From cookbooks to restaurants, Middle Eastern flavours are having a bit of a moment this summer. Cook Salma Hage tells The Resident about The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook while restaurant owner Faizan Iqbal describes opening up Jan on Northcote Road
Words: Sudi Pigott
Middle Eastern cuisine is the fashionable, healthy way to eat right now, in restaurants and at home. With a great sense of timing, this month sees two different generations bringing this vibrant cuisine to south west London. Septuagenarian Wimbledon-based cook Salma Hage publishes her second book, The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook. Meanwhile, twentysomething Faizan Iqbal launches his first venture, Jan on Northcote Road, with offerings based on his travels through Turkey and Iran. I met them both to find out what makes this region so enticing.
Hage is wonderfully engaging, lively and has the most captivating smile. With true Lebanese hospitality she presses me to try some spiced green beans and butter beans as I sip a cardamom coffee. Hage has spent over 50 years cooking for her family. Sitting in the sun-drenched kitchen of her Wimbledon home, she explains that she began cooking aged nine to help her mother bring up her nine brothers and two sisters in a village in the mountains of the Kadisha Valley in North Lebanon.
‘My father encouraged me to cook. I first made m’juderah, a dish of lentils cooked with rice and covered in fried onions. He said: “My darling, that’s delicious, you are such a lovely cook.” I believed him, and there began my love of cooking. After a lifetime I still love it. I enjoy feeding people and seeing them happy.’
What absolutely captures the taste of Lebanese food for Hage is seven spice seasoning made with allspice, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fenugreek and ginger. Cumin is her all time favourite spice, which she puts in everything.
Salma Hage, her husband Heni and son Joe first arrived in Wimbledon in 1967 in search of a better life. It was her son Joe who suggested that she write a cookbook and made contact with Phaidon for her first book, a bible of Lebanese cooking. Five years on, her second book is inspired by her grandson George and son Joe (who live next door) becoming vegetarians and in it she seeks to to re-invent traditional recipes. I especially like the hummus with ground almonds and avocado tahini dip, and Hage has now converted to cooking mainly with vegetables, pulses and grains.
Salma is fond of Cedar restaurant in Merton: ‘Their hummus, babaganoush and kebabs are as good as my own!’
One of the dishes and occasions Hage misses most from Lebanon (they still return yearly to the family home) is harisa – not be mistaken for Tunisian harissa hot chili paste – which is a celebratory barley dish eaten in her village on 7 August, St Dominic’s Day, made simply from pearl barley, cinnamon, chopped walnuts, caster sugar and pomegranate seeds. Hage is looking forward to stuffing her own vine with rice, lentils and herbs. Other summer treats include Lebanese iced tea with orange flower water, yoghurt and pomegranate lollies and pistachio meringues with rose cream.
For specialist ingredients, Hage recommends Ecklee in Worcester Park. She is fond too of Cedar restaurant in Merton: ‘Their hummus, babaganoush and kebabs are as good as my own!’
By contrast, 26-year-old Faizan Iqbal, who was born in Pakistan, is relatively new to the business – though equally passionate. After a Masters in management and a stint running a franchise restaurant business, he became fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and took an extended research trip to Turkey, Armenia, Iran and Georgia to discover its immense influence on cuisine. I love his story of the 15th century Sultans at Topkapi palace in Istanbul bringing in 100 handpicked chefs to experiment with all the new herbs, and his tales of spices arriving on the spice route to be presented at banquets.
My idea is to bring the flavours of the Ottoman with its focus on healthy eating to the Northcote Road. I want to bring the creativity of the West End to local dining
Jan, which is named after the Turkish/Farsi word for hospitable, will be Iqbal’s first solo venture. ‘My idea is to bring the flavours of the Ottoman with its focus on healthy eating to the Northcote Road,’ he explains with evident glee. Jan promises to be glamorous, with a touch of Ottolenghi about it. ‘I want to bring the creativity of the West End to local dining,’ affirms Iqbal.
A medieval-style charcoal and wood burning oven will be the centrepiece of the kitchen. Iqbal’s own favourite dish is a spatchcock chicken with a rosemary and cardamom broth. Highlights will include charred miso and tahini spiced cauliflower, sea bream with lemon, sumac chicken wings, harissa ice-cream with rose petals, lemon cake with poached nectarines, pistachios and vanilla salt.
There is a line-up of exceptional sounding cocktails such as vanilla vodka with Turkish honey, lemon, crushed nuts and basil, besides Jan’s own brew scented with coriander and ginger made by microbrewery Brew by Numbers in Bermondsey. Northcote Road is sure to be in for an exotic treat, and Iqbal’s excitement about this new adventure is infectious. Bring on the za’atar flatbread!