In many ways, the Middle East might just be the polar opposite of Canada.
Canada is known for its frigid temperatures in the winter months, while most of the Middle East is swelteringly hot year-round.
The Middle East is an area steeped in rich tradition and history. Canada has long suffered from an identity crisis, brought on by the historically conflicting French and English Canadian customs, as well as the challenges of being the one of the most multicultural countries in the world.
But we both love good, hearty food.
For many Canadians, the phrase “Middle Eastern food” might conjure up mental pictures of fragrant, unbearably spicy food made using unfamiliar ingredients.
In reality, the cuisine of countries like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon can be made with varying levels of spice, and tastes similar to Greek or Mediterranean food.
Regrettably, until I began researching this story, I was not familiar with this type of food beyond the standard chicken shawarma or the fun-to-pronounce baba ganoush spread.
I decided to make (and perfect) a Middle Eastern meal with an appetizer, a main, and a beverage accompaniment.
To find recipes, I did what any millennial would do: searched the internet.
After some searching, I found a recipe for shish tawook (barbequed chicken shish kababs) and muhammara (a roasted red pepper dip served with pita bread). Perfect.
I didn’t want to copy someone else’s recipe, so I used several recipes to create a general guide on cooking the dishes, leaving the quantities of ingredients up to my tastes.
However, I found was most Middle Eastern food involved the use of hard-to-find ingredients. Luckily I live in the GTA, which has lots of stores and markets for international foods and ingredients.
The shish tawook doesn’t require anything you can’t find at your favourite supermarket, so don’t worry about having to hunt for anything exotic. On the other hand, the muhammara requires some spices that Canadians might be unfamiliar with. (Don’t sweat it if you can’t find them though, I found common substitutes that do a pretty good job or replicating the flavour. More on that later.)
After I had thoroughly prepared myself for venturing into unknown culinary territory (and warned my girlfriend that I would be commandeering the kitchen for several hours), I took a trip to my local Middle Eastern supermarket.
I went to Habib Meat and Mart, located on Simcoe Street North, just a short bus ride from DC. The selection at this store was great; I even picked up some items to try that went beyond what I was cooking. (Sidenote: Arabic Pepsi is really good and doesn’t taste like the ultra-sugary stuff we get here.)
Next, I hunkered down in my tiny kitchen to begin experimenting. It’s important to note that I began prepping the shish tawook the day before I wanted to eat it, as the meat requires a minimum of 8 hours in the fridge to marinade.
To start, take two large boneless chicken breasts and cut them into one or two inch chunks. Mine were nowhere near uniform, but it doesn’t matter much in the end.
Then set these aside and prepare the marinade. On my first batch I used plain (unsweetened) yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, and a hint of tomato paste for the base. Then I mixed in some spices including garlic powder, ginger and cardamom.
I found it to be lacking in spice and acidity, so on my second batch I used double the tomato paste and cranked up the spice level.
I placed the chicken in the fridge overnight, and let the yogurt tenderize the meat.
The next day I began by preparing the dip. I started by roasting the red sweet peppers.
My first method was to use the broiler set on low, which resulted in unevenly cooked peppers. Ultimately, I found that baking the peppers at a high temperature (I used 400 degrees F) for about 30 minutes worked better, and left less of a charred taste behind.
While the peppers steamed, I toasted the walnuts and measured out my other ingredients. Once they were cool to the touch, I skinned the blackened pepper halves, and tossed everything into a food processor, slowly pouring in olive oil as my Cuisinart worked its magic.
In the end, I had two versions of the dip—a fairly chunky dip with the baked peppers, and a smoother version with the broiled peppers. The two dips yielded very different flavours, with the chunky dip being the clear winner. It had a rich taste and a crunchy texture, similar to a chunky peanut butter or thick hummus.
For the shish tawook, I began by slicing some bell peppers (I used orange, but feel free to use whichever colour you prefer) and a large onion. Then I assembled the kababs in a pepper-onion-chicken pattern, using wooden sticks (who has the money for those fancy-schmancy metal ones anyway?)
Like many college students, I live in an apartment where using a gas or charcoal grill is forbidden by the law of the land, so I decided to bake the kebabs instead. I put them in a foil-lined baking tray and cooked them at 375°F for 35 minutes.
The result was wonderfully tender, juicy chicken. If there were bones, the chicken would have fallen right off. The two marinades tasted indiscernible after cooking, which was fine, because they both had a creamy, slightly spicy taste.
I served the kebabs over rice, seasoned with turmeric (a common Middle Eastern spice). On the side, I mixed together a delicious, citrus-y cocktail with some Arabic flair.
I used arak as the alcoholic base, which is a anise seed liquor produced in Lebanon. You may think arak would be another hard-to-find ingredient, but nothing could be further from the truth. One quick search on the LCBO’s website shows that arak is offered at nearly every liquor store across the province.
The brand I used was Al Shallal, an import brand which ended up being fairly inexpensive at around $26 per bottle. On its own, it has a strong licorice flavor, with some lingering sweetness akin to tasting a spoonful of honey.
To cut the punch of the arak, I mixed a cocktail which consisted of one part arak to three parts ruby red grapefruit juice. The tartness of the grapefruit was perfect to contain the runaway sweetness of the arak. (Careful with this drink though, arak is quite strong, coming in at about 50 per cent alcohol content.)
If you want to replicate my version of Middle Eastern street food, check out the recipe below!
Prep time: 8 hours – 24 hours (depending on how tender you like it)
Serves: 4 people (or 2 really hungry people)
- 2 or 3 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (about 1kg)
- ½ cup plain yogurt (use 2 per cent for a creamier flavour)
- ¼ cup lemon juice (or the juice of 1 whole fresh lemon)
- 1 tbsp. garlic powder (or use two cloves of fresh garlic)
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. dried red chili flakes
- ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp. ground ginger
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ¼ tsp. cardamom
- Salt to taste
- One or two whole bell peppers (any colour)
- One whole onion (preferably white)
- Olive oil (use as much or as little as you like)
- Parsley (optional)
- Cut chicken breasts into approx. 2 inch chunks, set aside.
- Mix together the yogurt, tomato paste, lemon juice, spices and olive oil in a small container until smooth.
- Place the chicken and marinade in a bag, making sure the chicken is coated. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours.
- Preheat oven to 375°
- Chop bell peppers and onion into rough chunks, remove chicken from fridge. Assemble kebabs on wooden (or metal if you’re fancy) skewers.
- Place in a lightly greased baking tray, and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until chicken is fully cooked and no longer pink.
- Serve over rice, salad or pita, garnish with parsley and/or hot sauce (siracha seems to taste best).
Prep time: <1 hour
Serves: 4 people
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 cloves garlic
- ½ cup walnuts (whole or halved)
- 1 tsp. pomegranate molasses (if you can’t find this, just use equal parts honey and balsamic)
- ½ tsp. ground cumin
- 1/3 tsp. paprika
- ½ tsp. dried chili flakes
- 1 tsp. dried cayenne pepper (or less if you’re not about spicy food)
- Lemon juice to taste
- Sea salt to taste (or try onion salt instead)
- Sprinkle of olive oil
- Preheat oven to 400°
- Slice red peppers in half through the stem. Use a small knife to remove stem, seeds and whitish pith.
- Place red peppers, skin side up in preheated oven on a baking sheet. Bake for around 30 minutes, or until peppers look wrinkled and blackened.
- Place walnuts on a separate baking sheet, leaving some room between nuts. Bake for about 3-4 minutes, or until nuts become fragrant and colour darkens.
- Place roasted peppers in a plastic bag, or cover with foil to steam. After 10-20 minutes peel skin off peppers using clean hands.
- Place all ingredients in a food processor, slowly adding the olive oil. Process until dip reaches the desired consistency.
- Serve warm with pita bread or lettuce leaves (try toasting the pita bread for an added crunch!)
‘Arak’-tail (get it?):
Prep time: 5 minutes
Serves: 1 person (unless you’re sharing!)
- One part arak
- Three parts grapefruit juice (or try cranberry for a twist)
- Lemon wedge for garnish
- Fresh mint for garnish
- Sea salt (optional)
- (Optional) Coat the rim of the glass with sea salt.
- Mix together arak and juice in a tall glass (I used a Collins glass, but use whatever you like), stir with ice.
- Add lemon wedge or two, and some sprigs of fresh mint.
- Give your car keys to someone sober and responsible. Then, enjoy!