The primary reason Arabs are misunderstood… (part 1)
is that hardly anyone outside the Arab world knows our food! Sure, everyone's had a kebab and quite a few of you will know what homous or filafil are…
Argh – I have to go on a little aside/rant here. Everyone thinks they've had a kebab and quite a few think they know what homous and filiafil are but they are mostly wrong! What those random Turkish Takeaways sell (ie the meat Mac Donald's wasn't prepared to use, stuffed to the brim with thick chillie sauce) are not proper kebabs! If you want to try real Arabic kebabs pop over to Edgeware Road in London. Go into any of the great restaurants there (al-Dar and Maroush spring to mind!) and you will get to taste real (scruptious) kebabs. Yum-yum. And Homous isn't Greek.
OK now that that's over, let's get onto what real Arabic cuisine is all about:
Zait wa Za'atar
Zait is oil in Arabic. Here it's Zait Zaitoon (Olive Oil). You put this zait in a bowl and fill another bowl with Za'atar. Za'atar is a mix of various herbs in different measures (so you have different types of Za'atar) but the primary ingredient is Thyme (but you'll also have Summac, toasted Sesame etc.). This is a basic of any Arabic breakfast and it's good for you. You dip bread into the olive oil and then dip it into the za'atar which will then stick to the bread. Absolutely delicious!
Now I'm not going to get into whether this is originally Arabic or Greek (but the Arabs cook it better :P) but this is also typically found in breakfasts or as an accompaniment to various meals. It's either fried in a little bit of oil, grilled or served raw. My personal preference is to heat up a pan, pour about half a teaspoon of olive oil into the pan and let it sit in the centre. To test when the pan is ready, cut a little bit of the cheese and drop it in. If it's sizzling, the pan will be ready. Cut fairly thin slices of cheese and place them on the outer edges of the pan. Using a wooden spatula, quickly push each slice into the centre and pull it back so it stays on the fringe. Wait about 40–50 seconds , checking one of the slices to see how brown/dark it is and, when ready, turn over and do the same with the other side.
Within two minutes you'll have perfectly cooked Halloumi cheese. It'll be crispy on the outside, soft and delicious on the inside. I'll post some pics when I next cook it :D.
The first REAL dish I'm going to mention (i.e. a complete meal as opposed to side dishes). This is my favourite Arabic dish and I can't properly describe to you how wonderful it is. It's composed of:
Stone Yoghurt (condensed and dried goat's milk)
Rice (with one of the yellowing spices)
Snobre (pine kernals)
Shiraq (a kind of large, flat Arabic bread)
Semneh Beladi (a bit like Pakistani Ghi)
You powderise the yoghurt rocks and then blend with water. Meanwhile, you put your lamb meat in a large pot (pressure cooker!) and slowly fry it in just a touch of oil. you don't want the meat to burn or to cook too much, you just want to take out the redness of the meat. When it's ready you pour on the Stone Yoghurt (which is now liquid) and start slow-boiling it.
You prepare the rice as usual. To serve the meal you take a large tray and break up the bread to use as a kind of base. You pour a bit of the stone yoghurt over the bread so it absorbs the yoghurt and then you place the rice on top of the bread. You have to fry the snobre quickly in a bit of oil, being careful not to burn them but only to brown them (they cook very quickly) and sprinkle ontop of the rice. You then take some of the meat from the pot and place ontop of the rice and serve the yoghurt + meat in bowls for you/your guests to add as they wish to the rice.
More dishes to be descirbed + possible photos in part 2!