Most self-professed foodies will recoil in anxiety-induced fear when asked the dreaded question “So, what’s your favourite food?” But not me. That’s an easy one.
Middle Eastern food is an umbrella term that refers to the cuisine of various countries such as Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Armenia, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. The food crosses over a great deal and has a central focus on sharing- something I, unlike Joey Tribiani, am big into.
I think it is such a gorgeous, social way to enjoy food, and when you are on your third Netflix and ready meal binge of the week- it is easy to forget that eating together and communicating is kind of what sets us apart in the animal kingdom.
Manchester has some fantastic Middle Eastern eateries, but I worry that a lot of people are put off by the fear of not understanding the menu. That and, as a rule, these restaurants tend not to be the most aesthetically pleasing places, but these are some of the best hidden-gems out there- I can promise you that.
Olives, flatbreads and dippy things are where you should always start with Middle Eastern food. When I was in Rotterdam about a year ago, my friend took me to a food market which specialised in Lebanese food, and all it served was bread and a choice of about 50 different dips- honestly, it was a complete lesson in how simplicity triumphs all.
Obviously, we all know and love hummus, but I promise you haven’t had hummus like the one from Jasmine in Chorlton. Silky smooth like God going down your throat with velvet trousers on- so much so you will never eat course Tesco hummus ever again. Other notable mentions would be the Babaghanouj (smoked aubergine dip), and Mouhamara (red pepper and walnut) – so make sure you order some hot flatbreads and scoop away.
Other than dips, Comptoir Libanais have a fabulous selection of authentic salads and other bits of mezze. Tabbouleh is one of the more famous dishes and formed from chopped parsley, cracked wheat, tomatoes, mint & spring onions, with a lemon & olive oil dressing- it brings a welcome freshness to any mezze feast. I also love the Stuffed Vine Leaves from Comptoir and the super salty Dead Sea Pickles.
Think hot, grilled halloumi, spicy Mediterranean sausages and stuffed aubergines. Hot mezze is my favourite part of eating Middle Eastern food and getting a range of dishes- some warm, some cold- and sharing them with the people you love.
I must admit that I am a little bit biased towards Pasha in Withington. It is really close to where I live and it never lets me down. If you do one thing in this life it is to get down there and try two dishes. First is the Hummus Shawarma – which is merely hummus topped with grilled pieces of marinated lamb and pine kernels. The second, and get ready for this one, is the Potato Kibbeh which is made up from spiced minced lamb wrapped in mashed potato and deep fried. It is one of the single most delicious things I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
I bet that when you think of pastry, you will automatically think of a hearty pie or a dainty Parisian patisserie. Well, I do assure you that is about to change. The Middle Eastern approach to pastry is like no other, and that is more to do with what they stuff it with. I suppose the best way to describe it would be that it is like ultra-thin filo or strudel pastry. Perfectly crisp and often deep-fried, I can guarantee that you will be thinking about it for days after you give it a try.
Cheese Borurek is what you should look out for on any menu – formed of feta cheese rolled in pastry into a cigar and fried. The cheese is melty in the middle, and I am pretty sure they are what heaven tastes like. The ones at Aladdin’s in Withington have added mint which brings a welcome new level of flavour, and they also have Sanbousak which is made up of pastry, spiced minced lamb and pine nuts. Honestly, I could eat these until the sea splits in two.
From the Grill
Apparently, the most famous food to come out of the Middle East has to be the kebab. But, the authentic grilled meats and shawarma are about as far away from that sweaty donner meat as Istanbul is to New Islington. Chicken and Lamb are what you will find on most menus, although you will see a little bit of beef on the Armenian Taverna menu. The cuts of choice are typically lamb chops, lamb koftas (minced lamb shaped around a skewer), diced lamb kebabs, whole chicken and then shawarma – which is thin slices of lamb or chicken cooked on a spit.
The coals and marinades are what give the meat their unique smoky flavour and tender texture. If you aren’t sure where to start, head on over to Café Istanbul for their Mixed Chargrill Feast – it will give you a taste of the whole shebang. Don’t worry too much about the meat sweats- I promise it is so worth it.
Tagines and Stews
Slow cooked meat dishes are, in the Middle Eastern cooking language, reserved for special family occasions that involve feeding huge numbers. These aromatic stews or tagines if you are in Morocco are usually cooked with lamb, sometimes with chicken and never with beef or pork. These types of dishes prepared using a long, slow process, which in turn, provides meat that is juicy, tender and falling off the bone.
The spices you will find in these dishes will be some combination of cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, chillies, smoky harissa, coriander and caraway. Fruit is a standard addition to these recipes for example apricots, sultanas, dates, preserved lemons or pomegranate. This provides a burst of sweetness that you don’t get in any other cuisine quite as frequently. Pomegranate in West Didsbury are total masters of these slow-cooked stews. Go and order the Lamb Miveh which is made up of tender pieces of lamb in a spiced tomato and plum sauce with dried apricot, garlic and herbs- I guarantee, you will never eat lamb another way again.