Cooking around the eastern shores of the mediterranean, from north Africa, Egypt, Israel, Turkey and around to Greece is inter-related, and generally referred to as from the middle east, although to simplify it with a single name is to decry the vast range of this cuisine from the cradle of western civisilation.
As always, the best way to experience any cuisine is to eat it where it comes from, and again if you are not in the fortunate position of actually staying with some of the locals, then keep your eyes open and try the establishments where they eat. Frequently these can be unprepossessing from the outside and lit by fluorescent lighting on the inside, and yet Scrote has some of the best meals he has ever eaten in small places in back streets, full of quiet soberly-dressed families.
Courtesy, making an effort with the language however small and taking time to ask advice will also get you further- if you've taken the trouble to find them the locals are likely to be proud of their cuisine and tell you about the house specialities. Scrote cannot even begin to describe it adequately, but here are some of the dishes he still cooks himself when he gets home.
last updated 26th June 2001
Dolmades are tedious to prepare, but make unusual and interesting fingerfood at summer parties. In Turkey and Greece they are served as mezze, starter snacks. These ones are little packets of food wrapped in vine leaves, traditionally a rice filling, and they look like short, fat, green sausages. It helps greatly in the making of them if you have a grape vine in your garden, even if it bears no grapes. You can buy vine leaves in brine in packets, but it is hard to get rid of the salt from the brine, and packet leaves are messy and difficult to handle.
To make the rice filling: Soak about a cup of rice in warm water for 10 - 15 minutes and drain. Chop a large onion and soften in some olive oil in a pan. Add a big handful of pine nuts and the rice and cook for another 5 minutes. Add a big handful of currants, some salt and a cup of water, cover and simmer very gently so the water is absorbed and the rice is partly cooked. Spice the mixture generously with cinnamon, allspice, mint and dill.
For the dolmades, take about 20 large, unblemished vine leaves and trim off the stalks. Line a pan with broken vine leaves. On a large leaf, vein side up, place a spoonful of the filling at the base of the leaf. Fold over the sides and roll it up, then place it in the pan with the end of the leaf underneath, so that it does not unroll. Repeat with the remaining leaves until all the stuffing is used up, laying the dolmades side by side so they are packed together and can't unroll. Pour over some water, so they are partly covered and add some tomato if liked to colour the water. Cover the pan and simmer very gently over a low heat for about an hour until the vine leaves are tender. The dolmades should absorb the liquid and swell somewhat during the cooking and become taut. Serve cold, with some wedges of lemon.
Most people seem to pronounce this with the accent on the second syllable and a sibilant 's'- mou-saaka, but Greek (which is also a language with accented syllables like English) stresses the last syllable, and Scrote believes it is properly pronounced mooz-aka. The Greeks like their food luke-warm, in fact they deliberately let hot food cool before serving. When Scrote was in Greece, the owner of the kafeneion where Scrote was having a breakfast coffee one morning was making the moussaka for that evening, so it must have been cooked for a very long time. A moussaka consists of layers of sliced vegetables with a meat sauce and a cheese sauce over it, but there are some differences.
First of all make the meat sauce. Greeks don't use beef a lot, and moussaka should be made with minced lamb. Start by colouring about a pound of minced lamb in a little olive oil in a pan. Meanwhile peel and chop several cloves of garlic and an onion and add them to the mixture. Add a can of tinned tomatoes, chopped and some tomato puree as well. The kafeneion used a tinned liquid puree like pasata. Season the meat sauce with salt and pepper and sprinkle with rigani, the wild oregano in Greece. Add half a glass of white wine and adjust the liquid content with water. Cook the meat sauce for about 45 minutes.
Grease the base of a baking dish with a little olive oil and put in a splash of the meat sauce. Cover the bottom of the dish with a layer of sliced aubergine and another splash of sauce, then a layer of courgette slices, cut lengthways, more meat sauce, a layer of sliced potatoes. more sauce and so on till the baking dish is about two thirds full. It is not a bad idea to start the moussaka cooking in a low oven for an hour while you make the cheese sauce as the vegetables take quite a while to cook, whereas the sauce shrivels up all too easily.
Meanwhile make the cheese sauce. Start with a standard Bechamel sauce of a couple of ounces of butter melted in a pan, a dessertspoonful or so of plain flour mixed in and then about half a pint of milk added slowly over a gentle heat with lots of stirring to ensure no lumps remain. When you have the basic thickened white sauce, season it with some salt and pepper and put in a bayleaf to infuse it. Remove the sauce from the heat and add several ounces of grated cheese and stir the cheese in so it melts. Now break an egg into the sauce and mix it in- this will cause the sauce to set later in the cooking. Pour the sauce over the vegetable and meat bake and return it to the oven. Cook it for a further hour or so in a very gentle oven, then slice it it into squares and serve it like thick wodges of cake.
A Greek Salad (literally village salad) is liable to be a moveable feast since islands sometimes run out of one ingredient or other. As served on the island of Paros it consisted of shredded Kos lettuce, chunks of peeled cucumber, chunks of solid red tomato and slices of sweet onion. (In greece cucumber is peeled, since the skins can be hard and knobbly.) The salad may also include a few black olives, preferably stoned if you don't want to break your teeth.
A big square slice of Feta cheese is put (or crumbled in some cases) on top and then sprinkled with dried herbs (mint, rigani, basil). Green olive oil is dribbled over the top of the cheese. Feta is a crumbly white greek cheese which has a clean 'bite' and is salty because it is stored in brine. The salad is very simple and absolutely delicious.
Souvlakia are (or were) small kebabs, which were sold surprsingly cheaply by street vendors in Greece. They are made from little pieces of meat which have been marinated for several hours in olive oil, lemon juice & rigani, then threaded on wooden skewers. Scrote thinks it is best to use a good cut of lamb for the meat- shoulder will do but the upper leg is best. When Scrote first ate them, souvlakia were grilled on a hot metal plate (a cast-iron pan will do very well) so that they are charred on both sides but pink and tender inside. They are served with a piece of bread, and are in Scrote's opinion delicious. Nowadays souvlakia can also be found in restaurants, much bigger and more often made of chicken, pork or veal.
You need a pound or two of lamb- bone it out carefully, dissecting out any gristle & sinews and discarding major bits of fat. You want the best, tenderest meat, and the care you take at this stage will be repaid later. Cut the meat into small cubes and put in a bowl with several tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of a lemon and a good sprinkling of rigani. Cover and leave to marinate for at least two hours in the fridge.
Remove from the fridge and thread the bits of meat onto bamboo skewers, returning the prepared kebabs to a shallow dish because they drip. Put the prepared kebabs back in the fridge until you are ready to cook them. This is a fast and furious operation, with plenty of spitting and smoke that covers the vicinity with a haze of fat. Get your wide cast-iron frying pan fairly hot and press two or three souvlakia into it, so that they spit and sizzle. Keep the heat up and after 2 or 3 minutes, turn the souvlakia over and do the other side. The idea is that they should be well seared and brown on the outside, but pink, rare, succulent and tender on the inside.
This is deliberate- they are meant to be pink in the middle, they should not be cooked grey all the way through, and over-cooking them ruins the taste. Scrote knows some people are fastidious about eating meat they regard as undercooked, but lamb and beef are quite safe rare. He says if you are one of them then you should either learn to appreciate good food and cook these pink or don't bother cooking this sort of food at all.
Literally, Spanakopitta is a spinach pie, about the size of a flan. The small spinach pasties here, made with a spinach and feta cheese filling in filo pastry, should probably really be called spanakotiropitakia. However they are referred to as Spanakopittes in greek bakeries and we shall do likewise.
Although you could make the pastry yourself it is probably easier to use shop-bought Filo pastry. Filo (or Phyllo) is sold in sheets which are rolled up and frozen. It dries rapidly when in the open and cracks so keep the unused pastry covered and open it only when you are ready to use a sheet- it is quite difficult to handle. Filo is brushed with oil and wrapped around the filling like a parcel and then baked in the oven. A slightly easier way is to use puff pastry (which can also be bought frozen) rolled out thin and then folded over the filling to make a pasty and again baked.
To make the filling, take about a pound of spinach leaves and pick them over, ripping out stalks and discarding any leaves that are yellowed. Wash the leaves in cold water thoroughly to get rid of any mud and grit, and shake out the excess water. Heat a big pan very gently and put a little oil in it. Put in the heap of spinach leaves and heat them gently. As the heat reaches them they will suddenly wilt to a fraction of their size. Drain and squeeze the excess liquid from the spinach, chop them roughly and put in a bowl. Mix in about half a pound of feta cheese, crumbled. Add a handful of pine-kernels if liked and break in an egg. Season with some salt & pepper and grate over some nutmeg. Mix up the mixture well.
If using puff pastry, defrost a slab and cut it into 3 or 6 equal pieces depending on the size of the pasty you intend to make. Take a piece and roll it out very thin on a floured board, to about the size of a dinner plate, or a side plate if making small pasties. Put a dollop of filling onto half the pastry, moisten the edges, fold over the other half and crimp the edges together. Pierce the top in several places to let steam escape. Repeat for the remaining pieces of pastry. Arrange your pasties on a lightly greased baking tray and bake in a medium hot oven for about 40 minutes. Eat hot or cold.
Stifados literally means with onions, and is another Scrotey old favourite from way back. It is not very cheap since its main ingredient is meat, but the cut of meat is cheap and tough- Scrote usually uses shin of beef. Most real meat is in fact not very tender and can't be treated to a quick flash in the pan. Real animals tend to have spent distressingly active lives and to have become uncompromisingly tough. This recipe takes an unpromising cut of meat and makes it delicious.
Take a pound of Shin of Beef (or leg of mutton, if you can get it) and chop it into cubes. Marinate the meat in a bowl in several tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of a whole lemon, a good sprinkling of rigani, a big spoonful of tomato puree, and a two cloves of garlic, smashed. Marinate for at least 4 hours and preferably over-night in the fridge. When the meat has marinated, chop a small onion. You are going to casserole this very slowly in a pan on top of the stove, so heat a good pan & colour the meat well in it. Add the chopped onion and colour that as well. Add the remainder of the marinade, and add half a glass of wine or adjust the liquid with water. Do not make it too wet, since traditionally this is stewed until it is almost dry. Cover and simmer very, very slowly for two hours until the meat is very tender, stirring occasionally and checking the liquid level.
The result is a strong, thick, tomato and beef stew with the characteristic Greek lemon and rigani flavouring deep in the meat. Serve with rice or potatoes, and a green salad on the side- this is a summer dish.
Scrote hasn't entirely worked out how the Greeks do this since Scrote's own efforts tend to come out much more watery that the authentic versions. Tsatziki is a salad made of thick greek yoghurt and a flavouring ingredient. There are several varieties- cucumber or aubergine, but the classic tsatziki is garlic & yoghurt. Tsatziki is cousin to the Indian raitas.
For a garlic tsatziki, chop and crush a clove of garlic and mix it with about half a pint of thick, sieved Greek yoghurt. Dried mint is sometimes added as a flavouring. Cucumber tsatziki is made by grating half a cucmber and mixing it with the thick Greek yoghurt. Scrote hasn't worked out how to make the aubergine variety (Melitzana Salata) since aubergine is tough raw and discolours rapidly when cut, but in Greece this salad is delicious.
Tyropitta means cheese pasties, from the greek tyra, cheese. They are like spanakapitta (spinach pasties) and are probably meant to be made with filo pastry, which is sold ready made in sheets.
The cheese filling is made by mixing crumbled feta cheese, cream cheese or greek white cheese if you can get it, and a raw egg together in a bowl.
Take a sheet of filo pastry and cut it lengthways into strips about 3 inches wide. Put a dollop of filling on one end of a strip and roll it up, tucking in the ends to make a sort of packet, a bit like a cheese sauage roll. Brush enthusiastically with melted butter, tuck the ends underneath and put on a baking tray. Repeat until the filling is used up and bake in a moderate oven for about 30 to 40 minutes, until they are crisp, golden and slightly oozing.
Boreki are little filled savoury pastries, made with a variety of fillings using filo (also spelt phyllo) pastry sheets. The cheese filling is made by mixing turkish white cheese (or feta will do), turkish kasar (or parmesan will do), and a raw egg. Season with parsley and dill. Other fillings for boreki include spinach or minced meat with onion and tomato.
Take a sheet of filo pastry and cut it lengthways into strips about 3 inches wide. Put a dollop of filling on one end of a strip and roll it up. You can do it as a little square packet, or as a triangular fold. The idea is end up with a pretily shaped packet with the ends tucked neatly inside. Brush enthusiastically with melted butter, make sure the last end is tucked underneath and put on a baking tray. Repeat until the filling is used up and bake in a moderate oven for about 30 to 40 minutes, until they are crisp, golden.
Caçik is the turkish cucumber and yoghurt salad, except the Turks make it with garlic as well. Smash and chop a clove of garlic. Take a tub of thick natural yoghurt and combine it with an equal quantity of finely diced cucmber, and the garlic. Season with lots of fresh mint and dill, trickle olive oil over the top and refrigerate before serving.
Circassian chicken is a famous dish, at least in Turkey. It is a salad of cold cooked chicken shredded or cut into fine strips, in a walnut sauce dressing. The basic idea is along the same lines as Coronation Chicken but the end result is a lot more subtle.
For a goodly amount, you need a small, freshly cooked chicken, and preferably some of the broth that the chicken was cooked in. Dismember the chicken and finely chop or shred the chicken meat. Set the chicken meat aside and keep cool in the refrigerator.For the walnut sauce dressing, take a cup of shelled, broken walnuts and grind them (in your pestle and mortar, or whatever). Take a slice of stale white bread, soak in water, squeeze dry and grind that in too. Finely chop, smash or grate a clove of garlic and half a small onion, and grind that in. Add some of the chicken broth (or another liquid such as yoghurt) until a creamy consistency is obtained. Putting it through a liquidiser if you have one helps immensely. Mix most of the sauce dressing with the chicken and pour the rest over. Dribble olive oil over the top with a little paprika for colour. Keep the salad cool and serve cold.
Kemal Attaturk, 'father of the turks', forcibly converted the turkish language to a western alphabet and added several extra letters which cannot easily be produced here. Çop Sis has a cedilla on the both the 'S' as well as the 'C', so it is pronounced 'chirp shish', which literally means rubbish or oddbits kebab. These are skewered kebabs made from smaller 'leftover' pieces of meat, like the Greek souvlakia, but made in the same way as turkish Sis kebabs. Sis are generally made with lamb- the top end of the leg is best, cut into cubes.
The marinade is made from mustard, yoghurt, thyme, tomato, minced onion and olive oil. Allow the meat to marinate in the mixture for several hours, then thread onto small skewers. Grill over a wood fire on the skewers.
Pilaf, and pilau are found all over the middle East- from North Africa to Persia and as far as India- a pilaf is a cousin to a risotto, but in Turkey not a meal in itself, merely a jazzed up version of plain rice. Like risotto it is a whole family of dishes, of which two are-
1. domatesli pilaf (tomato & butter);
Take about two coffe cupfuls of plain rice and rinse thoroughly in hot water. Put about two cupfuls of tomato juice and a big spoonful of butter in a pan and heat so the butter melts. Add the rice (and salt if needed), bring to the boil, cover and simmer very gently for about 20 minutes until the rice is cooked and the liquid is absorbed, checking the liquid content occasionally.
2. iç pilav (pine nuts, currants, chicken stock)
There are two 'i's in the turkish alphabet. The 'i' in iç has no '·' and is pronounced 'uh', as in 'utch').
Wash two coffe cups of rice in hot water. Melt a big spoonful of butter in a pan and gently fry a chopped onion. Add a handful of pine-nuts. Add a big handful of currants. Add 3 cups of chicken stock and water. Season with salt and allspice. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer very gently for about 20 minutes until the rice is cooked and the liquid is absorbed, checking the liquid content occasionally.
Both 's' in the word Sis have a cedilla, and are pronounced 'sh', so sis is pronounced 'Shish'.
Sis are generally made with lamb- use best end of leg, cut into cubes. The marinade is made from mustard, yoghurt, thyme, tomato, minced onion and olive oil. Allow the meat to marinate in the mixture for several hours, then thread onto long skewers. Grill over a wood fire on the skewers.
There is an art to grilling outdoors- the fire needs to be just right. Start your fire at least an hour before you are going to want it, have plenty of real wood from trees, preferably pine or charcoal will do (but no old furniture or anything like that), and don't use firelighters unless you like food which tastes of paraffin. Start the fire in plenty of time and aim to get it going steadily, not fiercely, so that you get a deep bed of coals. Let the fire die down about half an hour before you want to cook. There should be no smoke and no flame. Put the meat higher than you think you want- the fire is a lot hotter than it looks. During the cooking the fire will probably be largely fuelled by the fat dripping into it. You can throw herbs on the fire while grilling if you know the whereabouts of some bushes of the stuff- rosemary and bay especially smell heavenly. The meat comes from the grill well cooked, on the outside, but succulent pink and rare inside- it is meant to be like that, do not try to cook the meat through as this makes it tough, and largely tasteless.
see also Çop Sis above.
This isn't, as far as Scrote knows, a classic recipe but it works well and Scrote tends to cook these alongside meat kebabs or sometimes just on their own. The idea is to make a skewerful of grilled vegetables, and the important thing is to choose vegetables which don't mind mind being charred on the outside and undercooked in the middle, to cut them approximately the same size, and to ensure they don't fall through the skewer during the cooking. You need an aubergine, some courgettes, a dozen medium-sized white closed mushrooms, some cherry tomatoes or plum tomatoes, a couple of green or red peppers and some small onions.
Dice the aubergine into cubes of about an inch, and cut the courgettes into inch lengths, halving them if the courgette is too fat. Put them into a bowl and sprinkle them with salt, then leave them to sweat out some of their juices for about half an hour or so. Meanwhile prepare the other vegetables into similar sized chunks. trim the small closed mushrooms but leave them whole, halve the cherry tomatoes or cut some plum tomatoes into quadrants, core the peppers and cut into inch squares, and peel some shallots or cut a larger onion into quadrants.
Prepare a suitable marinade, usually several tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of a lemon, origano or other herbs, pepper and so on according to your fancy in a big bowl, then wash and dry the aubergine and courgette and tip all the prepared vegetables into the marinade. Cover the bowl, place it in the fridge, and leave the vegetables to soak up the marinade for an hour or more. Now bring out the marinaded vegetables and your skewers (wooden ones do equally well for this if you fill them) and spear the vegetables, each one in turn, onto each skewer until the skewer is full. Pack them fairly tightly together and fill the skewer from end to end.
This is best done over a flat bowl, as it is an oily business and they drip. Pile the skewers in your flat bowl as you complete them, and when you have finished, cover the bowl and return it to the fridge until you need them. Grill them slowly in batches at the edge of the grill where it is not too hot. Keep an eye on them and turn them steadily to ensure they get cooked on all sides evenly. Serve hot, with Pitta bread and a salad and eat immediately.
Felafel are little cakes made of ground chickpeas, highly-seasoned and deep-fried. The recipe Scrote has for felafel says they are also made in Egypt with dried white broad beans, soaked for 24 hours, skinned and ground while raw. The Israeli recipe uses chickpeas, soaked and then also ground raw.
Felafel are delicious snacks, but hard work to make and can be somewhat indigestible if not properly cooked. Scrote's digestion isn't what it once was and he has tried cooking the chickpeas beforehand and then grinding them to paste. Unfortunately, whatever it is that holds Felafel together disappears when the chickpeas are cooked first- Felafel made from cooked chickpeas just disintegrate. For the moment he gives the recipe here as it was given him.
Soak a cupful of chickpeas for 24 hours in cold water. Put them through a mincer twice and pound them with a pestle and mortar or otherwise grind them to a smooth paste as fine as possible. Finely chop an onion and a clove of garlic and mix them in. Add a big bunch of finely chopped parsley, a teaspoonful of ground cumin, a teaspoonful of ground coriander, and a pinch of baking powder. Let the paste rest for half an hour.
Form the paste into walnut-sized lumps and flatten them slightly. Deep fry them slowly, in only moderately hot oil for about 10 minutes. Do not rely too much on the appearance of the outside to judge whether they are cooked, which more reflects the temperature of the oil. Turn down the heat if they go too brown. Serve hot, with salad, as a snack.
Kofta are meatballs. In general in the middle east, meat means lamb normally, not beef. Kofta may be round or elongated, deep fried or grilled, and as meat is often tough, simmered in a tomato sauce after frying to ensure they are tender and soft.
You need about a pound of minced lamb, an onion grated, a couple of slices of stale white bread crumbled and two fresh eggs. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, and if possible grind the mixture to a paste. Season with salt and pepper and about half a teaspoon of ground coriander and cumin, or cinnamon, or allspice. Deep fry spoonfuls gently in in hot oil for about 5 - 10 minutes until brown and cooked, or make into sausage shapes, thread on little skewers and grill over a wood fire or under the grill. Serve hot with a tomato sauce, or cold as a snack- both are delicious.
The cumin is very characteristic of middle eastern cookery, and keeps its flavour better if bought as cumin seeds- you can grind it easily yourself in a pestle & mortar or a pepper-grinder when you need it.
Burghul or Bulgur is cracked, kibbled wheat and can be bought in foreign food shops. As well as a cupful or so of burghul, you need a lot of fresh parsley for this dish. Soak the burghul in water for half an hour so it swells up, then squeeze out the excess water. Add the juice of a lemon, finely chopped onion, olive oil and a cupful of finely chopped fresh parsley. Season with salt and pepper, mint, and a good pinch of cumin. Serve cold as a salad dish with others.
This is another old favourite of Scrote's, and makes an excellent and unusual creamy dip.
Soak a cupful of chickpeas (hummus) for at least 8 hours, then put them and their water in a pan. Bring them to the boil, skim of any foam, reduce to a gentle boil, cover and boil for 2 hours until soft. It is almost impossible to overcook chickpeas. Drain the chickpeas, reserving the liquor, & mash them- this is quite hard, and if you have a liquidiser put them through that, adding some of the reserved liquid.
Add a big tablespoon of Tahini (a thick paste of ground sesame seeds, with a texture like peanut butter), the juice of a whole lemon, some of the liquor and mix in. The sesame paste, although greyish in the jar, lightens the honey-yellow colour of the mashed chickpeas to a white-ish beige colour. It also has a strong drying effect, so the sauce thickens heavily- adjust the liquid content as you go with some of the reserved liquor until you get a smooth, thick creamy sauce. Grind a little cumin into the sauce and dribble olive oil over the top to garnish. Serve cold as a salad dish, or as a dip for pitta bread.
Stuffed Tomatoes; Stuffed Peppers- with either a meat or rice stuffing.
This is another easy favourite, that Scrote loves. There is a choice of filling (either is good). Delicately flavoured, succulent and versatile, you can also apply this to courgettes, aubergines, stuffed cabbage leaves & chard. This is ideal party food, because it can be prepared well in advance, baked slowly, served in the dish it is cooked in, tastes good hot or cold and it can be eaten with the fingers.
To make a rice filling: Soak about a cup of rice in warm water for 10 - 15 minutes and drain. Chop a large onion and soften in some olive oil in a pan. Add a big handful of pine nuts and the rice and cook for another 5 minutes. Add a big handful of currants, some salt and a cup of water, cover and simmer very gently so the water is absorbed and the rice is partly cooked. Spice the mixture generously with cinnamon, allspice, mint and dill.
To make a meat filling: mix together about 12 oz. of minced lamb, 2 onions (finely chopped), chopped parsley, chopped mint leaves, chopped dill and salt & pepper.
Take your tomatoes (big beefsteak tomatoes) or sweet peppers (or courgettes or aubergines) and core out the stalk. Cut off the top and keep as a lid. Core out the seeds and pith of the peppers and throw them away, but keep the pulp and seeds of the tomato and mix them into the filling. Pack the resulting cavity in the vegetables with the filling you have made. Put on the lids. Grease a baking dish with some olive oil and pack the vegetables tightly together so they can't fall over. Dribble over some more oil and some tomato pulp or liquid.
Bake in a slow oven for an hour or more until the rice or meat is done, and the filling has swelled & absorbed water from the vegetable. The trick is to judge the moisture content so that the filling does not swell so much that it splits the tomato or pepper, but everything is cooked and succulent. Serve in the dish, hot or cold.