It’s now been more than thirty years since I embarked upon my professional career, with the dream of introducing a greater range – and a different style – of Middle Eastern food to diners.
As the son of Lebanese immigrants in Australia, I grew up in a household where things like yoghurt, cheese, and flower waters and rice-stuffed vegetables and sticky nut pastries were the norm. But, I struggled to reconcile the amazing dishes of my childhood with the paucity of offerings in local Middle Eastern restaurants. Back then, for most Aussies, Lebanese food was about hummus and tabbouleh or a post-pub felafel. Thankfully that’s now changed dramatically in many western countries, Australia in particular.
It wasn’t just about sharing the flavours and dishes that I grew up with; I also wanted to translate the classics to a modern dining experience. I set out to cook food that was less constrained by tradition, which was lighter, more layered and contemporary, and luckily, people seemed to love it!
I think a lot of my success was to do with the fact that Australia has always been receptive to new food cultures. You’d be hard-pushed to find a more vibrant, eclectic and dynamic food scene anywhere in the world, and it was this environment that gave me the confidence to do things ‘my way’.
Since then, I’ve had the great privilege of traveling extensively across other countries make up what is loosely referred to as the Middle East – from my home turf Lebanon and Syria, to Jordan, Egypt, North Africa and Moorish Spain, Iran, and Turkey – to research my books.
I’ve learnt something of the way the cuisines of these various countries are interconnected; similar ideas crop up time and again, and I find the common threads fascinating. It’s to do with the ancient spice routes and centuries of trading, and with the spread of Islam, the movement of peoples and empires. More fundamentally, they are united by a philosophy of sharing and generosity and this is absolutely key to the way I cook.
Even though I feel very much at home here in Dubai – and I love the opportunities I have for exploring the food of the region in even greater depth – there are still challenges. There’s no doubt that my interpretive, contemporary way of cooking is hugely at odds with the way food is treated here in the Middle East – and there are some who find my way borders on the heretical! With very few exceptions, these countries are very conservative in the way they treat their own cuisine, so the greatest measure of success is how expertly a particular technique is re-created, or how close to an ‘original’ it is (regional variations notwithstanding).
This approach is, of course, quite contrarian with European and Asian cuisines, where contemporary interpretations, culinary evolution and even – that dreaded word – ‘fusion’ have been the norm for decades.
But I would argue strongly that there is also a place for innovation in the more conservative countries of the Middle East. I would even go as far as to suggest that some of the very earliest experimental cooking emerged from the Topkapi kitchens of the Ottoman Empire, where palace chefs vied to create the most original, complex and innovative food. In those fluid, unrestrained days, there was a wealth of ingredients pouring into their larders as a result of the empire’s expansion, and cooking techniques and ingredients were spread widely. Are there not parallels with ‘borderless’ cooking of the 21st century? And with the fearless experimentation of the likes of Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal?
I’m sure that the various Middle Eastern cuisines lend themselves as well as any in the world to playfulness and invention, and you shouldn’t have to go to Australia, for instance, to find great refined and contemporary versions of this food.
Here in Dubai, diners seem very willing to embrace the new, and countless international chefs have found a platform here for their own style of food. It’s slow going for us Middle Eastern cooks, however; truly local Emirati food isn’t easy to find in a restaurant setting here, and Arab restaurants remains pretty uniform. But I do sense that the barriers are slowly crumbling.
And I hope that in my new venture, Zahira Restauranti, I can help that cause along by doing what I do best – which is to encourage diners to be a little less bound by tradition, and to realise that you can modernise dishes without destroying their authenticity.
www.zahira.ae +971 4 501 8606 firstname.lastname@example.org
WORDS BY LIZZIE FRIANIER
PHOTOS BY CAROL SACHS; ANGELA DUKES; CHRISTIAN TRAMPEANU