Effectively positioned as the crossroads between three continents, the Middle East has long been a hub of food and recipe exchange. The influence from the Silk Road trade route introduced new, exotic flavors in exchange for figs, dates and nuts – quintessential Middle Eastern ingredients – while culinary traditions from North Africa, Western Asia and Southeastern Europe have all found their way into this most lively melting pot. “Flavors and colors that shout at you, that grip you, that make everything else taste bland, pale, ordinary and insipid,” in the words of renowned Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
A key aspect of Middle Eastern cuisine is its complexity and regional variation. It can be an umbrella term under which you’ll find everything from Turkish to Moroccan to Lebanese. The rich history of the Persian and Ottoman empires leaves a backdrop where the modern borders of nations blur. As Ottolenghi points out: “Regional descriptions just don’t seem to work; there are too many influences and our food histories are long and diverse.”
This cuisine revels in the ability to draw together flavors while maintaining culinary traditions. Many communities have adopted dishes from neighboring regions as their own. For example, hummus, although traditionally considered an Arab dish (hummus is the Arabic word for chickpeas), has been adopted by Jewish Israelis as their own.
This diversity is somewhat its blessing and its curse. Though the region is synonymous with conflict in contemporary news, the shared food influences under the umbrella of ‘Middle Eastern’ can be a unifying factor.
Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner Sami Tamimi are a perfect symbol of this unity. Both grew up in Jerusalem on opposing sides of a conflict that continues to torment the region; they later met in London and joined forces over a shared passion for Middle Eastern food to build an incredibly successful restaurant business. Their collaboration reflects, through the common ground of food, an element of progress despite the wider political issues.
Trending in 2018
Middle Eastern cuisine may have long been a popular food choice in multicultural cities like New York, London and Los Angeles, but the interest is spreading further, and going deeper.
“The combinations have been going on for centuries but are now becoming popular in the rest of the world, particularly North America,” observes Massimo De Francesca, Executive Chef at Ave Restaurant, Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa.
When Whole Foods announced its top food trends for 2018, Middle Eastern cuisine made the list. Why is a centuries-old cuisine hitting the spotlight now?
“I think it’s because the flavors are bold, and the dishes are relatively healthy for you,” says Dylan Benoit, who after opening many of Cayman’s well-known restaurants recently launched his own private chef company. “Everything is grilled, baked or stewed; very little is deep fried. Most dishes are savory with lots of spices and seasonings, so they pack a lot of natural flavor without the addition of fats and sugars.”
Chef Massimo agrees: “I have been noticing a much higher interest with diners to enjoy healthy foods. Healthy foods mustn’t be tasteless and boring, and Middle Eastern cuisine answers the call.”
Middle Eastern Cuisine in Cayman
Spices such as cardamom and za’atar are appearing on supermarket shelves, as are key ingredients like tahini, halva and rosewater, allowing Cayman’s foodies to recreate recipes by Ottolenghi, Sabrina Ghayour and other popular Middle Eastern chefs in their home kitchens.
And while falafel and hummus are already fairly common options in local eateries, from fast-food favorite A La Kebab to vegan meal delivery service Saucha, a wider range of authentic dishes is cropping up on the island’s menus. For example, shakshuka is available at weekends at South West Collective, and vodka-flambeed halloumi is served with fig jam at Anchor & Den.
In April, Icoa – a restaurant better known for its Indian and Southeast Asian dishes – hosted a Lebanese themed supper, where diners were treated to a selection of mezze, such as Mejadra (lentil, spiced rice, yoghurt and fried onions), Mutabbal (eggplant, pomegranate, lemon, tahini) and Kibbeh Nayyeh (minced beef and bulgur tartar). Even the cocktails took inspiration from this region, infused with za’atar, pomegranate and blood orange.
At Ave, Chef Massimo recently changed the menu to feature flavors and ingredients popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, with harissa, lavash, za’atar, baba ghanoush and chermoula all making a debut. His own Italian heritage has cultivated a preference for Mediterranean cuisine, which in turn has a strong affinity with Middle Eastern flavors. “The Mediterranean coastline spans many Middle Eastern countries, allowing for common ingredients to open through their borders in exchange for flavor inspirations,” he says.
With new additions like grilled local baby eggplant paired with fava bean-hummus, and local snapper fillet, crispy-skin-seared on the plancha and coated with za’atar salsa verde, Chef Massimo has successfully united Middle Eastern flavors with local Caribbean produce, creating a tasty fusion-food ‘canvas.’
One of his favorites from the Ave menu is the roasted chicken rubbed with a Moorish spice blend. As the chicken roasts, the spices become warm, nutty and pleasantly scented. The nuttiness is sweetened by the carrot baba ghanoush and it is finished with a savory truffle-infused jus.
Chef Dylan’s go-to kofta recipe incorporates a blend of fragrant spices one would find in a Levantine souk: “Cumin, coriander seed, cilantro, mint, yogurt, paprika, garlic, olive oil, lemon… all bold flavors that pair incredibly well together. I, like many people, love the flavors of the Middle East.”