Wednesday, 13 October 2010

celebrating the abundance of middle eastern cooking

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An abridged version of this article is posted on

I was bristling with anticipation to see Yotam Ottolenghi in the flesh. His Notting Hill cafĂ© has been getting rave reviews from London bloggers and I’ve been giving my Ottolenghi cookbook a solid workout ever since I got it for my birthday.
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Here I was at the World Chef Showcase watching the inspirational Ottolenghi whose glamorous salads, roasts and cakes are easily within reach for most home cooks, making his food all the more exciting and delicious.

He charmed the audience with his jests, humility and good humour.

Although he claims he’s “not a fusion person”, he did say he likes to take something familiar and give it a little twist. “Where ever it comes from I’m happy to take it as long as the flavours are bold, the colours are strong and it’s not overly complicated”.

For the tasting sample, he made a simple salad of quinoa, dried Iranian lime and feta that was absolutely divine! There was so much flavour: strong tang from the lime, freshness from the herbs, wonderful texture from the quinoa and wild rice and the whole dish was heavily scented with olive oil.

When Ottolenghi arrived in London from Jerusalem, he was horrified by the terrible state of take away food in the UK. He was determined to take food out from behind glass cabinets, bringing it closer to the end user and celebrating it with sensual abundance. His success has revolutionised take away food in London, giving the UK something that the Middle East and continental Europe had always enjoyed.

Later in a discussion between MC Helen Greenwood and food writer Mary Taylor Simeti, Simeti said of Sicilian food “it’s unexpectedly sophisticated. Not so much in the ingredients but in the way they’re combined”. I think this applies to Ottolenghi’s cooking as well.

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After Ottolenghi was finished, the stage was dominated by Lebanese foodies Abla Amad (the darling septuagenarian from Melbourne who opened her famous restaurant, Abla’s, in 1979) and Kamal Mouzawak (founder of Beirut’s first farmers markets and a keen culinary activist and foodie).

Abla was so funny. Her unpolished presentation style was refreshing and she oscillated from shy, young girl proudly displaying her tray of baklava to a bossy grandmother admonishing the audience and Mouzawak for not keeping up with her train of thought. It was very amusing, if a little disjointed.

Abla’s baklava was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Ever. It was perfectly crunchy and not overly sweet. Two sticky thumbs up from me.

She made it in a unique and efficient way, by rolling the filo around cashew crumbs rather than layering it. She also used less butter in the process, but at the end stage pours the butter over the top, causing the audience to gasp at the amount that was used. Alba was humorously indignant at our gasps, protesting in her thick accent “heeey, not eeeven half cup!”.
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But for me the dynamic and articulate Mouzawak was the star of this session. He explained how food can be used as positive resistance, a way to bring people together. He called it a gastro-political awakening because everyone eats and no matter whether they are sea or mountain people, from the east or the west, are Muslims or Christians - they all share their love of food in a united Lebanese eating culture.

As he watched Abla make the baklava he said that she was perpetuating her village and its history through the preparation of her food and that she brought the best part of her culture to Australia through her cuisine.

Mouzawak demonstrated two Lebanese desserts with ties to Christian holidays and we were able to taste the strange and colourful Amhyieh, made from cracked whole wheat grains, nuts, dried fruits and orange blossom water.

It was an interesting dessert, quite nice in small quantities, with savouriness from the grains that made it moreish and comforting, like a sweet Middle Eastern porridge with an occasional fresh burst of pomegranate.

Mouzawak’s passion for Lebanese cooking and culture was evident and I walked away pleased that I’d discovered him. I’m positive Kamal Mouzawak is very well known in Lebanon, but I’d never heard of him before and now I’ll follow his movements. I’m sure that these types of discoveries were a goal of the Showcase.

As Yotam Ottolenghi said about participating in the Showcase, “with all the big name chefs that are here, it’s made me feel very special”, and that’s how I’ve felt too.


  1. Sounds like a fantastic event! How lucky you are to be in Sydney to enjoy it. I've read a couple of Mary Taylor Simeti's books and would love to have attended her session.

  2. I had such an interesting time in that session, and like you, Kamal Mouzawak blew me away. I'd not heard of him either, but his passion and knowledge were really infectious and impressive.

  3. deb - mary was pretty interesting. it was fun to hear how she ended up in sicily.

    reemski - it's a shame kamal didn't have more time to talk through he themes . . . but you can't have everything.


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