My mission to eat food from every member of the United Nations takes me to the Middle East
Australia took a lot of Lebanese refugees in the 1980s and one of the most enduring influences has been on Australia’s food. Lebanese food is a staple in Australia and as I grew up there, I’ve long been a fan.
One of my all-time favourite lunches is Lebanese – a felafel roll with hummus and tabouli. Yum! This is so ubiquitous in Australia that it even made the title of John Birmingham‘s deeply funny book about life in a share house, He Died with a Felafel Roll in his Hand. A felafel roll is delicious and relatively healthy.
Felafel is made from chickpeas – a healthy source of protein – though it’s admittedly deep fried. Hummus is made from chickpeas and tahini (sesame paste), adding a dose of calcium and some healthy fats. The tabouli gives you a serve of vegetables and plenty of iron from the parsley. It’s carb-heavy but low GI and the lemon in the tabouli lowers it still. A felafel roll is not exactly diet food but it’s low in saturated fat.
I also love to go out for Lebanese food for dinner. Like Asian food, it’s best as a communal experience with many dishes in the centre of the table to share. The dishes should certainly include pita bread and dips, including hummus and baba ganoush, which is made from eggplants (aubergine). Then a salad – tabouli is popular, though my favourite is fatoush, which is like tabouli on steroids, with the addition of tomato, cucumber and crisp fried bread. Then the warm dishes – roast chicken pieces and grilled lamb skewers are classics, as are vegetable dishes such as okra stew. Lebanese people love their meat but it’s a very friendly cuisine for vegetarians as well because of the fondness for cooking with pulses (legumes) such as chickpeas and lentils, fresh vegetables and nuts. Lebanese desserts are fabulous – think Eastern pastry treats with sticky honey and pistachio or almond such as baklava, or sweet, sticky-yet-chalky halva made from tahini.
Lebanese is found all over Australia and in Sydney there is a cluster on Cleveland Street in Surry Hills. My favourite is The Prophet, which used to be a regular for me with a certain group of friends. It was nothing flash – we had plastic table cloths and a muzak track that was somehow reminiscent of Boney M. But the service was friendly and the food was always incredibly good and incredibly cheap. Like many restaurants in Australia, it’s BYO (bring-your-own) so we’d buy a bottle of wine at the shop across the road and pay a small fee for corkage. I left Australia four years ago but I paid a visit with my friends last time I was back. It had been done up a little and the prices were slightly higher (though still a bargain), but the service and the food were as good as ever.
In London, Lebanese food does not seem to be as common, but it’s around if you know where to look. I enjoyed Noura down near Piccadilly Circus, though it was really quite expensive. For authenticity, it’s best to head up to Edgeware Road, where there is a cluster of restaurants and specialist food stores. Most of them seem to be called Maroush, and are apparently owned by the same person. They range from fine dining restaurants to cafés and take-away joints, so whatever your tastes or budget, there is probably something that suits.
The Prophet (Sydney)
274 Cleveland St, Surry Hills, NSW 2010
Phone: +61 (0)2 9698 7025
Outlets in Belgravia, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Piccadilly
Maroush I (London)
21 Edgeware Road, London W2 2JE
Phone: +44 (0)20 7723 0773
I’ve just got back from a week in Syria, mostly in Damascus but also in Hama, on the road to Aleppo. From what I have read, and from what I saw myself in Syria, Syrian cuisine is virtually the same as its Lebanese counterpart. Apparently, the significant differences are between the Christian and Muslim dishes rather than between the two countries. Felafel did not seem to be as popular as it is in Australia and the UK, but I can’t speak for how popular it is in Lebanon itself as I’ve never been there.
Syrians take their food seriously and like to go out to eat, especially at night when the heat has lifted and it’s pleasant to sit in the gardens and courtyards. Damascus even boasts the world’s biggest restaurant, certified by the Guinness Book of Records, which I visited but not to dine.
I did notice that the Syrians tend to eat late. Most restaurants are open all afternoon and lunch could well be at 3pm and dinner at 9pm or 10pm. Also, not all restaurants will serve alcohol, even in tourist areas; it depends on the religious sensibilities of the owner and the proximity to a mosque. The meat portions tend to be big, so it’s easy to over-order.
Breakfast is typically pita bread, feta and olives, with strong, sweet black coffee. There is a lot of fruit – lovely peaches, apricots, cherries, figs and melons were available at good prices in all the markets.
Leila’s Restaurant and Terrace, Damascus
By Great Umayyed Mosque
Phone: +963 (0)11 544 5900
Czar restaurant, Hama
Phone: +963 (0)33 3030 105
I have to admit I know very little about Iraqi food, though it seems to have a lot in common with its neighbours and being a desert country, dates are an important feature. I have never seen an Iraqi restaurant and the ongoing war means a trip to Baghdad is not on the agenda any time soon. The next best thing is that I stayed with an Iraqi family in Damascus and shared my meals with them.
The food we ate was not dissimilar to Syrian food and probably a lot of was, since we were in Syria and the cooking facilities in the apartment were limited. However, I was told that some of it was more classically Iraqi. We typically ate roast chicken, cucumber salad, eggplant stew with rice, and flat bread – the Iraqi style bread was flakier than the Syrian pita bread.
Dining with the family we sat barefoot and cross-legged, with the food spread out on a picnic rug on the floor – this is preferred even when a table is available. Iraqis share one drinking glass for the whole family and eating is very communal. It’s important to wash your hands before and after the meal because much of the eating is done with your hands.
I’m told – by an Iraqi who now lives in Austria – that food culture in Iraq is not as important as it is in Syria, and the food is not quite as good. What I ate was pretty tasty though.
Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are my fourth, fifth and sixth countries to feature on my UN food challenge, after Mexico, Ghana and New Zealand. There are 186 countries to go…