Melissa Blease goes behind the menu to discover that fresh flavours from the Middle East are trending in Bath as 2017 kicks off
Do you recall in 2012, the phrase on every foodie hipsters’ lips was ‘comfort food’, as stodgy favourites such as burgers, macaroni cheese (which must only be referred to as ‘mac’n’cheese’) and anything that could be put into a pie was our dish of the day?
The following year, we started pulling and smoking every kind of meat until that particular fad became totally ‘yesterday’ when a certain high street fast food fried chicken franchise started claiming to be pulling their (our?) legs.
We’ve witnessed all manner of food fads, from pickling and fermentation to spiralising by way of ‘brinner’ (almost adopted as the new lunch, don’cha know). We found coconut oil in pretty much everything and cauliflower rice scattered everywhere. But meanwhile, while all this was going on, a cuisine with its origins in one of the world’s most ancient cultures has steadily been attracting the attention of a generation jaded by the flash-in-the-pan fuss.
In the last couple of months, cookery books based around a Middle Eastern theme (Turkish, Lebanese, Iranian) have been topping the charts, with collections from Yotam Ottolenghi, Rick Stein and Honey & Co blazing the trail. Waitrose has reported a significant increase in the demand for Medjool dates, pomegranate molasses and sumac. Meanwhile the flavours of ras-el-hanout, za’atar and harissa have replaced smoked salt, pink peppercorns and chipotle paste in our at-home seasoning lexicon.
While we can find our cravings for cool Middle Eastern flavours satisfied in restaurants both long-established and new, many of us are keen – particularly during the dark, dreary months of a UK winter – to take our tastebuds on a 6,000 mile round-trip to warmer climes without leaving our own kitchens.
Iranian-born cookery teacher, food writer, preserve maker and allotmenteer Simi Rezai opened the doors to her Pulteney Street cookery school Simi’s Kitchen in 2010. She says: “The Middle East is a large and varied geographic region, and dishes vary in flavour and style depending on the availability of produce, ingredients and spices. Persian food, for example, tends to be very fragrant, using generous use of herbs and subtle spicing.
“We try to balance each dish in any given banquet so everything is easy to digest and therefore more nutritious. Simple, everyday ingredients are cooked slowly to give time for the flavours to mingle, and each individual dish tends to be both colourful and flavoursome, with a variety of dishes to suit all tastes. We blend fragrant herbs, crunchy nuts and lots of yielding fruit and vegetables. And Iranian food is generally healthy, too – there are wonderful vegetarian options which everyone can enjoy.”
Simi tailors each class to the dietary requirements of her guests and uses everyday kitchen equipment and seasonal ingredients from her organic allotment in Bath, proving that you really don’t have to take your shopping list on a magical mystery tour in order to create an authentic, traditional Middle Eastern menu.
“I would describe the Simi’s Kitchen experience as similar to going to an Iranian friend’s home for a traditional Persian meal, except I teach everybody how to create the dishes before we sit down to enjoy our feast,” she says.
But perhaps you’d prefer to venture out to eat and if sitting by a stove in a Marrakech souk isn’t on the foreseeable horizon, you could take a trip into Bath city centre.
Tagine Zhor in North Parade was established 16 years ago by Casablanca-born Mostafa Benjelloun. Named partly in honour of his Fez-born grandmother, this cosy Moroccan bistro specialises in tagines, cous cous and B’stila D’jej (an elaborate sweet/savoury concoction featuring chicken, almonds and saffron sauce wrapped in filo pastry and dusted with sugar and cinnamon – trust me when I tell you this really works). There’s even a bazaar and a shisha terrace to complete the staycation experience, proving that looking back to old traditions is often the way forward in Bath restaurant world.
Jars Meze, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer to the Bath scene. This little café opened in the summer of 2016, occupying the premises of what was The Hub on Northumberland Place. Venture in and an array of delights listed under headings including Spread on Bread, Meet the Meat, Earth Delights, Sea Treasures, etc run the gamut of sun-soaked flavours at rock bottom prices. Strictly speaking the Jars Meze menus are more Hellenic than Alexandrian in origin, but I’m prepared to take the flak in exchange for a heated debate over a dish of smoked aubergines alone – this is baba ganouj at its very best.
Back in 2008, Comptoir Libanais founder Tony Kitous forged a plan to offer wholesome Lebanese food in a souk-like setting – and his most recent branch, which opened in SouthGate in October, is set to be this small, independently-owned chain’s most popular opening outside of the capital.
“Tony wanted to open a restaurant that offers delicious, affordable, light and healthy dishes that can be enjoyed every day of the week,” says Comptoir Libanais operations manager Raymond Quinche.
“Middle Eastern food is often cited as the world’s healthiest cuisine. Most dishes, even the meaty options, often contain an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, with lots of herbs, lemon juice and spices to add interest and a unique edge. Our most popular dishes include the traditional shakshuka (eggs poached in a stew of tomatoes, peppers and onion, with parsley, coriander and garlic, topped with feta cheese spiced with cumin and sojok) and the mezze platters, which are healthy as well as delicious.”
As we embark on a new year, we can only hazard a guess as to what food trends might bombard our consciousness in the seasons to come. I predict, however, that you could base your menus around a One Thousand and One Nights theme every day from now until New Year’s Eve 2017 without a single craving for ‘the new mac’n’cheese.
Simi’s Kitchen, Great Pulteney Street, Bath. Tel: 01225 789554; web: simiskitchenblog.wordpress.com. Tagine Zhor, 1a North Parade, Bath. Tel: 01225 466437; web: taginezhor.co.uk. Jars Meze, 6 Northumberland Place, Bath. Tel: 01225 471434; web: jarsmeze.com. Comptoir Libanais, 4 New Ark Street, SouthGate, Bath. Tel: 01225 800894; web: comptoirlibanais.com.