FOOD & DRINK : Baba ganoush anyone?

Before experimenting with the re-invented why not try the original? Caroline Stacey pin-points restaurants where you can sample stunning dishes as eaten in Middle-Eastern homes
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While chefs and cooks have raided much of the world for recipes and ingredients, despite Claudia Roden's tremendous efforts, the Middle East remains relatively untapped as a source of inspiration. The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida (Penguin) won the Glenfiddich Food Book of the Year Award in 1993, but tomes of endlessly recycled Italian recipes are more often found on kitchen shelves.

Apart from tabouleh, couscous (which has made it to Marks & Spencer), and the ubiquitous hummus, where is the baba ganoush of Egypt (or moutabal as it is called elsewhere), Syrian kibbeh, the tagines of the Maghreb, or the saffron-infused chicken of Persia?

Antony Worrall-Thompson, king of the English magpie school, has made inroads into Morocco, where, at his Cafe Dell 'Ugo (56-58 Tooley Street, London SE1; tel: 0171 407 6001) its pickled lemons have given bitterness to lamb shank tagine. But he remains an exception.

Alastair Little and Richard Whittington's Food of the Sun (Quadrille, pounds 20) draws on Lebanese, Egyptian and Moroccan dishes, even Yemeni and Libyan, and isn't afraid to adapt them - tarama with shredded oyster is one of their suggestions - but its remit is Mediterranean and the Middle East vies for attention with Spain and Sicily.

Perhaps the Middle East has been waiting for a European chef to interpret and disseminate the complexities of the cooking. Only then is it likely to gain the wider interest it richly deserves in restaurants and our kitchens. After all, it was an American and an English woman, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray who introduced real Italian cooking to London when they opened their River Cafe, and look where that led.

Visitors to Middle Eastern countries may wonder what all the fuss is about. After holidays in Jordan and Egypt in the past 18 months, I can recall few exceptional meals in either country. Falafel from street stalls stands out, and I remember the starchy earthiness of fu'l medames (stewed brown beans with oil and lemon) for breakfast, and a few impressively aromatic kebabs in the freshest hot bread. But we failed to find restaurants offering the quality suggested by recipe books. The best cooking is hidden from tourists in homes they never visit.

Even travellers to Egypt confine themselves to the security of international hotels, unlike, say Thailand, where backpackers come face to face with local food and return home with a taste for it. And it's not as if the Lebanon, Iran or Iraq are high on our list of holiday destinations.

London's Middle-Eastern restaurants are mainly Lebanese, opened after the exodus caused by the civil war which in 1975 started to tear the country apart. They are exclusive eating places, generally expensive and most customers are male and Middle Eastern. The crystal chandelier is a hallmark of a Lebanese restaurant.

One outside London, Al Shami (25 Walton Crescent, Oxford; tel: 01865 310066) opened nine years ago with the advantage that the academic world has international connections. But chef and owner Sami Al Shami can't rely on Lebanese customers to fill his restaurant. Nor, he laments, can he rely on finding a consistent supply of ingredients. The day I spoke to him he'd looked in vain for cos lettuces. Substitutes will not do. Freshness of ingredients is paramount and, he says, the cooking is extremely labour intensive - hence expensive. Food must be eaten within hours of preparation. Falafel, for instance, will be made from scratch each day.

In London, somewhere like Al Waha (20 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1; tel: 0171 437 0411), a welcome sign that Lebanese restaurants are beginning to leave their Edgware Road stronghold and high prices behind, demonstrates the freshness and presentation that's considered so important. A meal always starts with a tray of the crispest raw vegetables - radishes, carrots, peppers, pickled green chillies and cos lettuce - sprayed with iced water.

Many dishes cut a swathe through the whole region, from north Africa to Iran, and as far south as the Sudan. At the Mandola (139-141 Westbourne Grove, London W11; tel: 0171 229 4734) you'll find fried aubergine with yoghurt similar to Iranian boorani-ye badenin, falafel, and creamy tahini sauce. With so many dishes in common - the hummus, tabouleh, stuffed vine leaves, baba ganoush - it's not difficult to become familiar with Arabic cuisine. Variations are due not to arbitrary national boundaries but the skills of each chef, innovation doesn't come into it. For example, visit a Syrian restaurant - Ebla in Hammersmith (262-264 King Street, London W6; tel: 0181 741 1177) is possibly the only one in Britain - and you'll find the menu almost identical to Lebanese Sami Al Shami's because the regional differences are simply those of emphasis. Lebanon has the best meze and main courses consist mainly of chargrilled meat, Syria excels at main courses with more variations on vegetables - at least 20 ways with cauliflower. Ebla, unfortunately, limits itself to chargrilled chicken and lamb, marinated in lemon juice, minced, and with yoghurt.

While there are broad similarities between the menus in many Middle-Eastern restaurants, the Iranian ones prove that Persian cooking is distinct. This highly developed cuisine is characterised by the use of fruit and nuts with meat, and the sweet-and-sour flavours imparted by limes, pomegranate juice, spices, especially saffron, pistachios, almonds, dates and orange peel. Rice is absolutely fundamental.

London's Iranian community, which swelled after the fall of the Shah in 1979, and has lain low ever since, is concentrated around Olympia where at Yas (7 Hammersmith Road, London W14; tel: 0171 603 9148) freshly-baked nan e lavash comes out of the tiled bread oven until it closes at dawn. Dolmeh (stuffed vine leaves) and hummus are familiar, mast-o musir (shallots- flavoured with yoghurt) and adasi (red lentils with tomato), less so. Lamb is stewed with spinach and prunes in khoresh-e alu esfanaj; and kufteh shevid baghala (steamed broad bean and meat dumplings, flavoured with dill and with a filling of apricots) is an elaborate combination of meat, fruit and herbs. Iranian neighbour, Alounak Kebab (72 Russell Road, W14; tel: 0171 371 2350) has a simpler selection of chargrills, not least because it's in a Portakabin in a car park, the novelty of which has attracted the attention of leading restaurant reviewers. Isfahan in Paddington (3- 4 Bouverie Place, London W2; tel: 0171 460 1030), opened this year, offers a prawn version of fesenjan, the classic walnut and pomegranate sauce, as well as herby meat and vegetable stews such as gheimeh sabzi, with the extraordinary mouth-puckering undertow of dried lime. Saffron chicken comes with shireen polow, rice flavoured with saffron and a sweet spice mix of cinnamon and cardamom seed, strewn with almonds, orange peel and pistachios.

This Persian sweetening of meat is shared by the countries of the Maghreb, whose cooking is best known in the form of couscous. Though the semolina grains have spread to supermarkets there are few genuine north African restaurants in London - unlike Paris. Adam's Cafe (77 Askew Road, London W12; tel: 0181 743 0572) is a caff by day and turns into a superb Tunisian restaurant by night, serving couscous and unusual starters such as brik a l'oeuf (a whole egg in deep-fried pastry). The Moroccan Royal Couscous House (316 Holloway Road, London N7; tel: 0171 700 2188) has a greater choice of tagines including chicken with prunes, and one with seafood, as well, of course, as couscous. !