If you were to go on a search for the part of the world with the richest and most diverse history it would be difficult to go past the Middle East. There are few places in the world where the current civilizations can show records of cultural development dating back over 5000 years. Empires have risen and fallen, and with so many changes in dominant cultures over the millennia there were many influences from abroad that mingled with local food cultures to create what we now call Middle Eastern cuisine.
Middle Eastern cuisine is typified by the use of olives and olive oil, flat breads such as pita bread, and generous use of sesame seeds and oils. It would be rare indeed to enter a food store in the Middle East and not see a display of dates and spices. Few Middle Eastern meals would you made without sumac, chickpeas (whole or in hummus) with liberal use of mint and parsley. Lamb, chicken and fish are the most popular meats.
Influences from Asia, Europe and the far eastern Arab states brought a flood of new spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, and cumin, as well as garlic, cloves and peppercorns. Okra arrived from Africa, whilst tomatoes were brought in from Spain somewhere around the 11th century.
In Australia the dominant grain is wheat and the most popular alcoholic beverage is beer. Interestingly, wheat, and beer was cultivated for the first time in the Middle East in the fertile but relatively stable and dry regions (they even developed large-scale irrigation and encountered many of the problems that Australia sees today with the rising of the water table and increasing ground salination).
The staple of most meals are grains such as wheat, rice, barley and maize – bread in one form or another. Grain dishes may be served fairly plain especially when accompanying meat and vegetable dishes already heavily spiced and complex. Rice dishes are often more complex and can include dried fruits, vegetables, nuts, layers of meat and exquisite sauces. Meat is cooked in all number of ways including grilled or stewed – but in all cases it is served with full flavor. All dishes are accompanied by a multitude of sauces made from ingredients such as yoghurt, garlic, lemon juice, and tahini. The infusion of the humble tomato into Middle Eastern food has been complete an overwhelming with almost all dishes including it in one way or another be it a salad, broth, or grilled meats.
Vegetable-based foods however make up the bulk of most meals. Variants of squash eggplant and okra are strongly featured in Middle Eastern cooking, as are onions, garlic, green leaf vegetables, carrots and beetroot.
Many Australians are aware of the delights of Middle Eastern cuisine, enjoying baba ghannoush, hummus, and falafel. I aim to expand on this awareness.
Healthy Food – In the 1990s the Mayo Clinic undertook a study of the health and life expectancy of people in different areas around the world and concluded people living on a Middle Eastern diet were amongst the healthiest and longest living in the world. The world embraced Middle Eastern food – incredibly tasty and complete with proven health benefits. A Middle Eastern food diet can result in reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, even AIDS-related conditions, and Alzheimer’s disease.
I am passionate about Middle Eastern food, its richness, its diversity, its health benefits, and fabulous flavors. I love to prepare traditional dishes from the region and to develop my own dishes which incorporate the great variety of fresh local produce, ingredients, and tastes with Middle Eastern food philosophies.
In my own way I am taking a food born from the cultural melting pot of the Middle East and merging Australasia into the mix, adding the richness and diversity of the Byron Shire to the ingredients. I feel part of a joyous tradition. When I cast an eye around an event, wedding or function I have catered with Middle Eastern food, I love to see my food creations bringing smiles of pleasure to the guests.