It wasn't long ago that even in New York, London and Paris – cities thought of as hotspots of the culinary world – if you wanted to sprinkle sumac over a salad, add a dash of pomegranate molasses to a dressing or soak fruit in rose syrup, sourcing these ingredients meant a trip to a specialist store or the placing of an internet order.
Similarly, while people were aware of Middle Eastern food – or what they believed to be Middle Eastern food – the cuisine certainly wasn’t being embraced or indeed explored to the extent that thousands of years of rich, complex history warranted.
Perhaps most crucially of all, while interpretations of modern British, Japanese, Thai and South American cooking had all enjoyed their time in the limelight, the food of the Middle East seemed to have been left behind.
Well, not any longer. It might be presumptuous to say that those aforementioned ingredients have become commonplace on restaurant menus and supermarket shelves, but they are definitely recognisable.
After all, it says something that when the United Kingdom supermarket Waitrose introduced their 2017 festive food offerings recently a Persian Spiced Christmas Pudding – with rose butter centre – sat seamlessly amongst other seasonal treats.
In the last few years, a wave of contemporary Middle Eastern restaurants have also opened all over the world, together creating something of a movement.
In London, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s popular delis have been joined by the likes of the hugely well-received Israeli-inspired Honey & Co café and Middle Eastern grill, Honey & Smoke. Also in the British capital, The Palomar, a restaurant that describes its food as that of “modern day Jerusalem”, is acknowledged as one of the hottest openings.
In the United States, Philadelphia-based chef Michael Solomonov began making culinary waves in 2008 when he launched Zahav, a restaurant serving Israeli-inspired food with a progressive twist that arguably changed the face of dining in the City of Brotherly Love.
The buzz surrounding Solomonov has only increased since, with a string of other ventures, a highly-successful cookbook published and a recent James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef 2017.
In New York, Philippe Massoud's ilili restaurant is known for redefining, reinterpreting and educating diners about Lebanese cuisine, and Jordanian-born Moeen Abuzaid continues to mix up the culinary landscape with his series
of Broken English pop-up diners, where he serves Middle Eastern food with a distinctly fine dining slant in a style that Massoud describes as "new Arabian".
The theme continues in Paris, with restaurants such as Balagan offering reimagined versions of traditional dishes in beautiful, highly contemporary fashion. Further afield, Tarek Alameddine, a young chef who has spent the last few years working at the forward-looking, two Michelin-star Noma in Copenhagen (voted the World's Best Restaurant four times), recently held cooking classes in the Lebanese coastal town of Tripoli and is a name to remember.
While to the casual observer (or indeed eater) it might seem that modern Middle Eastern restaurants and cooking have suddenly appeared on the global culinary map, in actuality this is the result of a deliberate kindling of interest over a sustained period of time.
Acclaimed cookbook author, chef and broadcaster Anissa Helou specialises in the food of the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa and has been writing about the region for almost 25 years.
She says that while this increase in popularity is often referred to as the “Ottolenghi effect”, it actually dates back some time.
Helou credits the Australian-Lebanese chef and award-winning cookbook author Greg Malouf as a pioneer in the drive to modernise Middle Eastern food and bring it to a wider audience. This is an opinion shared by many, and Malouf has been recognised as an ambassador for his work promoting Lebanese cuisine around the world by the American University of Beirut.
Reflecting on his career, Malouf says that while he knew from an early age he wanted to cook and that his style of cooking would be inherently tied up with his Lebanese heritage, it was only in later life that he realised the direction this would take.
“As a youngster it wasn’t about modernisation, I just loved Lebanese dishes. As I matured I started to understand that the cuisine had become a bit lazy; it wasn’t being properly represented and the bar wasn’t being pushed. I decided that I wanted to make putting Lebanese food on a pedestal my life’s work.”
While these developments are certainly exciting, they do cause us to question what exactly modern Middle Eastern food is, and for those apprehensive about change, how far removed it is from the original.
Helou says that, for her, modernisation means making traditional recipes more elegant in terms of both presentation and preparation, while staying true to the essence of the cuisine.
“Successful modernisers keep to the original flavour and make-up of the recipes but cook them in a way that reflects how we are tending to eat now; for example lightening them, cooking vegetable for a shorter amount of time, using less fat and preserving the colour and visual appeal of ingredients,” she says.
For Colin Clague, the executive chef at contemporary Turkish restaurant Ruya at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Dubai, there’s a fine line between innovation and authenticity. “When I come up with new takes on dishes, whether it’s a yogurtlu kebap, kibbeh or levrek, they have to be authentic. I don’t bring anything new to them ingredient wise, it’s just that I might put the dish together differently, the knife work is perhaps more sophisticated and I often have access to a better quality product than the cook on the street does. We strive to maintain the traditions of the cuisine, while thinking outside the box and elevating it.”
Turning back to the grandmaster, Malouf is of a similar mindset and says whether he’s working on a recipe for one of his cookbooks or looking at the menu at his contemporary Middle Eastern restaurant Zahira in Dubai, respect for the origins of the dish has to be paramount.
“For me, it’s about really understanding the recipes and keeping their integrity – whether they are from my travels or childhood – and then bringing the dish forward. I might make the food a bit more architectural or add a few more layers of flavour, but it still remains recognisable.”
While chefs have been keen to push the boundaries for some time, in order for things to really take off and for Middle Eastern food to move from slightly sidelined ethnic cuisine to culinary mainstream, other factors needed to come into play.
Over the last five years or so, there has been a marked rebuttal of highly-structured menus and formal dining experiences in restaurants the world over. Instead, the notion that you can enjoy the same cutting-edge, high-quality food in a relaxed, convivial environment has been embraced wholeheartedly, with sharing dishes and small plate concepts becoming the preferred way of eating for many.
With its informality, generosity and natural, sharing style, mezze food embraces this culinary zeitgeist without even trying.
In addition, now more than ever we – the people who eat the food and influence and help shape these trends – are all increasingly global citizens. We travel the world far more quickly and frequently than we ever have before and, thanks to 24-hour news, technology and social media, we are far better informed about what's happening in it.
While for many the Middle East remains a complicated and oft misunderstood region, there is a growing awareness of it and a desire to learn more. Importantly, food is, as it has always been, a key way to experience and understand culture, social history and traditions.
“As chefs go more and more global in their search for new flavours, ingredients, and inspiration, it was inevitable that the Middle East would come to attention,” Helou tells me.
Clague agrees, saying: “The world is shrinking and with that comes a more inclusive way of eating. People are becoming more receptive to different dining experiences and are prepared to try new things and to embrace unfamiliar ingredients.”
After a decade-long tenure at modern Japanese restaurant Zuma (in London and the UAE), in 2014 Clague opened Qbara in Wafi City, Dubai, with a brief to create “a Middle Eastern version of Zuma”. Despite the restaurant winning a number of awards, it closed two years later. Clague reflects ruefully on this: “I’m very proud of what we did, but it’s still a huge disappointment to me today. As a concept it really had legs, it was just the wrong location and the wrong time; we were a little too early. If you put Qbara in London today, I think it would do incredibly well.”
Fast-forward a couple of years, and Clague was asked to take the same approach with the menu at Ruya, this time with the focus on Turkey.
“Our main investor and his son are Turkish and are hugely passionate about changing the perception of Turkish food. From the start, their dream was to help elevate the cuisine so that it’s up there with French, Japanese and Italian food. Ruya was never intended to be a single restaurant,” he explains.
On this occasion, it seems that the timing has been perfect and the concept is now being taken abroad. A Ruya restaurant will open on London’s Park Lane early next year and will quickly be followed by a site at the D Maris Bay hotel in Marmaris, Turkey, with other international locations to follow. Not only is this a coup for the brand, it’s also a significant move forward for the UAE restaurant scene. Before the very welcome influx of homegrown companies and regional start-ups of recent years, high-end dining options were almost entirely made up of international brands, franchises and restaurants with celebrity chef names above the door. Ruya’s global expansion represents a complete reversal of this and is hopefully something of a watershed.
There’s no denying it: Middle Eastern food is having a moment – and not before time.