One Hundred and One Mezze: 8. Fatoush

To most people Tabouleh is the queen of all Leventine salads, and I can understand why. Tabouleh looks sophisticated, tastes sophisticated, takes hours to chop all that parsley and uses that super-cool in-fashion ingredient Bulgar. To me a much simpler salad, Fatoush, takes that top position and by long way.

Fatoush is a simple salad of roughly chopped vegetables and fried Arabic bread croutons for nice crunchy texture. A tangy strong dressing brings the flavours together.

To take your fatoush one step up and get that authentic taste you need a rather unusual ingredient, Purslane (pic). Purslane or Pa'aleh (بقلة) in Arabic is a leaf vegtable almost exclusively used in fatoush. It has a slightly tangy earthy flavour with a hint of bitterness. In London you can buy it from Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush or some of the shops on Edgware Road. I am not sure if you can buy it in normal green grocers or in farmer's markets but don't be put off if you can't find it, use lettuce instead. In my family home in Syria we use lettuce rather than Ba'aleh 70% of the time.

For a healthier version toast your bread under the grill instead of frying. Another variation is to add pomegranate molasses to the dressing (this stuff is in fashion in Syria and people, including myself, are trying to add it to everything).

Here is my fatoush recipe:

Three tomatoes
Ba'aleh one bunch (use lettuce instead)
Arabic bread 1/2 loaf
vegetable oil

For the dressing:
Olive oil 4tbs
White wine vinegar 1tbs
Lemon juice 2tbs
Sumac 1 tea spoon
Dry mint 1 tea spoon
Garlic 1 clove crushed
A sprinkle of salt

Cut the Arabic bread into small squares and fry in vegetable oil till deep golden colour. Drain on kitchen paper and let it cool down.

Roughly chop the tomatoes and cucumber and pick the Ba'aleh leafs. Whisk all the dressing ingredients.

Just before serving mix the bread vegetables and dressing and serve. Make sure you do this the last minute so the bread stays fresh and crunchy.

Ramadan Special: Sambousek

Sambousek is one of these words that is very widely used but it doesn't have a specific meaning. In essence it is meat filled pies served as a starter, part of mezze spread or a side dish. Every one uses the word to refer to a different type of these pies, most commonly fried but could be baked. Other variations include different types of stuffing or even sweets. To make matters worse the exact same thing, meat or cheese filled pies, could be referred to as fatayer or Borak. The later is the most widely used name in Syrian restaurants although, to be fair, Borak is usually cheese filled rather than meat.

Sambousek is a very popular dish across the Middle East. There are Levantine, Egyptian and Saudi versions. Syrian and Iraqi Jews have their own recipes and even Sephardi Jews have a Sambousak version that is a distant relative of the Spanish empanada. The popularity of the dish goes all the way to India. You must have guessed that samosa is a variation of the name.

Now to my personal classification:
  • Sambousek is the triangle shaped pies made from thin pastry leafs that you buy ready made.
  • Borak is the turn-over semi circle pies made from freshly kneaded dough (Borek is the Turkish and most commonly used spelling).
Sambousek is closely associated and an essential on Ramadan Iftar table. They make a perfect starter accompanied with a bowl of soup. In my parents house we hardly ever cooked these outside this month.

Here is my recipe for three different variates:

Meat Sambousek:

Minced Lamb 300g
One Large onion
Vegetable oil
Parsley two handfulls

Finely chop the onion and fry on medium heat till soft. Add the lamb mince and cook for 20 minutes till fully cooked. Season well. Add the parsley and remove of the heat. Let cool down fully before using. For alternative flavours replace parsley with pine nuts or walnuts.

Cheese Sambousak:

White cheese 200g (haloumi, nabulsi or baladi)
Parsley two handful
Black pepper

Grate or chop the cheese finely. Mix with parsley and good amount of black pepper.

Sausage Sambousak:

This not particularly Syrian. It is inspired by Turkish pastries. You can use any spicy sausage or salami for this recipe. Albanian sujuk is perfect. Chop the Sausage and mix with grated Cheddar cheese and some sliced green olives.

You need a packet of Sambousek pastry leafs. You can buy these from large Middle Eastern supermarket. I buy mine from Green Valley in Edgware road. Alternatively, use spring rolls pastry.

Spoon some of the stuffing on the pastry sheet and fold into a triangle shape. Wet the edges and stick it closed.

Deep fry in vegetable oil and enjoy.

Ramadan special: Chicken Fatteh

Fatteh is a favourite of Levantine people in and outside Ramadan. In its simplest form fatteh is shredded bread soaked in stock with some kind of topping. There are variations of Fatteh or similar bread based dishes all over the Middle East.

In Ramadan, Fatteh is the perfect starter to the evening meal. It is soft and easy to eat on an empty stomach after a long day of starvation. Above all it is definitely delicious.

In Syria, fatteh consists of three layers (sometime four, more on that later); Base of shredded bread soaked in stock, middle layer of the main ingredient and finally a youghrt and tahini sauce topping. Bread can be used fresh in some types of fatteh and fried in others. The middle layer could be one of many. Chickpeas, chicken, stuffed aubergines, kidneys are the most common roughly in that order. More exotic topping could include kidneys and trotters.

Chicken fatteh is a Damascene favourite. Served as a supper dish in many restaurants around town especially in the Old City. Biet Jabri used to serve an excellent chicken fatteh. I hadn't had any there for many years so I can't comment on the standard these days.

In Hama, chicken fatteh is served as a main dish rather than a starter. They fry the bread and add a fourth layer of cooked rice.

When serving fatteh you need to assemble it at the absolute last minute, when people are actually on the table. It need to be eaten immediately as the bread start to become soggy and the whole thing turn stodgy if you leave it anything more than few minutes. So, get everything ready beforehand.

One last thing before the recipe, please don't use Pitta bread for this dish. It will get very soggy. Please make the effort to find Arabic flat bread. It is sold in all the big Tesco stores and Middle Eastern shops.

Here is my Chicken Fatteh recipe:
Serves four as a starter or two hungry people as a nice warm supper.

Arabic bread 3 standard size (small)
Chicken thighs 4
Chicken stock 500mls
Onion cut into quarters
Youghrt 500 g
Tahini 4 tbs
Garlic 2-3 cloves
Parsley chopped 4 tbs
Pine nuts

Start by cooking the chicken and making your stock. Wash the chicken thighs, cover with water and bring to boil skimming the surface till totally clear. Add the onion and Salt and pepper, turn down the heat and let simmer slowly for 45 - 60 min. This will give tender cooked chicken and beautiful golden stock. I don't use carrot, celery or bouquet garni to make my stock if I am cooking Arabic food, instead I use literally two cloves and two cardamoms. When cooked, remove the chicken and let cool down. Strain your stock and return to very low heat till you are ready to use it.

Shread your Arabic bread into one inch pieces. (picture above)

Remove the chicken meat from the bone and shred to bite size.

Add youghurt, tahini, crushed garlic, squeeze of lemon and salt and mix together to make your topping. Add more or less tahini as you like.

Now is the tricky bit, you may not get this right the first time or even if you make fatteh regularly you might still get one wrong every once in a while. The amount of stock varies on how fresh your bread is. The amounts I used (500mls stock and 3 standard size loafs) worked fine with fresh bread. If your bread is stalled or two days old you might need more stock as it will absorb more water.

To make the dish put the bread and the chicken in a deep bowl. Add one third of the youghurt sauce and the stock and mix together. Spoon the rest of the youghrt topping and spread evenly on top.

Garnish with parsley, roasted pine nuts and paprika and serve immediately.

Ramadan Special: Iftar

Ramadan is a thirty days of peace and manic at the same time. The first day of fasting hits Damascus and the city goes into this form of transformation I find fascinating to watch. To understand what I am talking about all you need to do is watch Damascus over the period of 10 minutes around the Iftar meal. In the best of times driving in Syria is a risky business, so imagine being in the streets with a million or so drivers, all hungry, tired, severe nicotine deprivation, all trying to make their destination at the same minute. Ten minutes later and not a soul in the street. Millions of people around the city sitting with their family around Iftar tables. The atmosphere couldn't be more of peace, celebration and family.

Iftar (or Futoor as we call it in Syria) is the evening meal in Ramadan. Muslims fast during this month every day from sunrise to sunset. They refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during these hours. Come the evening, they wait around tables full of all kinds of delicious food for the call to the evening prayers. Millions of hands move simultaneously to reach for that glass of water to break their fast.

Juice is a stable on any Iftar menu especially when Ramadan comes in Summer when you really need something to kill your thirst. Dates is another essential, it is the first thing Muslims should eat according to Islamic tradition.

After an empty stomach all day long you would want something soft and light to start your meal with. Soup and Fatteh are the perfect starters to warm up your stomach in preparation for the delicious grub that coming its way.

Main dishes in Ramadan are no different to the usual food cooked outside the month but what make Iftar meal special is the wide variety of side dishes that line up the table. Salad and especially Fatoush is a must, so is Foul (broad bean salad) which is usually breakfast or supper dish outside Ramadan. Other sides on the menu are pastries, Sambosek and one of the many vegetarian cold dishes we love in the Levant.

Sweets are more important in Ramadan than any other time. You really need some sugar to boost your blood glucose levels after a day of starvation. Filo pastry of some variation with Eshta (Arabic clotted cream) stuffing form the basis of most Ramadan sweets. Another Ramadan special is Na'eem (ناعم), a very large fried cracker (somewhat similar to Poppadoms) with a drizzle of sweet grape molasses.

Manic rush is done. Food is done. Syrian people then goes into their peaceful mood. They cosy up on sofas to enjoy a family night watching their favourite TV serial drama, Bab Al-Hara.

Best Falafel in London

I have recently started a new job. It is a good hospital and a better position so I am happy, but the best thing about the new hospital is the Doctor's Mess. It is one of the best in the country. There is a serviced bar serving food and nibbles from lunch till 8 pm, a help yourself nice coffee rather than the usual awful instant and best of all Gin & Tonic for £1.80. Who can complain!

Two Fridays ago I had lunch with my juniors in the mess. They suggested the Falafel meal as the best dish on the menu. At £3.50 the meal was great value for money with cous cous, hummus, salad, few olives, pita bread and falafel. Everything on the plate was great apart from the falafel; they were awful! More like cardboard balls! Dense and dry, truly awful stuff!

I didn't tell the guys I was disappointed with the meal. I thought if you are not into Middle Eastern cuisine and If the only falafel you ever tried came from a salad box or a sandwich out of a fridge this would make a decent version in comparison.

Real falafel should be crisp on the outside; light and fluffy in the inside. Falafel should never be baked in an oven. DEEP FRY is were falafel belongs. It should be freshly cooked in small patches, never reheated and never put in a fridge. Sandwiches should be made fresh to order and eaten straight away. That is the only way to enjoy falafel as God intended.

Few places in London can keep up with such high standard. Many Middle Eastern restaurants around London make a decent falafel but like most things in these restaurants it is hit or miss. One place never disappointed me, Mr Falafel in Shepherd's Bush. I can say with clear conscience this is the best falafel in London, and trust me I know my falafel. My dad is world champion in eating falafel. He would eat the stuff happily every single day of his life so we had lots of falafel in our household over the years.

Mr Falafel is located in Shepherd's Bush New Market, 5 minutes away from Westfields Shopping Centre. It started as a small kiosk at the entrance of the market but recently they moved into a shop which offered few tables to eat in and allowed them to expand the menu to include foul and hummus and experiment with new flafel sandwich combinations. The place does a brisk business around lunch time, so expect some queues of all kind of people from BBC employees to market traders.

The standard falafel sandwich comes in three sizes; small (£3), medium (£3.50) and an XL sandwich that is beyond most people ability to finish (£4.50). Arabic flat bread used as a wrap with the excellent falafel, salad, cucumber pickle, screaming fuchsia turnip pickles, tahini and optional chilli sauce. The mixed falafel sandwich is essentially the same with the addition of fried vegetables. The new sandwiches on the menu includes an added avocado, feta cheese or makdous. I haven't tried any of them so I can't comment if these combinations work or not.

Another thing you wouldn't fail to notice in this shop is hygiene. Although the shop is located in a fairly dodgy looking market, the place is spotless. Ahmed, the owner, is hygiene obsessed. He cleans his hands with alcohol gel and wears disposable plastic gloves every time he handles food. Work surface get cleaned after every batch of sandwiches he prepare. We could do with people like that in the NHS.

On a last note, the place bills itself as "The best Palestinian Falafel". As Ahmed explains in a Guardian article "We also wanted to put 'Palestinian' up on the shop. I think people are keen to hide the name; we weren't .... we felt it was important to show a more positive image - that Palestine can be about good food, not only conflict, suicide, invasion and occupation."

If you want to try real falafel, forget Falafel King, forget Just Flafs, and head to Shepherd's Bush. This place is the real deal.

Mr Falafel
Units T4 - T5
New Shepherd's Bush Market
Uxbridge Road
Shepherd's Bush
London W12 8LH

Monday - Saturday 11 am to 6 pm

One Hundred and One Mezze: 7. Hummus

I am sure everyone of you have their own Hummus recipe so I am not going to give you mine. In our household my wife is the hummus specialist, so I will leave you with her for the perfect Hummus.

Hello everybody, my husband has kindly allowed me a guest appearance on his blog. There's no denying it, he is The Expert on food in this household, whilst I specialise in the eating... The only thing that I'm apparently better at is making Hummus; this gives me a certain perverse satisfaction as by rights, him being Syrian, he really should be The Don at this!

Champagne from Champagne region in France. Stilton from Stilton (near Peterbrough) in England. Cornish Pastie from Cornwall. Hummus originates from Syria. Not Lebanon, not Egypt, not Jordan, not Palestine and not Israel. All the proof you need is that there's a city called Hums in Syria. Enough said.

Just a note, measurements are not meant to be followed by the letter, it's a fairly robust recipe that pretty much fool proof - I mean, I, moi, me, can do it!

What you need:
2 x 410g cans chickpeas (you can soak and boil your own if you really want to)
150ml Tahini (fill just under half an empty chickpea can - that's how much you'll need)
2 cloves of garlic (or one huge clove)
salt to taste
2-3 tbs vegetable oil (optional) (yup, you heard right, not olive oil, vegetable oil!)
Juice of half a lemon
A food processor
Finally, to appease the hardcore Levantine lot; Extra Virgin Olive Oil for pouring over the finished dish

right; please pay attention, this is really complicated...
Step 1: Drain one can of the chickpeas, then empty into the food processor
Step2: Tip the full contents of the other can into the food processor
Step 3: Add everything else
Step 4: Turn on food processor
Step 5: After 5 mins, switch off.
Step 6: Empty contents into a dish - this is now Hummus.
Step 7: Fashion a "moat" and pour Olive Oil into it (see pic) (you can also add some paprika for a garnish)
Step 8: Eat with warm toasted pitta or, Arabic bread

Ta Da! really hope you like it :-)

Final note, this recipe in my opinion tends to taste better after a night in the fridge, it gives time for the flavours to develop - especially the garlic - and the mixture to absorb the water and thicken. It's entirely a matter of personal taste so please don't think you need to prepare this in advance to enjoy it!

Nada x

Ramadan Special

Ramadan (Fasting month in Islamic faith) is only three weeks away. In Arabic and Islamic countries, regardless if you fast or not, or even if you are not a Muslim, You can't but feel the spirit of the month. Religion aside, Ramadan is a celebration of food, family and for the last few years TV.

During the month I will try to post recipes of food associated with Ramadan. I will see how many dishes I can manage. This depends on how much time to cook and write do I have and my wife diet. At the moment all carbohydrates are banned in our household. We'll see how things are in three weeks time.

If you have any recipes, requests or ideas please leave a comment and I will do my best to accommodate them. This is what is on the table: