My first taste of Iraqi food was one I’ll never forget. It was in a small independent restaurant called Beit Al Baghdadi on Al Muteena street in Dubai. I went there with a friend to try masquf, the freshwater fish barbecued on skewers driven into the ashes around a raging fire. For my starter I had pacha, a strange dish comprising a boiled sheep’s head, trotters and stomach, all mashed up, mixed with flatbread, and soaked in a hot, watery, oily soup. A tin of Heinz cream of tomato, it wasn’t.
Thankfully, there were no eyeballs to contend with. There were, however, bits of bashed-up jawbone, gum, cheek and tongue, and at one point I extracted a large, gnarled and well-worn sheep’s tooth.
I picked it out of the broth and put it on the table. The young waiter – who couldn’t speak English, but seemed utterly perplexed as to why I was actually eating pacha in the first place – came over and saw the molar. His eyes lit up. He snatched the tooth away and scurried off to an old wooden cabinet in the corner. He opened a drawer, carefully stashed the tooth away, and returned to the business of waiting, like nothing had happened.
Did the Iraqis have such a thing as a sheep’s tooth fairy? Was this young chap collecting sheep teeth to make an attractive necklace for a lucky young lady? Or maybe he was just embarrassed by the tooth – after all, it didn’t look like it came from a particularly young sheep – and needed somewhere to hide it? I had no idea. But it was at this point in my life and career as a food writer that I realised I didn’t quite understand the people of the Middle East, or its food.
By the time I arrived to work in the UAE, the only authentic Middle Eastern delicacies that I could recall from my travels (aside from kebabs and hummus) were böreks. I’d had them as street food in Turkey, and in Turkish neighbourhoods of Berlin and London. And I liked them.
A börek is a pastry stuffed with a variety of fillings: meat or fish, vegetables, cheese, eggs, chillies, or combinations of each. It is usually large, rounded and flat, baked with a crispy phyllo crust, and served hot. Mainly to be found in Turkey, Syria and other parts of the Levant, it’s not exactly common in Dubai and the rest of the region. But for me, it summed up the food of the Middle East far better than the ubiquitous kebabs or hummus ever could.
As I remembered it, a börek was filling, flavourful and comforting – just like all good Middle Eastern food should be. It was often sliced into in segments, so it could easily be divided up and shared among a group. It would usually be a heart-stopping time-bomb of salt and fat. And it could be plain or quite extravagant, but aways versatile and convenient.
In other words, it was a pie. To an Englishman like me, it made perfect sense.
Back home in England, the Middle East was busy being misrepresented in the press. It was either oil rich, corrupt, or a war zone. Dubai had become a dirty word. For most, Beirut was synonymous with conflict; Iran was the epitome of evil; Yemen was overflowing with terrorists; Israel and Palestine was just an ongoing catastrophe that looked like it would never end – in fact it was boring. And Middle Eastern food? Well, it was just hummus and kebabs, wasn’t it?
For one of the world’s oldest and most intriguing cuisines, it didn’t seem fair. How come there were so few Middle Eastern restaurants compared to Indian or Chinese ones in the UK? Why no Michelin-starred Middle Eastern restaurants? Why so few household name Middle Eastern chefs? Why no Middle Eastern restaurants on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list?
In the wider world of gastronomy, Middle Eastern cuisine was often dismissed as unrefined, predictable, unimaginative. It was largely unknown, a mystery, an embarrassment even – like a gnarled sheep’s tooth hidden away in an old wooden cabinet in the corner.
Never Mind The Böreks is about my journey to discover the food of the Middle East. It’s about my travels through the region, and all the things I eat, from celeb chef chow in Dubai, to falafel on the street in Amman – everything, in fact, including and beyond the börek.
But it’s also about the people I meet along the way. The people and personalities behind the food in a region that’s always fascinating, frequently misunderstood, often beguiling and usually full of surprises.