Meze forte

Lebanon is famed throughout the Arab world for its savoury snacks. Food writer Nada Saleh tells Annie Bell why
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The number of Lebanese restaurants in Britain is burgeoning, and more and more of us are eating the food of the Middle East, and meze in particular, in our homes too. That it's becoming better appreciated is thanks in part to cookery writers like Nada Saleh. Her new book, Seductive Flavours of the Levant (Robson Books, £16.95), takes your tastebuds on a tour of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. She travelled round each country gathering recipes, to present a collection of new but authentic material.

In the years I have known Nada, first as a neighbour, increasingly as a friend, every visit to her has been a cause for celebration of some aspect of Lebanese food and cooking. There is always a new arrival to get excited about. Zaatar (a spice blend of thyme, sumac – the tart, rust-red powder from ground dried berries widely used as seasoning – and sesame seeds) is routinely sprinkled on flat bread for breakfast. At Nada's it was "made by my sister who was taught by my mother who picked her own thyme and pounded her own sumac". Just thinking about the steaming mounds of moghrabiyeh that emerge from her kitchen makes me hungry. Quite unlike the more familiar couscous, these are tender, pasta-like grains the size of a chickpea, that are eaten with a spicy chicken stew.

As she cooks, Nada talks with a thick Lebanese accent and skips nimbly between French, Arabic and English. She can tell you how every single Lebanese restaurant in London makes their hummus (an indicator of the quality of everything that follows), down to how long they boil their chickpeas and whether or not they add bicarbonate of soda to the water. Doing so is as much a heresy in her opinion as adding olive oil – which makes the hummus heavy – except as a final flourish. She also has tucked up her sleeve the trick of adding, when in season, the juice of Seville oranges in lieu of lemons.

A Druze married to a Christian, she and her husband fled Lebanon at the outbreak of the civil war in the Seventies and settled in west London. They belong to the close expat community that knows where to shop – for tahini, pomegranate syrup and flower waters – and where to eat to satisfy nostalgic yearnings. As a nutritionist and food expert, she is a regular guest on programmes for the Middle Eastern Broadcasting Corporation and Al-Jazeera television, and is a household name in her own country.

"Every country with a tradition of meze would like to think they were the creators – the Turks, the Syrians, the Greeks, the Lebanese – when in truth no one knows, and in any case it is a very recent phenomenon," she explains. The word "meze" most likely derives from the colloquial Arabic "mazmaz" meaning a nibble. Lebanese meze came into being as a starchy aside to a glass of arak, the dry, assertive and lethal pastis. The original nibbles were kdameh safra, toasted yellow chickpeas that are still found in most Middle Eastern delis, and tourmos, the small yellow beans popped from their shell and eaten like peanuts.

Today, while the number of dishes has swelled to dozens, restaurant menus stick to a standard score of hot and cold ones. There will always be a plate of dewy vegetables – peppers, spring onions, slivers of carrot and a whole lettuce, some olives and sliced tomatoes dressed with olive oil and sumac. Warm cushions of flat bread are constantly replenished. Only in the further recesses of London's Edgware Road, however, are you likely to come across nkhaat shankleesh, the whole lamb's brains boiled with spices and dressed with lemon, or kasbeh sawda, raw chopped lamb's liver and its fat, eaten with a grain or two of salt and pepper. Even then, you are unlikely to discover the small birds that appear on the tables of Lebanon in the summer, or the raw goat's meat, kibbeh, eaten in the mountains.

Nevertheless, Nada says she has witnessed a sea change in the number and style of Lebanese restaurants in this country. The food of Lebanon is universally loved by Arabs and something of a yardstick by which others are judged. Omar Samaha, owner of the Fairuz restaurants (named after the Edith Piaf of the Levant), is Syrian and one of the leaders of the new wave. "I wanted to open a restaurant that was specifically geared up for the Londoner," he says. He has introduced more vegetarian dishes to the menu, such as his salad of shredded spinach, spring onions and pomegranate seeds, and little-known mountain meze like bantinjan bil laban, fried aubergine in a garlic yoghurt sauce.

Noura, sister to the Paris restaurant of the same name and run by Nader Bouantoun, has also broken the mould. Chef Yazbek Yazbek imports all his spices and flavouring ingredients from Lebanon, and makes staples such as yoghurt and labneh (yoghurt cheese) daily in-house. Though for the homesick ex-pat there's still a little way to go. "When restaurants start sending out a salad of thyme, purslane and rocket before any of the other dishes come out, then we're getting there," Nada says, laughing. "I live in hope." In the meantime we'll just have to cook from her book. E

Fairuz, 27 Westbourne Grove, London W2 (020-7243 8444), and 3 Blandford Street, London W1 (020-7486 8108). Noura, 16 Hobart Place, SW1 (020-7235 9444).