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Cuisine Focus: MENA

Six different cuisines make up this month’s focus as we look at the varying traditions and challenges around the Middle East

Six different cuisines make up this month’s focus as we look at the varying traditions and challenges around the Middle East by speaking with chefs from around the region.

Would you say your cuisine is popular in this region?

Andrew Cullen, Seven Sands, Emirati cuisine: At Seven Sands, we’re fortunate that we have a very distinct offering and there isn’t really anyone in Dubai doing what we do. However, the flip side to that is that there is low awareness in the market of what Emirati cuisine really is, with many people confusing it with other Arab cuisines, such as Lebanese. For us, the challenge continues to be around educating people on what sets the local cuisine apart and, whilst we are certainly seeing a rise in popularity, Emirati cuisine has yet to reach its full potential in the UAE’s Middle Eastern food scene. 

Akhilesh Singh, executive chef, Shayan, Swissotel Al Ghurair, Iranian cuisine: Traditional Iranian food is an extraordinary affair. Unfortunately it is sorely underrepresented in this city as Iranian community makes up less than ten percent of the UAE population. However, it has huge potential to do well since it has some similarity to Levant cuisine.

Eyad Ammouri, executive chef, Kubba Levantin, Al Manara, Jordanian cuisine: Jordanian cuisine is indeed a traditional style of food that has developed throughout the history of the region. Jordan is known for its rich and flavourful dishes that are seasoned and prepared with olive oil, spices, herbs, garlic, onion, tomato sauce and lemon. A prevalent blend of spices with a unique taste, is called za’ater; it contains a local herb called sumac, also associated with other Middle Eastern cuisines.  Jordanian cuisine is identified as Levantine, as it shares similar traits with cuisines of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

Franck Page, executive chef, Phoenicia Hotel, Lebanese cuisine: As a multicultural country, Lebanon is home to one of the best and richest cuisines in the world. Having been ran by multiple nations such as the Ottoman Turks and later the French, the country has a unique history that makes it a melting pot of cultures especially in the culinary world. The Lebanese cuisine has gained a wide popularity in region and the world due to its multiple health benefits.

Sudqi Naddaf, executive chef, Olea, Kempinski Mall of the Emirates, Levant cuisine: Levant being not only a place but it’s the taste and the region of shared plates and a wide palate of tastes embracing numerous cultures. Dubai being a hub of cultures, the Levant cuisine is quite popular as it fits the taste of various regions and bringing them together. 

Choumicha Chafay, head chef, Bab Al Mansour, Moroccan cuisine: The Moroccan cuisine is one of the most popular and flavoursome cuisines in the world. It’s known by its flavours, diversity and colours.  Morocco is a popular destination to many people from the UAE and KSA as well as other Gulf countries. Many of them already know the famous Moroccan dishes like tagine and couscous and have tried it before. While Moroccan food is so well received by the GCC citizens and residents, it is only logical to establish an authentic Moroccan restaurant such as Bab Al Mansour.

How authentic is your preparation of your cuisine – are recipes tweaked to suit a local audience?

Cullen: Whilst Emirati cuisine has its roots in tradition, the question of what makes a certain interpretation ‘authentic’ is not particularly straightforward, due in large part to the way that the cuisine has evolved naturally over the years. Today’s Emirati cuisine is reflective of the melting pot that has long made up the UAE’s unique cultural and social fabric, so it lends itself well for innovation.

Singh: We are an authentic Iranian restaurant, as none of the recipes are tweaked or adjusted to local flavours. Iranian cuisine focuses on utilising very few ingredients in their recipes, hence adjusting the recipe to different taste would completely change the dishes. However, at Shayan there is a dish to suit every palate such as simple mahi pollo of grilled fish and fluffy dill-seasoned rice; the complex flavours of ghormeh sabzi, a deep-green herb, lentil and lamb or beef stew; and aash: hearty soups filled with pulses and seasoned with kashk, a kind of sour yoghurt. The north region of Iran uses a lot of pomegranate and walnuts whereas in the south you will find tamarind and a number of different species of fish – which are a surprise to our customers who thought Iranian food was all about kebabs.

Ammouri: Our preparation styles are very authentic indeed, as they are based upon traditional cooking methods, such as the cooking method of zarb.  We use the same authenticity in the flavouring of the dishes as well.

Page: Mosaic, our lobby-floor Restaurant, truly represents the heart of dining at Phoenicia, warmly welcoming guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The restaurant offers a diverse buffet of oriental and international dishes with live authentic cooking stations. Take the breakfast, for instance, a great representation of Mosaic Restaurant where you can find the traditional mankoushe, the lahm b ajin and the knefe. Nevertheless, for us to stay in touch with the latest trends in the industry, the restaurant comes alive with ever-changing twists on the Lebanese gastronomy. On special occasions, we revisit the cuisine in a modern way while keeping the ingredients of the original dish alive..

Naddaf: Most of the recipes that are followed are based on grandma’s recipes; however some of the signature dishes are tweaked with the modern fusion along with the presentation.

Choumicha: The preparation of Moroccan cuisine at Bab Al Mansour is in accordance with classic recipes that come with the heritage and culture of the country and its people. We do not go with the “fusion” style as we believe our guests will truly enjoy our authentic dishes that are perfect by design. We believe this is the only way for us to express the real flavour of the food and what it represents. We however, carefully selected our menu items to ensure they match with the cosmopolitan taste of Dubai and UAE residents.

How easy is it to source your ingredients?

Cullen: We’re very lucky in Dubai as we are now seeing locally produced ingredients becoming more and more accessible, which helps us as an Emirati restaurant to make more authentic dishes. Of course, as with any ingredients, there are always some that are easier to source when they’re in season. We pride ourselves on authenticity and a key part of this is using local suppliers as much as possible and we are proud to serve Dibba Bay Oysters.

Singh: Iranian food is colourful and uses many ingredients that have been highlighted as ‘superfoods’, with purported health benefits. This stems from ancient Ayurvedic medicine which many Iranians still loosely follow today. The practice states that food must be balanced between the “hot” – such as nuts – and “cold” – like refreshing fruits. This means that things like saffron; Omani limes; sumac; fresh herbs and nuts; fruits such as pomegranate; yoghurt; and high-quality meat and fish are central to the food which are all available in Dubai. However, for seasonal items such as zereshk (Iranian barberry), kashk (dried drained sour milk) etc., we source it through our special suppliers.

Ammouri: We often struggle with sourcing, as our location impacts the frequency of being able to receive certain items.  As we only source the best organic ingredients, this is not a simple task.

Page: It is indeed easy to source our ingredients; in fact, some would be freshly picked two to three hours before being added to the buffet at Mosaic. The beauty of Lebanon, especially for a chef, is that each region is well-known for a fruit, a vegetable or any kind of ingredient, so you’d be getting your components from all over the country.

Naddaf: Dubai not being part of the Levant region it could be quite challenging at times to source the traditional ingredients in order to follow our norm of grandma’s recipe. However, the best and the closest taste is always sourced.

Choumicha: Each Moroccan dish has its own identity and requires special ingredients. We import 90% of our ingredients from the finest farms in Morocco including fruits, vegetables, oils, and spices. Almost all our produce is organic. We believe that the ingredients in the dish are like words in the song, if you add something that doesn’t rhyme perfectly or take out something important, it won’t sound right. In the place where food speaks Moroccan, we pay close attention to every small detail while creating unforgettable gastronomic experiences for our guests.

What are your biggest challenges?

Cullen: The Dubai dining scene is extremely dynamic, with exciting new openings seemingly happening every week. Whilst this makes it a fun and exciting place to be, operationally it makes it hard to get traction with guests when there is always somewhere new and different to try in town. Competition is increasing, especially when it comes to price and promotion. 

Singh: The biggest challenge is to change the mind-set of people living in UAE - they don’t believe that Iranian food is more than just kebab and rice. For instance, a Persian meal is incomplete without a dish of sabzi khordan, or edible herbs. The plate can include mint, tarragon, basil and cilantro, alongside scallions, radishes, walnuts, feta cheese, and Iranian naan (flatbread). You simply tear off a piece of flatbread, tuck a bit of the herbs and cheese and other garnishes inside, and fold it up like a rustic sandwich. The plate stays on the table throughout the meal, and the herbs are a crunchy palate cleanser.

Ammouri: One of our biggest challenges is dealing with the many different suppliers and the varying frequency of being able to receive the same required products.  Also, as we import many items from abroad, the availability of the required items is scarce at times.

Page: As I’ve just mentioned, we are able to source quality ingredients; however, what’s difficult is being able to get the quantity that the restaurants in Phoenicia actually need. We insist on offering all of our guests, and through all of our outlets, the highest quality of food with the finest ingredients.

Today, my mission is to inspire and influence those up-and-coming chefs to be proud of their culture, and to continue developing and maintaining the highest level of the Lebanese cuisine in the country and all around the world.

Naddaf: The availability of the right products and consistency of the delivery of them

Choumicha: I wouldn’t call it a challenge, it is more of the long term goals that I wish to share with you. One of the biggest aspirations for us now is to make Bab Al Mansour the best Moroccan restaurant in the UAE. While it’s a home-grown brand, we believe that with the resources and skilful management of Global Catering Services (owner company), we can take our brand global.

What is the latest trend in your cuisine?

Cullen: As we’re still in the early stages of Emirati cuisine emerging in the region, we are yet to see clear trends developing. However, in Dubai for example, we are starting to see a few different concepts coming through which show a real diversity to the cuisine. We look forward to seeing it become even more widely available, and with an increased breadth of concepts, from casual dining and QSR through to high-end options, making it accessible – and inspiring – for all.

Singh: A delicate cuisine with passion. Tradition implies that there has been minimal change in the lifestyle of people living in Iran. However, healthy and superfoods are incorporated in Iranian cuisine as well. Many of our patrons request grilling instead of frying, to minimise use of oil and butter. We definitely integrate superfoods in salads and soups. However, no compromises in our speciality dishes such as our ‘metre kebab’.

Ammouri: In recent years, we have increasingly started implementing the concept of modern fusion between Arabic and European cuisines, in order to keep up with the food movement of the world as a whole.

Page: The latest trend in the culinary world and in Lebanon is the tendency to eat healthy. People nowadays are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of a balanced healthy diet and Lebanese food can fit perfectly in those requirements. There is also the concept of sharing that has been getting more popular in the region for quite some time and the Lebanese cuisine perfectly embodies this trend. The ‘Mezza’ are a clear representation that Lebanese food revolves around a social activity, a friendly spirit, rather than a simple act of eating. In terms of structure, I believe we should keep the authenticity of the dish but be trendy in the way of presenting it.

Naddaf: With the Levant region being open and merging various cultures and religions, the latest trend is a similar culture merge; the Turkish. Enhancing the taste buds and the variety of the food types.

Choumicha: Dishes are prepared healthier: organic spices, less oil, old cooking methods are back, that’s what makes our Moroccan cuisine more authentic.

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