a reflection of its resources and creativity. Food that was once unique to certain regions has today transmigrated to gently permeate the eating habits of other nations.
Genuine Arabic cuisine is a family affair, where the kitchen is the primary hub of every home. Cooking is an exercise that binds the family together. The concept of ‘mezze’ derived from Persian dialect meaning to taste, has set a trend of eating small portions of many foods. The many colourful plates are a temptation. Even today with new technology at home the mortar and pestle have no substitute, as they are used to crush garlic, onions and spices. Ingredients such as tahini, saffron, sumac, rosewater and pomegranate molasses are the hallmark of this flamboyant cuisine.
The food is a nutritious affair with items like Zaatar flat bread, Halloumi, eggplant frittata, baked eggs with spinach, pitta wedges, crepes with rose syrup and baked scornes. Dips such as hummus made with chick peas are a favourite.
Arabian lunch is often preceded by Tabbouleh the
quintessential salad from Lebanon which combines fresh parsley and tomatoes. Eggplant, zucchini, olives and okra are also staple vegetables. Filled with meats and spices the fried Kibbeh from Syria is another top hit. Barbecued meats and juicy kebabs offer a delightful thrill. Middle Eastern menus lean heavily on fresh cuts of beef, Kofta (ground meat), chicken and lamb. Roasted on vertical grills the Shawarma is a scintillating treat. Baking is a key element that showcases taste and patience. Soups and salads ensure balance in every meal.
The Middle East is famous for its tarts and pastries including the Baklawa filled with dates, walnuts and pistachio. King amongst these is the Knafe Nabulsieh. This delicacy is originally made with milk from the white goats of Nablus. Another beverage chal, which is fermented camels milk, is an energy booster. Even cheese was envisaged in the Arabian dessert, and then spread to Europe.
Drinking coffee, infused with cardamom is a closing act at the end of a meal. In ancient times the coffee beans were ground, roasted, brewed and served from the dallah pot in front of guests. Sri Lankans have wrongly assumed that Biriyani comes from Arabian cuisine. This is not true. Biriyani has its origins in North India. The Arab regions have their own rice dishes including Pilaf, which is rice cooked in broth.
For the gourmets and impulsive foodies in search of Middle Eastern delights during Ramadan the Sheherezade Restaurant is probably the best location in Colombo city. Nestled inside the resplendent Galadari hotel, the restaurant can take pride in their brilliant food presentation. Founded two decades ago by the present Executive Chef Imroze Salih, drawing from his vast experience overseas the restaurant serves a good mix of Middle Eastern cuisine. The main ingredients are procured from Dubai, which maintains and enriches the authentic taste. The buffet served from Thursday to Sunday offers a spectacular array of dishes including a sweet corner and action stations. The show kitchen adds to the exotic excitement that is synonymous with Arabian food.
Chef Salih has come up with an original Lebanese dish for the family, Oozie – an entire roasted goat that has been specially marinated and refined in the embers of a clay oven.