Arabian food like you’ve never seen it
ANOTHER indicator that Dubai is the centre for a renaissance in the Middle East: new Arabian cuisine.
If you’re wondering whether that means Arabic mezzeh you can eat with a knife and fork, you’re close – but not very. Over at the shiny emirate’s JW Marriott Hotel, executive chef Ingo Maß‚ has spent more than a decade refining and elevating the traditional home-cooked chick-pea and aubergine pastes into something far superior: what Maß‚ calls a new haute cuisine, what is best explained as Escoffier meets your neighbourhood kebab joint.
“What we’ve really done is taken Arabic food and refined it. People now eat with their eyes, so we’ve tried to cater to that,” he says when I say that Arabic food, in the public mind, is rather, well, basic. “Historically, other cuisines travelled exactly the same route: someone said, ‘can we improve the presentation?’. A lot of French haute cuisine came from traditional food, some new ingredients were mixed in, cooking processes and serving methods refined. It’s the same with Arabic food, which really has been rather neglected.”
German national Maß‚ and his team – Frenchman Christian Jean, Egyptian Amgad Zaki and Syrian Khalil Zakhem – came at the food in two ways.
The first involved leaving traditional Arabian dishes virtually unchanged, yet presenting them in a novel way, with great refinement in combination with other traditional dishes, traditional ingredients that are not usually combined with one another in Arabian cuisine, such as labneh (yoghurt cheese) and tabbouleh (a salad of parsley, tomato, onion and cracked wheat). The second approach seeks to give European dishes unmistakable Arabian refinements, using ingredients such as dried lemons from Morocco, cumin, the seven spices and so on, as a result of which entirely new nuances of flavour have emerged.
Asian food went down the same route about 15 years ago, but while that trend yielded its sensory – albeit intriguing – successes, it also spawned what popularly came to be called ‘fusion confusion’.
Says Maß‚ “It’s very easy to spend two weeks in Thailand and come back a fusion specialist, but we’ve only worked with dishes and cuisines that we know: from Bahrain, Dubai, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Syria. So if there’s nothing from one of the other countries, well, we haven’t got there yet.”
While some restaurants in Dubai already serve an Arabised European food, such as steak tartare flavoured with Arabian spices, these tend to leave the gourmand feeling distinctly unpleasant, but Maß‚ and his team manage to refine the traditional while engaging and amusing the palate.
All the food is Halal, given its origins, and none of it is cooked with alcohol. “European cuisine needed alcohol to provide sweet or sour flavours, but we’re lucky enough to be able to use fresh fruit. There are also some excellent vinegars now that are comparable to fine wines, so we don’t have to use alcohol,” says Maß, who nevertheless says diners seeking accompaniments to his food would do well to choose crisp whites or heavy-bodied reds to harmonise with the spices.
The process has yielded the New Arabian Cuisine cookbook, co-authored by Lutz Jäkel and published in both German and English and unveiled at the Frankfurt Book Fair last month. A year in the writing, it will retail across at a price of Dh195 ($53), and will be available on amazon.de.
While not being served in restaurants yet, the cuisine will be made available to banquets and at the chef’s table at the hotel. “Half our revenue at the hotel comes from F&B, so supporting new culinary developments synergises with our strategy and the new Arabian cuisine sets our banqueting division apart,” says the hotel’s Sharon Marrett, who says market response has been ‘phenomenal’.
In celebration of 50 years of Lufthansa routes to the Middle East, the new cuisine will be served in first and business class on all the airline’s incoming routes to the region in November and December. “Lufthansa has a policy of innovation, so we’re certainly very pleased to be offering the new Arabian dishes, down to the olive bread,” says the airline’s Thomas Preinl. “About 30 dishes have made their way onto our menus, but obviously we can’t do the freshly grilled food.”
When he’s not developing new cuisines, then, Chef Ingo manages 40,000 covers a month in 11 F&B outlets, leading 120 staff.