A Taste of Summer - Middle Eastern Food

Stepping outside into the dazzling June sunlight from I. M. Pei’s beautiful Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is like walking into a wall of shimmering dry heat. At 41°C your limbs are automatically slowed and it feels as though you’re moving through molten hot air. It almost hurts to breathe. Water sparkles around you and for a moment you are blinded by the intense light of the Persian Gulf. This is a world where life takes on a different timbre during the summer months.   The power of the sun changes how you live and eat.

Cool shady rooms are sought.   Soft flowing clothes are worn to protect your limbs and cool your body.   You feel alert in the fresh air of dawn, despite the night-time temperature of 30°C.   The first cup of fragrant coffee is welcomed with freshly baked Arabic bread, honey and labneh (strained yoghurt).

Here, as elsewhere in the Middle East, recipes have evolved to tempt eaters both during the intense summer heat and the temperate winters.   Their origins lie scattered across the ancient world from Persia to India.   Religion, food and ideas have been carried across desert and sea along the old trading routes.   Today, Middle Eastern food is still strongly influenced by classical Iranian and Ottoman cuisine, in the same way as French haute cuisine has influenced much of Europe. Every social group within every Middle Eastern country will have its own unique interpretation whether it is the Berbers in the remote Siwa Oasis on the Libyian border in Egypt or the urban-based Hadars living along the coast of Qatar. Yet, the dishes are all recognizably Middle Eastern.

The searing summer heat makes you crave vibrant tastes, in other words sweet, sour, salty and bitter foods. As dusk falls in the Western desert, nothing can compare with the exquisite sweet taste of a freshly picked oasis date accompanied by a refreshing cup of locally-grown hibiscus tea.

Such taste combinations have developed over the millennia in this cradle of civilization.   The iced sweet sour Persian sharbats (sherberts), such as rhubarb, lemon or sweetened mint and vinegar taste equally wonderful on a hot day, especially after a welcoming cup of fragrant bitter sweet coffee or tea.   The former has been drunk in the Middle East since the ninth century and remains a popular social drink, preferably accompanied by little sugary pastries such as baklava and konafa (little vermecilli-look-alike pastries filled with cream or pistachios). Other cold drinks, such as Iranian salted yoghurt whisked over ice, quench thirst, especially when flavoured with mint.  

Perhaps as a result of the lethargy-inducing heat, appetizing little dishes called mezze are served throughout the Middle East as something that can be enjoyed with a cool drink at any time of day. In her wonderful A New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Penguin) Claudia Roden writes ‘mezze are one of the most delightful features of the Middle Eastern food – indeed they are almost a way of life.   From the cafés by the Nile to mountain resorts in the Lebanon and palatial villas in Morocco and Persia, savouring mezze with a syrup or a coffee can be a delight approaching ecstasy, part sensual, part mystical.   The pleasure of savouring the little pieces of food is accompanied by feelings of peace and serenity, and sometimes by deep meditation.’

Everything from olives, pickles and vegetable crudities to salads, dips and savoury morsels can be served.   They can be hot or cold, provided they are small, tasty, attractive and easy to eat.   Dishes will come garnished with a dusting of paprika, strewn with chopped parsley, dotted with olives, streaked with yoghurt or drizzled with olive oil. The idea is to serve just enough to pique the appetite.   Thus, you might find yourself offered little dishes of hummus, aubergine salad or taboulleh with triangles of warm Arabic bread to use as a dip.   There might be little plates of crispy falafel, succulent stuffed vine leaves or warm grilled cheese, alongside tiny spinach or minced lamb pastries… the possibilities are endless.

Such dishes can also be served just before a meal. The main meal of the day is usually lunch although family parties can be in the evening.   During the long hot months in Iran, sabzi khordan – a bowl of fresh herbs - is served at the start of the meal with feta and soft flat bread.   In her evocative book The Legendary Cuisine of Persia (Grub Street), Margaret Shaida writes ‘the simple herb salad of Persia requires no dressing.   It stands or falls on the freshness of its contents and the balance of its flavours and colours.   Traditionally the summer herb bowl will contain mint, tarragon, marjoram, a type of basil, Persian chives, radishes, spring onions and a delicate herb with a slight spice flavour called costmary (or sometimes cost or alecost).

Across the Middle East salads, cooked vegetables and pulses are an integral part of the meal. The sheer diversity of vegetable dishes is incredible from lentils, chickpeas and fava beans to lettuce, globe artichokes, aubergines and okra.   They’re chopped, stewed, stuffed, grilled and fried, often lightly flavoured with spices bought from the local market.  

The spice merchant will measure out each shoppers preferred recipe for a particular spice mix, before wrapping it in a twist of paper.   Sacks of cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, dried limes, mint and rose petals scent the hot air.   Who can resist shopping in such markets?

The resulting dishes combine a tempting array of tastes, which are irresistible, even on the hottest day. Fish or meat, simply grilled, roasted or subtly spiced in stews may be offered from a communal platter for all to share. Sweet dried fruit such as dates, are often combined with savoury meat dishes.   Soft bread and three fingers are used to eat the tender contents. Rice is reserved for special occasions, seasoned with saffron and butter to bring out its subtle fragrance. The Iranians excel at such dishes.   No need for pudding, just a coffee and sweetmeat.   This is a culinary world that still reflects its ancient history and climate.

Aubergine salad

This can be served as part of a meze with pieces of pitta bread or a part of a main course.  

Serves 4-6

4 aubergine

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 beef tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped

2 teaspoons paprika

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

a handful of parsley, finely chopped


1   Prick the aubergine all over with a fork.   Grill them over a gas flame or under a grill, turning regularly, until their skin has blackened and their flesh softened.

Once cool, peel and roughly chop.


2   Heat the oil in a small saucepan over a medium heat.   Add the garlic and once sizzling, stir in the tomatoes.   Cook briskly until the tomatoes form a dark paste that exudes oil. Add the aubergine, paprika, salt and pepper.   Cook for 5-10 minutes, then season to taste with the vinegar and parsley.   Remove from the heat and serve at room temperature.


Barbecued Iranian chicken kebab

Serve with fresh lemon, salad leaves mixed with herbs and warm pitta bread.

a pinch of saffron pistils

a pinch of sugar

4 organic chicken fillets with skin

1 medium onion, roughly grated

juice of 1 lemon

salt and freshly ground black pepper

30g butter


1 Wash and pat dry the chicken.   Place between two sheets of clingfilm and using a rolling pin, gently hit until it each fillet has flattened out to half its natural thickness.   Cut each flattened fillet into two pieces.


2   Roughly grate the onion and place in a mixing bowl with the lemon juice.   Add the chicken pieces and season. Cover and chill for 3 hours. Keep the marinade juices.


3   Using a small pestle and mortar or small bowl with a teaspoon, grind the saffron with a small pinch of sugar until it forms a powder.  Tip into a small pan along with a teaspoon of tepid water.   Set aside to infuse.   Add the butter and melt over a low heat.


4   Thread the chicken pieces on to skewers. Once the coals on your barbecue are glowing red and white, add the chicken and baste with the saffron butter.   Turn regularly and once cooked and golden.

This appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of the Weather Magazine, see: http://theweatherclub.org.uk  



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