Flavours of the Middle East
A camel prop stands outside the door invitingly, beckoning weary wanderers of the desert into the warmth of The Kitchen. Or at least that’s what you’d like to imagine when you’re entering the middle-eastern food festival at the Raintree Hotel in Anna Salai.
A perfect start to the meal, the Arabic Delight is a milk drink with a rich base of ground pistachios and a drizzle of date syrup. It is a good drink to sip every now and then between mouthfuls.
The food fest begins with the famous Falafel, made of ground chickpeas seasoned with herbs before it is deep-fried to crisp perfection. It is served with a variety of four colourful dips.
Then comes our favourite starter, the Cigara Burgei – a platter of petite spring rolls stuffed with melting Akawi cheese. This is followed by Beef Sapanakopita, a set of little triangular fried parcels stuffed with minced beef, the layers of pastry sheets lined with a hint of cheese.
The highlight of the starters was the Shish Taouk – a speciality that is going to be showcased on the last day. Skewered grilled chicken marinated with zeta spice, paprika, almond paste and parsley, these Kebabs are made differently. They are pounded and grilled, rather than minced and put in the tandoor.
If you’re up for soup, the Libyan lamb and Chickpeas Soup is a flavourful broth enhanced with minced lamb and the hearty flavour of ground chickpeas. But we would advise you to save up some space for the biryani that’s next on the menu.
The Mains of the Main Land
The Arabic Fish Biryani is a mildly spiced biryani that is made with long grain rice and tender chunks of subtly flavoured fish. We are told that the process of cooking Arabian biryani is a reversal of the Indian method. The meat is cooked first, the masalas are added and last comes the rice. The dish is garnished with pine nuts, which are more of a delicacy than almonds or pistachios. With the caramelized raisins and dates and fried onions, this will probably remind you of the Malabar Biryani.
If you are a fan of meatballs, you are in for a treat with the Ojja. Made by simmering mutton meatballs in a tangy tomato gravy and topping it off with a poached egg, this dish will fill you up, leaving no space for dessert.
An Arabian Dessert
The dessert counter is filled with Arabian delicacies like the Knafeh – which has very less sweetness and is slightly more on the savoury side. It has been borrowed from Greek cuisine, and is layered with ricotta, mozzarella, and sliced almonds. Finally, it is brushed with butter and loaded with roasted vermicelli and baked. Then there’s the well-known Baklava, layered with pistachios, and balanced in flavour and texture.
The Basbousa is a solid, very subtly flavoured dessert made of baked semolina, butter and milk powder. This tends to be a perfect choice for people who dislike overly sweet desserts.
And to end it, to add a creamy touch to the desserts and moisten the palate, comes the Mahalaba, a pudding of sorts made with thickened milk and usually flavoured with fruits or vanilla. Ours came with a distinct flavour of rose water, ending the meal on a very luxurious note.
Arabian food is popular in Chennai, and attenders of the Middle Eastern Food Festival were not disappointed. Says the Chef Shaktivel, ‘We have not adapted any of the flavours in order to popularize it. People enjoy the authenticity of Middle Eastern cuisine. Though it does not have the sharpness of Indian cooking, it tends to be very rich with nuts, dried fruits and herbs.’
The ‘Mystique of the Middle East’ Food Festival, originally ending on the 29th, has been extended by popular demand till the 31st of October.