Sunny days and the Middle Eastern kitchen

We are only officially about four weeks into spring, and I already feel excited by the prospect of eating healthier, more colorful, and more interesting food. Winter has its charms, without a doubt; but I am bored with the endless array of heavy pasta sauces and uninspired meat and potato dishes- invariably followed by filling, artery clogging desserts. There was a time when I used to think that spring eating was all about salads, swapping chocolate for fruit and the occasional light pasta dish. But I always had the nagging feeling that I was somehow missing out on something- as though the warmer months meant eating as though I were on a forced diet. And unless drastic measures are called for, I have never been a fan of diets.

That was until circumstances conspired to remind me of all the Middle Eastern cuisine I’d been brought up on; I remember a kitchen constantly stocked with ingredients as colorful and diverse as fresh figs, olives, aubergines, juicy legs of lamb roasted with apricots, saffron rice and yoghurt with mint and cucumber. Tons of garlic was added to just about everything, and every meal without fail was finished off with a traditional glass of fresh mint tea, served in elegant, elongated tea glasses. My favorite midday treat was a whole chopped avocado with a bowl of tabouleh- bulgar wheat salad with finely chopped mint and parsley, onion, garlic and lemon juice. My mouth is watering just remembering it. So far, however, I can just imagine the response of the majority of readers: that all sounds lovely, but only if you know a thing or two about Middle Eastern cooking. But that’s the beauty of this cuisine: it relies heavily on fresh produce and spices, and as long as you have these then the rest takes care of itself. A weekly staple in my kitchen takes a great deal of inspiration from this principle: chicken marinated in cumin, chili powder and garlic along with a mound of salty, buttery couscous, fresh mint and a plate of roasted aubergines, red peppers and courgette. Spice the chicken, throw it in a pan, be patient enough to stir the couscous for 5 minutes with a knob of butter and roast the vegetables. Now what sounds difficult about that?

Middle Eastern cooking is strongly Mediterranean in flavor and influence, and is consequently one of the few cuisines which is both mouthwateringly tasty and incredibly nutritious at the same time. Watching your weight and bored of bland, low calorie meals and snacks? Then look no further. An unabashed foodie who couldn’t care less about their weight? The same applies to you. As most Middle Eastern food is quite rich (taste wise) it means you don’t need to pile it on your plate like there’s no tomorrow. Olives smothered in garlic or a piece of baklava followed by mint tea both make great snacks, and offer a slightly more interesting taste experience than a chemically processed yoghurt, or yet another muesli bar. Hang on a minute, some of you will be frowning- baklava is saturated with sugar and fat. What’s nutritious about that? Well, you’re right. In a way.

By definition baklava, like many Middle Eastern sweets, contains a lot of sugar. But no E numbers. No colorings. No artificial flavorings. I’d rather have one little square of something which I know has been freshly made that day by a real person, using identifiable ingredients such as honey, pistachio nuts and pastry, than a machine processed ‘muesli bar’ which contains a whole lot of hidden and very dubious sounding chemical additives. This applies to Middle Eastern cuisine as a whole. It relies on simplicity. But you do need to realize that (sometimes pricey) fresh herbs are a necessity and that chopping all those vegetables does take time. So whilst you do not need to be a culinary genius to master this style of cooking, you do need patience. You should also remember that the supermarket is generally quite unkind to consumers who wish to buy exclusively fresh, unprocessed ingredients. Go to your local Middle Eastern grocery store and you will marvel at the fresh baked bread, the shelves bursting with fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables and the seemingly endless array of spices. You will also probably feel quite annoyed at having allowed your local supermarket to have ripped you off for so long. Support small businesses and get your shopping done for less!

So next time you’re feeling bored and uninspired, consider Middle Eastern cuisine as an option. It’s fresh, it’s affordable, it’s healthy and it’s ridiculously tasty. Better than all of these, it is so easy. I might even have to start pestering my colleagues to make this the subject of a future app… until then, I’ll go back to daydreaming about my mother’s roasted lamb and apricots.

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