I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively to research my books and explore other countries in the Middle East, from Lebanon and Syria to Egypt, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. I’ve learned something about the way the cuisines of these various countries are interconnected; similar ideas crop up time again, and I find the common threads fascinating. It’s to do with the ancient spice routes and centuries of trading, the spread of Islam and the movement of peoples and empires. More fundamentally, they are united by a philosophy of sharing and generosity, which is the key to the way I cook.
Even though I feel very much at home here in Dubai – and I love the easy access to family in Beirut, and the opportunities I have for exploring the food of the region in even greater depth – there are still professional 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 a 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, at great odds with European and Asian cuisines, where contemporary interpretations, culinary evolution and even the dread term “fusion” has 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 Top Kapi kitchens of the Ottoman Empire, where palace chefs vied to create the most original, complex and innovative food. In such fluid, unrestrained days, there was a wealth of ingredients pouring into their larders because of the empire’s expansion, and cooking techniques and ingredients were spread widely.
I found myself asking, are there no parallels with the “borderless” cooking of the 21st century? And with the fearless experimentation of the likes of Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal? Surely, it’s true to say 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 their food.
Therefore, I believe that Arabic chefs need to revise their skills while keeping the integrity of their heritage in order to bring Levant cuisine into 2023 and beyond. It takes just a little clever architecture of the dish with added layers.
I strongly encourage diners to be a little less bound by tradition and realize that you can modernize dishes without destroying their authenticity.