t2 soaks in a Middle Eastern feast at souk...

A clutch of Middle Eastern countries known for their exotic food has made its way to the Souk kitchen at Taj Bengal. Syrian master chef Simon Shakour has brought the cuisines of Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon together on the plate with the festival, Middle Eastern Delights. The twist in the tale? A lot of the signature Middle Eastern non-vegetarian dishes have got a vegetarian version!

  • Published 13.09.18
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Simon Shakour

A clutch of Middle Eastern countries known for their exotic food has made its way to the Souk kitchen at Taj Bengal. Syrian master chef Simon Shakour has brought the cuisines of Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon together on the plate with the festival, Middle Eastern Delights. The twist in the tale? A lot of the signature Middle Eastern non-vegetarian dishes have got a vegetarian version!

Over yum Middle Eastern bites, t2 chatted with Simon Shakour, who was part of the founding team of Souk at Taj Bengal, and is presently working as the master chef at the Taj Palace, Mumbai.

After setting up Souk in Taj Bengal in 2009, you went to work at Taj Palace, Mumbai... 

I have been working in Mumbai for almost seven years but I kept coming to Calcutta to update the menu at Souk, Taj Bengal. 

How did you happen to work in Taj Bengal?

When Taj Bengal planned to open Souk, one of the chefs at Taj Palace, who is my cousin brother, recommended me to Taj Bengal. I started here and can proudly say I have seen many Taj hotels in India. I have done many big functions, everywhere across the Taj hotels in India, from north to south but I love Calcutta more than any other city.

But why do you love Calcutta?

When I came to Calcutta, I enjoyed it a lot. I’m also proud of the staff here.

How did you give shape to the concept of a Middle-eastern restaurant at Taj Bengal? 

Through a three-year market research that the Taj Bengal management did, they found that people wanted something like Souk. In 2009, there was a push towards eating healthier food in the city. Middle Eastern food uses many spices similar to Indian food and has similar preparations but is quite lighter and healthier than Indian food. 

The only problem was adhering to the vast vegetarian crowd in India because Middle Eastern food is very non-vegetarian-centric. So it was a big challenge but to satisfy the vegetarian crowd was a success. You have to see what the guests like, count their feedback, give chances to their recommendations... so we work hard to make it better. One interesting thing that people can enjoy with this food is you can spend an hour just enjoying the mezze with our traditional drink called arrak (fennel spirit). Calcutta is a place where you can enjoy your life, come here with friends or family. 

How have you adapted the non-vegetarian dishes to vegetarian for this festival?

We created some grills that are usually served with non-vegetarian meat or chicken. Like the Artichoke Ma Feter Meshwi is made with mushroom, which usually has stuffed meat. People come to see the work we’ve done, and whether they like it or not is something else, but they will at least see that I’ve tried satisfying my customers. 

To make hummus or tagine one needs to get specific local ingredients. Where do you get them from?

Most of our ingredients are imported from the Middle East, the supplier is getting it from Dubai, but the materials are originally from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece. The Gulf is closer to India, so it’s easier to import the ingredients. We also have many different varieties of olives coming from everywhere. Like the olive oil is from Spain and the saffron is from Kashmir. Also, the lamb meat found in the Levant area is different from what we get here; there it’s very fatty and more tasty. 

We make our guests travel to seven or eight different countries through our food, so you don’t have to go to Morocco to taste the tagine. Vegetables are local because it’s fresh and that really changes the meal.

Text: Jaime Calle Moreno. Pictures: Shuvo Roychaudhury

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