The most common question I get asked on my blog is "Where can I buy such and such ingredient in London?".
Another common theme of discussion is "I want recipes with ingredients I can buy from my local supermarket". Fair enough but it is not possible all the time. Some recipes have simple common ingredients and some recipes have ingredients that can be omitted or replaced. Some time you will have to make this extra effort. You can't make hummus without tahini!
For all of those people and for every one who wants to try some Syrian/Lebanese cooking, here is a list of some essential ingredient and where to buy them in the UK.
Sumac is a tangy, lemony flavoured spice. It is made from grounding dried sumac berries to produce a purple or deep red coarse powder. In the Levant sumac is mainly used in salads, fattoush and sprinkled over falafel. It adds a wonderful sour flavour that can even replace lemon all together. In Aleppo sumac is used in few dishes, most famously Kebbeh Sumakieh. The most famous dish cooked with sumac remains by far Musakhan, a Palastenian dish that has been adapted into local versions in every Levantine country.
In London you can buy sumac in all large Arabic, Iranian and Turkish supermarket. Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush and Green Valley on Edgware Road are your best bet for all Arabic ingredients. You can buy it on line from The Spicery and The Spice Shop although the price is considerably higher. Alternatively you can buy it from Comptoir Lebanise on Wigmore St.
Nuts are an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. The most commonly used are pine nuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios roughly in that order. There are endless ways to use them, sprinkled on rice, in koftah-based dishes, in mezze, hummus topping, sweets, kibbeh, sauces, drinks ..... the list goes on and on. We pretty much use them in everything.
Nuts are widely available from all supermarkets. You don't have to make a trip to get these!
Bulgur wheat (or Burghul as we pronounce it in Syria) is a healthy grain made from parboiled then dried and ground wheat. Main stream UK chefs discovered bulgur in the last few years and you can see it now on menues, cooking shows and supermarket shelves. There are two varieties: coarse used in cooking pilafs and fine used in Tabbouleh and Kibbeh.
You can buy bulgur from all Middle Eastern shops. You can buy it as well from high street supermarkets but the grain size is somewhere between the coarse and fine. It is not ideal but perfectly usable.
All our native cheeses in the Levant are fresh white cheeses. They are made from cow or sheep milk and preserved through the year in brine. The most common are Baladi, Halloumi, Nabulsi, Akkawi and Shelal. We eat white cheese as part of breakfast and supper. It matches perfectly with cucumber, fresh mint leaves, sweet black tea or water melon in summer months. In cooking we mainly use it in fatayer and sambousek. Akkawi is the cheese of choice for sweets.
Halloumi is available in all supermarkets. The rest need a trip to a Middle Eastern shop. You can freeze white cheese if you are going to use it in cooking or sweets.
Arabic bread (Khobez or Lebanese bread as it is some time called) is the more sophisticated and higher quality brother of Pita bread. The bread is thinner, softer, easier to handle and way more tasty. In my view, pita bread should be outlawed!
You can buy Arabic bread from all Middle Eastern shops, some delicatessens and some large supermarkets especially in West London. Arabic bread freezes very well for up to a month or so.
Pomegranate molasses (Debes Rumman دبس رمان in Arabic) is one of my favourite ingredients. It adds the most beautiful sweet and sour flavour. It brings depth and warmth to many many dishes. The secret to get good results with pomegranate molasses is to use it in moderation. It is very concentrated and if you add too much it will over power the dish. In a typical dish for two a table spoon is usually more than enough.
You can buy pomegranate molasses from Middle Eastern Shops. Alternativly you can buy it from Arabica Food & Spice Co. They sell their products in Borough Market, Selfridges and Harrods among other places. On line you can order it from Melbury & Appleton.
Ghee (Samneh سمنة in Arabic) is made by simmering butter till all the water evaporate and the milk solids settle in the bottom. The clarified butter is then spooned off. Ghee differs from normal butter in taste, texture and aroma. Because there is no milk solids Ghee tolerate very high cooking temperature without burning. Syrians usually heat Ghee butter till it smokes then pour it on rice dishes at the last minute of cooking. We also use smoking hot Ghee to top hummus and Fatteh dishes.
You can by Ghee from Middle Eastern and Indian shops. Large supermarkets usually stock it, look in the ethnic food area. Ghee doesn't need refrigeration and lasts for a very long period of time.
Tahini is without a doubt my favourite ingredient. This one is irreplaceable. You can not cook Levantine/Middle Eastern food if you don't have tahini in your kitchen. It is used in many mezze and main dishes. It is used to make sauces to accompany red meat, fish, some rice dishes and falafel.
You can buy tahini from Middle eastern shops and large supermarkets, Look in the ethnic food areas next to Greek products. Tahini last a very long time outside the fridge.
Sun dried red pepper paste (Debes flafleh دبس فليفلة in Syrian Arabic) is an Aleppian speciality. It is used to make Muhammara and as an ingredient in many dishes.
Red pepper paste is very difficult to find in London. Non of the Middle Eastern shops I know stock it. In my Muhammara post I attempted to re-create my own. I finally managed to find it in a Turkish supermarket in West Ealing. If you are buying yours from a Turkish shop, look at the ingredients. Most are mixed with vegetables, tomato paste, onion or garlic which will change the taste of your cooking.
Red pepper paste will last few months in the fridge if you cover the top with a layer of olive oil.
Another Aleppian speciality, hence the name! It is made by sun drying Aleppo peppers till dry, then crushed by hand and rubbed in olive oil. It has a very nice aroma and a wonderful bright red, orange colour. The taste has some fruitiness and saltiness to it.
You can buy red flaked chillies from all Middle Eastern shops but they lack the characteristic colour and aroma, so I am not too sure about origin and authenticity. Instead I buy my Aleppo peppers on line from The Spicery.
Za'atar (زعتر in Arabic) is a name of wild herb widely available in Eastern Mediterranean areas. It is somewhere between thyme and oregano. The word Za'atar usually refer to the herbal mix made from dried Za'atar leaves, sesame seeds and salt. Other spices and flavourings can be added to create different Za'atar mixes. As a general rule, there is two variety Green Za'atar and Red Za'atar. The latter uses sumac and usually called "Aleppian Za'atar" in Damascus. The main use of Za'atar is mixed with olive oil to make a tangy dip eaten for breakfast. You can spread the mixture on flat bread dough and baked to make Mana'esh bi Za'atar (Za'atar Fatayer). You can also sprinkle Za'atar on Labneh (strained yoghurt) or white cheese.
Za'atar is available from all Middle Eastern shops. On line from Melbury & Appleton. Alternatively you can buy it from Comptoir Lebanise on Wigmore St.
Allspice (update 4/11/2009)
After a public outcry and a twitter campaign, I decided to include allspice in my essentials list. Read all about it in my previous post.