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
The power of the sun
changes how you live and eat.
shady rooms are sought.
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).
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.
and ideas have been carried across desert and sea along the old trading
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.
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.
taste combinations have developed over the millennia in this cradle of
The iced sweet sour
(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.
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.
as a result of the lethargy-inducing heat, appetizing little dishes called
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.’
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.
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.
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,
khordan – a bowl of
fresh herbs - is served at the start of the meal with feta and soft flat
In her evocative book
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
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).
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
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?
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
This can be served as part of a meze with pieces of pitta
bread or a part of a main course.
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
1Prick the aubergine all over with a
Grill them over a gas flame
or under a grill, turning regularly, until their skin has blackened and their
Once cool, peel and roughly chop.
2Heat the oil in a small saucepan over a
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
Remove from the heat and
serve at room temperature.
Iranian chicken kebab
with fresh lemon, salad leaves mixed with herbs and warm pitta bread.
of saffron pistils
chicken fillets with skin
onion, roughly grated
freshly ground black pepper
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.
flattened fillet into two pieces.
2Roughly grate the onion and place in a mixing bowl with the
Add the chicken
pieces and season. Cover and chill for 3 hours. Keep the marinade juices.
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
Tip into a small pan along
with a teaspoon of tepid water.
Set aside to infuse.
the butter and melt over a low heat.
4Thread the chicken pieces on to skewers. Once the coals on
your barbecue are glowing red and white, add the chicken and baste with the
Turn regularly and
once cooked and golden.