For me, it started with a takeaway falafel sandwich from The Fumbally some months back. Flatbread, beetroot, yoghurt, chilli, tahini, mint and falafel, all in one big messy, tasty, napkin-busting wrap, it scratched a new and very particular itch. Then there were the poached eggs at Bibi’s, served with roasted butternut squash and anointed with drops of the most amazing harissa oil. Before and after that there was Yotam Ottolenghi in every cookbook conversation, Brother Hubbard and expanding Middle Eastern grocery sections. There were ever-more 3D hummus creations and bags of pitta crisps and giant cous-cous in the supermarkets. There were pictures of ‘that new falafel place Umi’ from every angle on my Instagram feed and lively discussions about mint, pomegranate molasses and sumac in the most unexpected of quarters. There was Middle Eastern food everywhere.
And, thankfully, it’s a food trend that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere just yet. With Middle Eastern food – as indeed with all cuisines – once you look beyond the trusty staples, good though they are, (hummus, lamb koftas, cucumber tzatziki etc), you find a lot more going on than you’d initially expected – startling sweet/sour flavour combinations, memorable crunchy textures and the kind of rich, vivid colours that make you feel like you’re on holiday.
I wanted to make a big pitta sandwich like the one I had a few months ago for lunch today, but with a few new flavours and some slightly more unfamiliar ingredients. I also wanted to use the gorgeous smoked pink garlic that I couldn’t help but buy in Fallon & Byrne on Friday. I made crisp pitta bread, baba ganoush (smoky aubergine and garlic dip), harissa and preserved lemon spiked with cloves, cinnamon and coriander seed. I pounded up toasted sesame seed and thyme to make a sort-of-Za’atar (minus the sumac), and served it all with pomegranate
jewels seeds, fat green olives and minty cucumber ribbons – delicious. Best of all, I have my lunch-time sandwiches sorted for the week.
(To make one small bowl. Double or triple quantities, ie, aubergines, as required)
1 clove of smoked or ordinary garlic, peeled and diced
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1tbsp good-quality olive oil
Salt (smoked if you have it)
1tsp tahini (optional)
Roast the aubergine in a hot oven for about an hour until it suddenly relents and collapses entirely. If you want it a little smokier, give the aubergine a quick char under a grill or on a gas flame at this point. Open the skin with a knife and scoop out all of its gooey interior while it’s still warm. Mix the aubergine with diced garlic, oil, lemon juice and seasonings, tasting as you go. Serve at room temperature rather than cold.
A delicious and ferociously spicy paste for stirring into stews and soups or for dotting onto salads, dips and poached eggs, this fresh harissa will keep for several weeks in the fridge
4 medium chillies (in length and in spicineness)
1/2 tsp good quality smoked paprika
2 smoked garlic cloves, crushed and diced
Pinch dried cumin
Pinch dried coriander
1tbsp olive oil
Pinch of salt
Pinch of sugar
1/2tsp white wine vinegar
Halve the chillies and remove seeds and membrane. Finely dice. Combine all ingredients and grind with a mortar and pestle until a thick paste emerges. Transfer to a small, clean lidded jar and seal with a little olive oil, topping it up with more oil as you use it.