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Lipsmacking Lebanese

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You Don't Have To Go Very Far Now To Taste The Best Of Lebanese Cuisine, Says Chitra Papnai Photographs By Rupinder Sharma And Rashbehari Das   |   Published 29.08.10, 12:00 AM

Your fine dining experience has just been invaded by inviting platters laden with chicken shish taouk, falafel and small meat pies or sambousek and loads of pita bread. And it’s a welcome invasion that comes with dollops of colourful dips and crunchy salads. And if names like cacik, kibbeh, baba ganoush, hummus, muhammara, tabbouleh or baklava seem like Greek to you, know that these are names of delectable Lebanese dishes.

Replete with fresh ingredients and aromatic flavours, Lebanese cuisine is now quite the staple of menus of Mediterranean restaurants across metros.

“Lebanese cuisine is now a part of popular culture and has found easy acceptance in India,” says Manish Malhan of three stories, a resto-bar which serves full-on Lebanese mezze platters.

According to Manav Sharma, chief of operations, Blanco which offers Lebanese, Oriental and Continental fare, Lebanese cuisine is high in popularity because it’s not too hot or too bland. And make no mistakes, Lebanese menus have much more to offer apart from the famous mezze platters and hummus (a creamy purée of chickpeas).

So, it’s not surprising that when Calcutta restaurateur Pradip Rozario thought of setting up a new restaurant, Lebanese cuisine trumped everything else. Having extensively visited Lebanese kitchens in restaurants in Dubai and Bahrain, he returned home to set up Mio Amore, which opened its doors six months ago with an elaborate Lebanese menu.

Mio Amore’s non-vegetarian mezze platter is a huge hit and comes with kebabs — chicken, fish, prawn and lamb. Vegetarians can rejoice too, for they’ll get to dig into potato kebab, stuffed tomato and aubergine served with hummus, tahini (sesame seeds and olive oil dip) and harissa or chilli sauce.

When it comes to breads, sweet round breads known as khoubiz mohala are popular with guests. “These are done the Lebanese way, coated with a layer of cashew and almond powder mixed with date paste,” says Rozario.

At Taj Bengal’s Souk, 59 per cent of the menu is Lebanese. Executive chef Sujon Mukherjee can name 51 Lebanese dishes for those who love the cuisine.

You can pick from cold or hot mezze platters, soup, grills, entrées and dessert. Some of the dishes that are much in demand are batinjan rahib or grilled aubergine with lemon, garlic and sumac (a tart powder) as well as tabbouleh which is a Middle Eastern salad made with bulgur (a whole grain), finely chopped parsley and mint, tomato and spring onion and then seasoned with lemon juice and olive oil. Fattoush is another salad made with toasted or fried pieces of pita bread that are combined with mixed greens. Or go for the vegetable moussaka made with aubergine, tomato, bell peppers and couscous. If you love fish instead, try the samak maqli, the pan-fried fish served with a salad tossed in sumac powder.

For dessert, a must-try is baklava, a sweet pastry filled with nuts and sweetened with sugar syrup or honey.

The restaurateurs are attempting to be as authentic as possible. At three stories Malhan has made sure to incorporate all five popular accompaniments like cacik (yoghurt and cucumber dip sauce), baba ghanoush (egg plant and tahini dip), hummus and tahini, muhammara (a hot pepper dip) and tabbouleh salad.

These salads and dips are served with both, vegetarian and non-vegetarian mezze platters.

For those looking for smaller platters, Kishore Chandra, head chef at Blanco, has created a chicken mezze platter with baba ganoush, hummus and muhammara dip and for those who prefer something really light he offers fattoush. “The salad is not only easy to digest but also very nutritious and filling,” says Chandra.

So, are there any similarities between Lebanese and Indian recipes or in the methods of cooking?

“The cuisines are very similar in terms of the spices used,” says Rajneesh Malik of Fez in Delhi where the mezze platters, kibbeh (wheat dumplings with a variety of fillings), tajine (meat or poultry gently simmered with vegetables, olives, preserved lemons, garlic and spices), shawarama, hummus and tabbouleh are hotsellers. Also, Indian and Lebanese cuisines share very similar cooking styles like charcoal cooking and slow simmering.

He reckons that Indian food was influenced by Lebanese and Syrian food. “When the traders and invaders came to India centuries ago they brought along with them their cooking techniques and flavours which influenced the different Indian cuisines,” says Malik.

Chef Mukherjee of Taj Bengal draws some more parallels between the cuisines. For instance, the spices used in Lebanese cuisine like saffron, rose essence and cinnamon are also common to Indian dishes apart from menu staples like lentils and rice. Similarly, vegetables like potato, tomato, cucumber and coriander leaves are also liberally used in Indian cooking. “The way they make pita bread is very similar to our rotis,” says Mukherjee.

Rozario adds that it’s the use of seasoning that brings a slight disparity in the taste. The meats for the Lebanese kebabs are marinated in the same way as we do our kebabs but the difference in the taste is from the seasoning like lemon salt and sumac powder.

The trick to delicious Lebanese dishes lies in using authentic ingredients, say the chefs. To put together an authentic Lebanese menu in Souk, ingredients like couscous, rose essence, brown burghul, tahina, jumbo olives and vine leaves are bought from Dubai while flat parsley used for tabbouleh, lemons and cucumber comes from Israel. Malik prefers to import the ingredients directly from the Spice Souk in Dubai. “Prices in India are very high but at times we purchase locally,” says Malik.

However, with the ever-growing consumer market in India, an increasing number of ingredients are now available here.

So, whether you are a hardcore vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, there’s a delicious platter out there waiting for you.

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