Culinary trail: Tracing Middle Eastern fare and how it has won hearts of Delhi’s foodies

Flavours from the Middle East are as popular in Delhi as its own street food. Here’s looking at how the cuisine grew in the Capital.

more lifestyle Updated: Jan 18, 2018 19:47 IST
Abhinav Verma
Abhinav Verma
Hindustan Times
Middle Eastern Cuisine,Lebanese cuisine,Syrian cuisine
You can try delicacies such as Baklava, Ma’amoul and Birds Nest (a fusion dessert consisting of pistachio vermicelli) along with thyme tea, sage tea, and green coffee at Kunafa in Meharchand Market.(Jasjeet Plaha/HT Photo)

Delhi is a melting pot of cultures, and flavours more than anything else. And Delhiites, open to welcoming different cuisines! That’s one of the reasons why Middle Eastern cuisine, even though it’s less spicy as per the city’s standards, has made its place in the culinary landscape of the Capital. The delicious Ma’amouls (cookies) and green coffee also enjoy their fair share of popularity here, transcending barriers of language or nationality.

Origin lies in refugees, settlers

Refugees and people from Middle Eastern countries have been migrating to India since 1980. However, the number has increased due to the Afghan war and the war on ISIS, in recent years. According to a HT report last year, there are approximately 24,000 refugees and 9,000 asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq in India.

What makes the country their destination? In a nutshell, you can say it’s the similar culture, love for Bollywood, and India’s unity in diversity that make it an attractive prospect. “There is an ancient relationship between India and the Middle East. Our forefathers used to trade with the Indians. I think the first educational institute in Jerusalem was built by an Indian. Also, throughout history, Indian Muslims have been making the pilgrimage to Mecca for the annual Hajj,” says 48-year-old Palestinian Naser Barakat, who is the owner of Kunafa- A Mediterranean and Middle Eastern sweets and pastries shop in Meharchand market.

Naser Barakat came to India to study in 1990. (Jasjeet Plaha/HT Photo)

Naser came to India in 1990, when he was all of 17, to study in Lucknow University. “In the ’80s and the ’90s, Palestine and other Middle Eastern students would come to India to study. The connection has always been strong,” he says.

For refugees, settling in Delhi meant adjusting with its culture, its culinary choices. “It’s difficult to adjust to the Indian food as it’s spicy and oily. Whereas Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine is organic and less spicy,” says Naser.

It is this challenge that proved to be a blessing in disguise. Refugees began to cook food their way. And as the years passed by, the taste for Middle Eastern cuisine spread across communities.

Cut to the present and Delhi is booming with various restaurants and eating joints being run by Middle Eastern refugees and immigrants alike. “There is a huge demand from my customers that I must expand my joint,” says Naser, for whom, Delhi is his second home. “Once you get used to Delhi, you can’t get enough of it. I opened my eating joint in 2012 and I’ve had a wonderful response to it,” he says.

Many of you might know of the renowned shawarma joint Al-Bake in New Friends Colony. It’s owned by 42-year-old Mirza Saqib and his 65-year-old father M.Z Beg. They hail from Uttar Pradesh and opened the shop in 1988. But the influence is Middle Eastern. “My ancestors are from Lebanon. The reason why we started our eating joint is because we wanted people to have a taste of our cuisine. Food is the common denominator that brings people together in the city. Over the years, these refugees now refer to Delhi as their home. And it’s all thanks to the food,” says Saqib.

Al-Bake in New Friends Colony is a popular eating joint that’s popular for shawarmas. (Amal KS/ HT Photo)

Decoding Middle Eastern cuisine

Zarmig Halladjian, an Armenian Lebanese celebrity chef who held a food promotion at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity Hotel, says that the cuisine goes beyond pita bread and a falafel roll.

“It’s about freshly prepared dishes topped with fresh vegetables, cheese, meat and traditional drinks like sherbet, desserts like baklawa and drinks such as qahwa, which make it different from all other cuisines. We use very little oil and there is just a hint of spices. Baked sweet dishes such as basbousa and simple yet flavourful vegetarian dishes such as koussa fattoush (grilled zucchini) appeal to all taste buds,” she says.

Zarmig Halladjian is an Armenian Lebanese celebrity chef who recently visited Delhi.

The cuisine is not just Arabian but a mix of flavours from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. With Chef Zarmig’s help, we’ve compiled a list of Middle Eastern culinary terms:

1) Meze: The traditional way to start a meal. It is usually a collection of small dishes served together to help start a meal. It usually includes halloumi cheese, mutabbal/babaghanoush and kibbe nayye – burghul

2) Murag: Iraqi meat stew spiced by baharat, a popular spice blend

3) Shorbat Adas: Lentils slow cooked in broth

4) Samak bi Tahini: Fish with sesame seed paste; and Sayadieh: Fish with spiced rice and caramelised onions

5) Mansaf: Lamb cooked on top of a layer of flatbread and rice in fermented yoghurt

6) Al Lugaimat: Sweet dough balls and Omani Khabeesa: Semolina-based kheer are popular desserts

First Published: Jan 18, 2018 19:47 IST