The chickpea dip crisis highlights our obsession with cuisine from the Middle East
Not since the great sun-dried tomato drought of the Nineties have the middle classes been under such threat. News that supermarket shelves are bare of hummus has hit shoppers hard, sending paroxysms of terror among dinner party hosts facing social death in the shape of a dip-sized hole in tonight’s casual mezze starter. Young mothers are bombarding Mumsnet to ask if tzatziki makes an acceptable alternative for their DS’s carrot sticks; office workers are asking if they’ll have to switch to the hoisin duck salad wrap. Still, at least our pomegranate seeds and sumac are safe. For now.
If it seems incredible that a blip in the supply of a product few people had even heard of a generation ago should make national news, it’s nothing compared with how Middle Eastern cooking has become culinary catnip for middle-class Britain over the past decade. We are now as much a nation of harissa and preserved lemons, of bulgur wheat and tahini, as we are of fish and chips or chicken pie. For certain demographics — metropolitan, largely southern and young — tagine has taken the place of the Friday night curry, and rice pudding comes suffused with rosewater or cardamom.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when we went doolally for the Middle East. Most people say it began with Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef who opened his first deli in Notting Hill in 2002, and certainly his cookbooks have convinced us to do things with pomegranate molasses and orange blossom water we could barely have imagined, as well as making spice mixes such as za’atar, dukkah and baharat trip off the tongue. And to think we used to consider olive oil exotic.
The first place that brought this style of cooking out of the ethnic restaurant and into the mainstream opened five years earlier, though. At Moro in London, Samuel and Samantha Clark picked up on the Moorish influences in Spanish cooking and used them as a springboard into the food of Morocco and the Levant. Claudia Roden was won over by the chicken fattee, Nigella Lawson couldn’t get enough of the pomegranate seed jewelled pumpkin rice.
Nowadays we’ll scatter pomegranate seeds over everything — you’ll even find them in a Tesco salad — and I can’t think of the last time I opened a new cookbook that didn’t have a recipe for shakshuka, that ubiquitous dish of spiced tomato sauce and poached eggs.
There’s something grimly ironic about our having discovered the joys of Middle Eastern cooking just as much of the Middle East implodes, and recent cookbooks have developed a conscience, wanting to do more than titillate our tastebuds: they want to show solidarity with the plight of those who live there as well, especially in Syria which is now enduring its sixth year of civil war.
In December there was the #CookForSyria Recipe Book, in aid of Unicef’s Children of Syria Fund. The Aleppo Cookbook, published earlier this month, helped to raise funds for Hand in Hand for Syria. Now there is Syria: Recipes from Home, by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi, in aid of Hands Up, a British charity helping to fund medical staff and a prosthetic limb clinic in Syria.
Azzam is a 35-year-old Syrian TV producer who came to Britain in 2007. Mousawi, 38, works in theatre and was brought up in Baghdad and moved to Bradford to escape the first Iraq War. They met over dinner a few years ago and bonded over their love of food. When they went to Beirut to do a theatre project with displaced Syrian women they determined to do what they could to help. “When we came back to London we were desperate to find a way to shares these stories, to bring them to a bigger audience, and a cookbook seemed the perfect way,” says Azzam.
So the pair set off for Syria, Germany, Greece, anywhere they could connect with Syrians and hear not only their stories but also their recipes, which are woven together in the book. “We wanted to get something beautiful out of all this destruction and misery, to show everyone what a wonderful country Syria is,” says Mousawi.
With authenticity comes a level of simplicity that will surprise Ottolenghi fans used to the long ingredient lists that come with his recipes. “He certainly tweaks them a lot more and plays around with them,” says Mousawi. Her favourite recipe in the book is a thyme and halloumi salad, composed simply of thyme, halloumi, a diced tomato and half a sliced onion and “Syrian food’s secret ingredient”, pomegranate molasses. “Pomegranate molasses makes everything taste better,” she says.
Azzam’s favourite is chicken poached in water with fried onions and potatoes with a sauce of yoghurt blended with an egg, stock and turmeric. For her simplicity is not the main point, it is food’s ability to connect you with home. “The first thing people do when they leave home is try to find the right ingredients so that they can cook what they are used to. It’s an experience I went through when I first came here. It’s a way to keep connected.”
Some of the women’s stories they tell are almost humorous — Ahlam, for example, who braved the mortar fire to “rescue” the poached chicken she had left in her kitchen — but others are more profound. Mona describes how, trapped by mortar fire and unable to leave her home, she could only watch as her five-year-old son died. “The thought that someone might be cooking my maqloubeh recipe makes me so happy,” she says in the book. “It means people in the West are thinking of us.”
How to make the perfect hummus
Don’t be deceived — though it is the simplest of processes, making hummus is an art form. It takes practice to get it just right, but once you do the rewards are huge. OK, so you need to remember to soak the chickpeas the day before but there really is very little involved with soaking or cooking them. All the ingredients are pretty inexpensive, but that said, do try to find the best tahini (sesame paste), as your hummus will taste so much better. The following recipe is for quite a large quantity, but it stores well for up to three days in the fridge and it’s quickly eaten by the average household. If you like, the recipe is easily halved.
500g dried chickpeas
1.2 litres cold water
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Juice of 2 lemons
Sea salt, to taste
1 Tip the chickpeas into a bowl and cover with plenty of cold water (they will expand as they soak). Cover and leave to soak — there’s no need to refrigerate them — for 12 hours, or overnight. There aren’t any shortcuts to this, just aim to put them to soak the day before you need them.
2 Drain the chickpeas and put into a medium saucepan. Pour in the fresh measured cold water so that the water only covers the chickpeas by about 2cm. Stir in the bicarbonate of soda, then bring the water to the boil. Don’t be tempted to add salt at this stage because it can make the chickpeas tough. Keep a watchful eye as it comes to the boil because it can easily boil over.
3 Skim off scum with a slotted spoon. Cook over a medium heat for 1-1½ hours until the chickpeas are very soft. If the water level seems to be going down too quickly then partially cover the pan with a lid to help to reduce evaporation, but don’t cover the top completely or the pan will boil over. Keep an eye on the water level and top up with a little extra boiling water from the kettle if needed, especially towards the end of cooking. Stir from time to time, stirring more towards the end of cooking, as the chickpeas take on a soupy texture since there is less water in the pan.
4 Once cooked, drain the liquid if there is a lot, but don’t throw it away — keep it for later to adjust the consistency. Spread the chickpeas over the surface of a large roasting tin and leave to cool.
5 You should have about 1.25kg cooked chickpeas. Purée in batches with any liquid from the roasting tin in a food processor, adding the tahini, lemon juice and salt to taste until you have a creamy, velvety smooth consistency. Adjust the consistency with some of the reserved cooking liquid or water. You may need to do this in batches depending on the size of your machine. Make sure it’s nice and thick, but smooth with no lumps.
6 Transfer the hummus to a large plastic container, spread it level, then press on a well-fitting lid. Chill until needed.
Note: the cooking time may vary; old chickpeas will take longer to cook than this season’s crop. You’re aiming for very, very soft chickpeas; it doesn’t matter if they break up since they’re going to be blitzed anyway. If in doubt, simply scoop out a few chickpeas, throw them at the wall and if they stick, they’re ready.
How to create the perfect hummus swirl
1 Plop a large splodge of hummus on to your chosen plate — a shallow bowl is ideal.
2 Take a large spoon with a rounded base — a tablespoon or large soup spoon will do the job nicely.
3 Place the spoon, bowl-side down, in the centre of the splodge and rock it back and forth until you have created a bowl-shaped cavity.
4 Pressing firmly, continue to enlarge the bowl, pressing the hummus out to the sides of your plate.
5 As you go round, push the spoon slightly under the rim of hummus; it takes practice, but you want perfection, right? This is also a test of your hummus’s consistency. If you made it too watery, the crater you just created will collapse into the centre of the bowl.
6 Then turn the spoon over on to its edge and carefully scrape it around the edge of the hummus until the sides are nice and smooth.
7 Now you’re ready to fill it up with whatever takes your fancy and serve. Your friends will think your presentation skills are outstanding and you can rightfully bask in the glow of adulation.
From Levantine Kitchen by the Hummus Bros, published by Pavilion, £14.99
Dishes from Syria, Recipes from Home
Hummus with meat
Hummus has come to epitomise Middle Eastern cuisine for most westerners. The word “hummus” literally means “chickpeas” in Arabic.
“Hummus bi tahina” is the proper name for the dip we all know and goes back at least to the time of the Crusades; the oldest recipe we could find for “hummus with tahini sauce” appeared in a 13th-century Arabic cookbook. Some people say that the great Saladin himself used to prepare his own version.
Such is its celebrity status in the food world that in recent years hummus has become politicised, with countries across the Mediterranean each pressing its own claim of ownership. But as a Syrian and an Iraqi, we would like to remind you that hummus is an Arabic word, and chickpeas were first cultivated in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq and Syria). We’ll leave the final judgment to you. The authentic Syrian way to make this recipe is to boil dried chickpeas, and it’s worth it because it’ll taste even more heavenly.
Serves 4 as part of a mezze
For the hummus
150g dried chickpeas (soaked overnight with ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda), or 1 x 400g tin of chickpeas
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 heaped tbsp tahini
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the meat
1 lamb neck fillet, about 200g, diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
A handful of pine nuts, toasted
Extra virgin olive oil, to serve
Flatbreads, to serve
1 Drain the chickpeas, then boil for 2 hours if using the dried ones. Save the water in the tin or the cooking water for later. Pick out any loose skins, then blend really well in a food processor with all the other hummus ingredients, plus 7 tablespoons of water. If it looks a bit dry, add some more water gradually, just enough not to overdilute. Syrian hummus should be very smooth.
2 Fry the meat in a frying pan over a high heat until it browns, then season with salt and pepper.
3 Using the back of a spoon, spread the hummus over the base of a shallow bowl. Scatter the meat and pine nuts on top and add a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with flatbreads.
Layering food on toasted bread with a yoghurt sauce is a distinctly Syrian speciality. As far as Syrians are concerned, no flavour has yet been found that can’t be enhanced by the addition of garlicky yoghurt and a bit of crunch.
Bread is considered a sacred gift from God in the Arab world, whether you are Muslim, Druze or Christian, and it’s a sin to waste it even after it has gone stale. That’s one of the reasons why “fetteh” — literally, “breadcrumbs” — is such a popular dish and can be made with chickpeas, aubergines, chicken or lamb. Whenever we make aubergine fetteh for friends it is always everyone’s favourite dish on the table.
Serves 4 as part of a mezze
Olive oil, for roasting and drizzling
2 flatbreads or pittas
500g plain yoghurt
2 small garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp lemon juice
A handful of parsley, roughly chopped
A handful of pomegranate seeds
50g pine nuts, toasted
Salt, to taste
1 Heat the oven to 180C/gas 4.
2 Cut the aubergines into quarters lengthways and then slice them into 1cm chunks and place in a baking tray. Pour over a generous helping of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, then roast in the oven for about 40 min, or until the aubergines are soft.
3 Brush the bread with olive oil and toast in the oven for about 10 min until nice and crispy. Then break it up into pieces.
4 In a bowl combine the yoghurt, garlic and lemon juice. When the aubergines are ready, take them out of the oven and allow to cool. Place them in a shallow bowl, then pour the yoghurt mix on top.
5 When ready to serve, sprinkle with the crispy bread, parsley, pomegranate seeds and toasted pine nuts.
If there’s one thing that Syrians can’t live without, it’s mana’eesh (singular: man’ousha). In the same way that pubs are a huge part of life in Britain, mana’eesh bakeries are integral to Syrian culture. Every street corner has one, if not two, of these bakeries. Every morning, no matter where you live, some bakery near by will be wafting the irresistible aroma of baked bread, thyme and melted cheese up to your window, and you’ll find yourself unable to resist darting out. Think of a man’ousha as a fragrant Syrian pizza that you can eat for breakfast. What’s not to love about that?
The joy of it is the fantastic fresh bread itself. Many bakers will start work as early as 5am or before, preparing the dough before applying the different toppings. All of them offer pretty much the same menu: za’atar, cheese, minced meat, labneh or red pepper paste, but each of these is the baker’s own special recipe — and some are definitely better than others. In Syria people tend to be fiercely loyal to their favourite man’ousha bakery.
With mana’eesh being as cheap and readily available as they are, not many people make their own at home, so we have this recipe as a homage to the original. It’s a very easy recipe that you can whip up in a jiffy as a starter or light lunch served with salad.
3 tbsp za’atar
5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 x 320g pack of puff pastry
Fresh mint leaves, to serve
½ tomato, diced, to serve
1 Mix the za’atar with the olive oil.
2 Roll out the pastry and, using a pastry brush, spread the za’atar olive oil all over, leaving a 2.5cm border around the edges.
3 Bake in the oven on 160C/gas 3 for about 15 minutes, until the pastry puffs up and turns golden brown.
4 Serve with fresh mint and tomato on top.
Turmeric cake may sound unusual — and it is — but this exotic flour-free cake will be the talk of any dinner party. The spicy aromatic flavours combined with the almonds make a delicious moist cake that lasts for a good few days. If you want a gluten-free option, simply replace the semolina with fine polenta.
250g ground almonds
175g fine semolina
1½ tsp baking powder
2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp aniseed, crushed
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp nigella seeds
300g butter at room temperature
3 eggs at room temperature
Icing sugar, to sprinkle
A handful of broken pistachios, to sprinkle
For the sugar syrup
Juice of 1 lemon
1 Heat the oven to 160C/gas 3 and line a round, 23cm springform tin with baking paper.
2 Mix the first seven ingredients together in a large bowl.
3 Beat the butter and sugar together until it is pale and fluffy. A food processor works perfectly well for this. Add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating well. If it starts to curdle or looks too runny, simply add a spoonful of the dry ingredients.
4 Fold in the dry ingredients, then pour the mixture into the tin, level with a spatula, and bake for about 40 min, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
5 While the cake is in the oven, make the sugar syrup. Add the sugar, lemon juice and water to a pan and simmer until the sugar dissolves. The longer you simmer it for, the thicker the syrup will become; 10 min should be about right.
6 Take the cake out of the oven and insert a skewer around the edges. Then, while still warm, pour the syrup all over so that it seeps into the cake itself. Leave to cool, then remove from the tin, sprinkle with icing sugar and pistachios, and serve.