We served ourselves a generous helping of hummus with whole chickpeas lightly garnished with red chili powder, and moved into unfamiliar territory with the vermillion hued muhammara, the eggplant-infused mutabbal and the yoghurt-based labneh sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. With a few olives and falafels on the side, our plates looked like a slice of rainbow. Then we headed to our seats to dig into, what we believed, is the first course at the ongoing Arabic Food Festival at JW Marriott.
I can eat hummus all day but this one tasted nothing like what we are familiar with. “Hummus is one of the oldest Levantine recipes. It is simply a blend of chickpeas, tahina, salt and acid – lemon juice or lemon salt. Lemon salt is derived from dried lemon coated with salt and then grounded to form a coarse powder,” shared Chef Mohannad Alshamali who carefully crafted the menu for the much-appreciated Arabic food festival. As the Head Chef of Qbara in Dubai, which has been listed as one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, Alshamali advocates preserving authentic recipes. Devoid of garlic, this particular version of hummus is definitely an acquired taste.
The cuisine from Syria is one of the oldest in the world and the muhammara originated in Aleppo. Red peppers and walnuts are the two main ingredients; soaked in olive oil and history, we discovered this rich and mouthwatering dip. The smokey taste of the mutabbol is derived from grilled eggplant. Mixed with tahina and flavoured with garlic, it seemed like a close cousin of baba ganoush. Nothing could have paired better with the chunky falafels and if main course was not part of the review, we would have definitely had our fill with this combination.
We were told to not miss the grilled items seasoned with rare Middle Eastern spices. So, we had a go at the grilled marinated poussian sumac onion with dried yoghurt - a signature dish at Qbara. Poussin (young chicken) is coated with a tarty spice called sumac and then grilled till tender. The meat retained its original flavour with just a hint of sumac, indicating that spices do not overpower the authentic taste of meat in Arabic cuisine. The grilled fish, however, is not recommended because we were left with a stale aftertaste, which reaffirmed our belief that seafood at a five-star food institution is no match for the fresh finds at a local Malwani or Goan restaurant.
The entire buffet seemed like a small Middle-Eastern island for intriguing culinary discoveries. Case in point, Freekeh with chicken which was part of the main course. Freekeh is one of the most popular grains in that region and it is the Indian equivalent of rice. A type of wheat that’s harvested before it is fully ripe and then roasted to give it a nutty flavour. This was cooked with chicken, seasoned with spices and garnished with almond slivers. It was a pity that we weren’t hungry enough for seconds.
While we were silently complaining of feeling too full, Chef Alshamali convinced us that the Shawarma is a must-try. Travelling to the Middle-east is not on the charts and whole fruits were inserted atop the chicken slices in the Shawarma skewer which piqued our curiosity. So, we quickly found ourselves slathering tahina and garlic sauce on warm pita and stuffing it with shredded chicken. The fruits – apple and orange – had imbued the meat with their flavours and it was pure magic.
Dessert came calling with the Egyptian bread pudding Umm Ali and walnut baklavas spiced with cinnamon, which we later found can trace its roots to Syria. As we lifted the lid off the Umm Ali vessel, an aromatic rose flavour lured us in for a big helping. A spoonful of warm, thick, milky goodness with goey bread pieces and nuts took us straight home – hallmarks of a winning pudding.
The Arabic food festival at the JW Marriott Juhu is on till April 30, 2017
Prices: INR 2900 all inclusive (veg and non-veg)
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