It’s Not All Hummus and Halloumi, You Know

As a returning student from my year abroad last year, I knew I would miss Middle Eastern food the most. Arabic food has really come into its own in recent years in the UK, as classics like hummus, falafel and halloumi have become staples to the bourgeois diet. However, there are some things that Brits never seem to understand when it comes to Middle Eastern food. I mean, hummus is not the be-all-and-end-all. And who knew falafel was a breakfast item, eh? I list here, one year on, my top ten Arabic/Turkish foods in the hope that some of you might see how much more there is than a halloumi wrap.

1) The Arabic Hummus

Arabic hummus is made slightly differently to its Greek counterpart. Whereas the Greeks favour a grainier, coarser texture, the Arabs have developed a much smoother paste. A simple recipe for hummus is to mix tahini sauce and lemon juice together in a bowl, forming a thick paste. Then add some chickpeas, some cumin and some coriander, alongside the world’s best friend: salt. Whizz these together using your food processor – it is much harder without; I guess you could try mashing it? Add some oil (a healthy glug of olive oil never hurt anyone) and a dash of water – I recommend about 1.5 tbsp worth – to make it thinner. 

The beauty of hummus is how you can flavour it. Lemon and coriander. Roasted red pepper, Onion and balsamic vinegar – and these are just a few of the styles I have tried. Hummus, the ever popular dish, I fear I shall not meet you again in your best form until my next return to the Middle East. Let’s face it: Brits really do mess it up. Adieu, universal dip of choice. 

2) Muffarakah bilbaiyḍ – A.K.A. potato and eggs

I remember walking into the hole-in-the-wall pokey cafe next to our institute one Winter’s morning, freezing in about 6 layers, with a stomach fit to eat itself in hunger. Never had I tried their food, where they prepared it I know not, as the cafe  was only big enough for about 6 people, and invariably there were about 5 customers. I had always stuck to a simple Turkish Coffee, its mud texture attributable to the ‘stringent’ cleaning practices the cafe undertook. However, this one morning I looked at their food menu and saw ‘Maffarakah bilBiyD’ scrawled in English at the bottom. The cheapest – therefore, the best, surely!

Well, it made its way into my heart and throughout that cold, cold winter you could see me often chomping on such a sandwich. The stodge was unbelievable – potatoes, eggs, bread – heaven! Having explored Amman’s culinary scene extensively (more to come,) I often go for this dish out now, as it really is a winner and usually comes with meat as well. 

It is basically fried onions, meat, potatoes and eggs and in tiny cubes. If you ever see this on a menu, have it. I guarantee you’ll never cook it!

3) Mansaf

Where would Jordan be without its Mansaf? Mansaf, Jordan’s national dish, is a very serious business. From Tefila to Irbid, Aqaba to Amman, Mansaf is enjoyed as a long and luxurious feast. In its essence, Mansaf is slow cooked lamb, sat atop a heap of slowly cooked rich and pine nuts, which is itself sat atop some thing bread. You finally pour over the jameed sauce – ranging from a thin sauce (Amman style) to a thick cheese (Southern style,) jameed is made from solidified goat’s milk and can be found at all supermarkets.

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The rice is cooked in ghee and absorbs all the wonderful fatty flavours from the clarified butter. The meal’s preparation takes hours. In Amman, you want to head down to Al-Quds or its neighbour Jabri for a cheap and semi-authentic Mansaf, whilst Sufra, one of Amman’s high-end restaurants, offers a much more tamed version, although one portion is still big enough for three! Anyone who tried this dish falls in love with it – give it a go!

4) Yalange

Yalange, better known as vine leaves, is another personal favourite. Whilst I have always preferred the meat-stuffed vine, the Jordanian lemon-stuffed is also a favourite. Personally, I have never undertaken this monumental challenge myself – vine leaves on average take about 2-3 hours to make – I lap them up at any opportunity. In fact, I even spent 7JD (About £6.50) on a huge tin of them to take home – what a bargain!

5) Sujuk, Nakanik and other sausages

Armenia, a land rich in cuisine and culture. I have always dreamed of doing a tour of Armenia and Georgia, such beauty can be found in their landscapes, their cultures and their languages – but more importantly their food.

Sujuk and Nakanik are both spicy forms of sausage found in this region. As it is made with beef, there are no food restrictions on this type of sausage, meaning it is enjoyed in the same way as bacon and pork sausages are. Often served with eggs for breakfast, I like to have Sujuk most as part of the hot mezze before any meal. I discovered this type of sausage in Ash-Shami in Oxford last year, and knew as soon as I had it that I loved it. Whenever I order Sujuk, I dream of that future holiday I will take to Armenia.

6) Sambousek.

Cheese, meat, spinach. Sambousek is really the most versatile of pastries. Personally, I think Georgian and Armenian cuisines will be the next big thing on the food scene – why not, they are perfect! Sambousek is an Arab variant of Georgian pastries, they sort of resemble an Indian samosa. 

Now loved across the region, my personal favourite comes stuffed with a gooey yummy melt-in-the-mouth cheese. They are crispy and warm and really hit the spot when you want a quick snack or, again, as part of the hot mezze. Whilst I have not seen spinach ones in Jordan, the meat sambousek is devoured as much as the cheese one, with a spicy warming aftertaste that leaves you perfectly satisfied by this Eastern delight.

7) Mana’eesh/Manaqeesh/Mana’ouche/Manageesh.

I, frankly, don’t care how you spell this. The Mana’eesh is the perfect breakfast. The ‘Arabic pizza’ is often how it is described, and I can guarantee that it is a hell of a lot nicer than it’s popular Italian counterpart. The best Mana’eesh I’ve had here would be the one I bought on the way to Church in Jabal Alluwebdeih. This tiny sunk-in-the-ground bakery appeared in front of me. All I could smell was egg, cheese, za’atar, tomato – I knew I was walking into second-brekkie teritory. 

Second breakfast was exactly it. I ordered myself a positively mind-boggling cheese and egg Mana’eesh, sat down and made my way through it with delectable delight – I got so wrapped up, I only made it to Church down the road 5 minutes before the start of Communion. Oops.

This breakfast really is a must-have. You can find it in many styles – in Lebanon, I’ve had it cooked on a Saj oven (a large dome) even. The za’atar variety is probably the majority favourite in the region, but, in my opinion, you can never have enough cheese.

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8) The Lemon and Mint.

On a hot start-of-Summer’s day, I suddenly found myself wandering around Jabal Alluwebdeih (my favourite Jabal, if you’re interested) without very much to do. Settling myself in Jafra – one of my favourite eateries – I ordered my first lemon-mint since the end of October. I had almost forgotten what this fabulous drink tasted like. Sharp, sweet and soon-drunk, I’ve been a regular lemon-mint drinker since.

It’s a drink I’ve never seen in England – sharp lemon juice, equal parts with mint ground up with ice. It’s a slushie, but so much more. Jordan’s weather had truly become just-bearable – and only when you have a nice lemon-mint.

9) Mutable.

Mutable will always rest associated with some of my favourite memories in Jordan. Early on in the year, we all attended a cooking course at Beit Sitti (meaning Grandma’s House – how sweet) where we learnt how to make a mutable. Cooking the aubergines on an open flame until the skins become blackened and crispy, you remove the skin and ass to a pre-prepared mixture of lemon and tahini. The aubergine, cut up very small, added to the mixture creates a wonderful dip, akin to hummus. The finishing touch is a spoon or two of yoghurt and about 5 cloves of garlic. Truly, truly glorious.

The funny thing is that after this cooking course, I challenged my teacher to a duel: who could make it best? My oversight ting that she had made it at least ten times before was my downfall. Though she beat me resoundingly since then I have grown to perfect my mutable. It has become the centrepiece of every dinner we have held since. Guests love it. You’ll love it. Try it!

10) Muhammara.

Aleppo’s answer to the dip. Muhammara has become my favourite dip over the year, well surpassing mutable and hummus. I first tasted this beautiful dip on a trip to Istanbul, where culinary delights grabbed be my the throat. Subsequently only having eaten it twice more, perhaps its paucity in Jordan has made it my highest rate dish – who knows?

The dish itself is roasted red pepper mixed with pomegranate molasses, walnuts, garlic and lemon. The end flavour is simply indescribably good. Sat in King Hussein Park stuffing my face with my friend Emily’s muhammara and my mutable will always remain one of my favourite Jordanian picnics – her muhammara was overwhelmingly more popular than my mutable, I can tell you! The final time I visited Fakr Al-Din, Jordan’s most ‘exclusive’ restaurant, I had so much muhammara that I could barely eat the beautifully grilled lamb I had ordered. Fear not though, I made my way through it regardless.

And there you go – my top ten Middle Eastern/Turkish foods. This list is in no way comprehensive, and really I could wax lyrical about falafel, Armenian beef-and-eggs and the Israeli Sabich for days. I implore anyone who reads this to go out and try these wonderful foods. Beirut, famed for its foodie scene is a great place to go for some wonderful Middle Eastern food, but don’t discount Amman. The best hummus I’ve ever had was in Amman – Hashem’s restaurant, to be precise. My return to England was sweet, but I can’t help but feel saddened by the loss of all this wonderful cuisine.