It's Arab Gully, every where
While the city may have had a long trading history with the Arabs, it's only now that the cuisine of the region has come ashore
It's nearly impossible to walk past Maffy's - Pan Arabian Bistro, opposite Apollo Bunder, without wanting to peek in. Designed to look like a souk or an open-air Arab market, the outdoor area is bathed in bright hues, with the indoor section dotted with Morocco-inspired murals. The grandeur makes us forget that this spot was once vacant, save the Sea Palace Hotel. With its strategic view of the Arabian sea, owner Mufiz Rakhangi and chef Nimish Bhatia couldn't have chosen a better location to subliminally introduce a cuisine that was consumed by communities along the Mediterranean sea.
Baklava brownie served at Mezze in a puff pastry cup with chocolate sauce and kulfi. Pic/Sameer Markande
But Rakhangi and Bhatia did not get here first. The month-old restaurant, inspired by the culinary traditions of Syria, Turkey, Damascus, Lebanon and the UAE, is one of the many that have popped up in the city in the last one year. The competition seems to be only getting tougher. In South Mumbai alone, there's Rue Du Liban and Bayroute. In fact, the latter has already launched its third outlet in less than two months. Atiq Kapadia and Zareen Baig, an Indian couple who've spent a large part of their life in Dubai, recently launched Arbab in Bandra. They consulted chef Raed Askar, who has worked in various fine-dine kitchens across Lebanon and Dubai, to put together a French-style cafe with Lebanese food.
The love affair is fresh and wholesome, much like the cuisine the restaurants have chosen to offer. "Everybody wants to run a race, where you know who the winner is," jokes chef Bhatia, former corporate executive chef for The Lalit Group, about the sudden interest in Med cuisine.
Chef Sagar Savale prepares the stuffed eggplant at Versova's Mezze. Pic/Sameer Markande
How the cuisine travelled
Back in 2004, Moshe Shek was the first to arrive on the scene with Moshe's Fine Foods; he opened his first outlet at Cuffe Parade. "It was the cuisine I had grown up eating, and something I loved, so it was only natural for me to introduce different kinds of hummus, kuboos and couscous on the menu," says Shek, who was also the first to introduce lavash, a soft, thin unleavened flatbread made in a tandoor and eaten all over the South Caucasus and Western Asia.
No item was tweaked for the Indian palate. Shek was careful to not gamble by experimenting too much, so he selected dishes that he was confident would click. "For instance, the harissa, a deep, smoky North African condiment that can be swirled into stews or rubbed on meat, was something Indians would take to." After Moshe made Med cuisine fashionable, quick service restaurant brand Maroosh launched in the city, offering a mix of Lebanese items, albeit with an Indian touch.
Bayroute first opened at Cuffe Parade in April last year. Since then, it has started outlets in Powai and Juhu as well. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
"Soon, shawarma and hummus was what began to define Middle Eastern cuisine. But there was so much more to it," says chef Aniket Patil, owner and chef at Versova's Mezze. He spent two years working as a chef in Bahrain, where he picked the nuances of the cuisine. "I wanted to go beyond the staple fare because people have already tasted the popular varieties." But, to be on the safe side, Patil also included cuisine from Afghanistan and Pakistan to add a touch of familiarity given its parallels with Indian food.
Rue Du Liban opened in Kala Ghoda late last year, and is a stone's throw from the Jewish synagogue Knesset Eliyahoo, the newly-restored jewel of this busy district. The Jews originally hailed from the Levant, the Land of Israel. And this new dugout, as Chef De Cuisine Devendra Khetle points out, offers traditional Levantine cuisine - food that is inspired from the Eastern Mediterranean countries, mainly the states of Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, and parts of southern Turkey and Antakya. The irony is not lost to us, as we negotiate through this lane on a weekday afternoon. It's like two seas - the people and their food - have met, finally. The bridge, this restaurant.
According to Mufiz Rakhangi of Maffy's- Pan Arabian Bistro, a decade ago, you were able to tuck into authentic Middle Eastern cuisine only at 5 stars. "Middle-rung eateries were still caught up with Chinese and Italian. It's only now that we have more access," he says. Pics/Bipin Kokate
An offering from the founders of the Italian casual dining chain Gustoso, the diner has had packed evenings since it opened, with reservations for the weekends sometimes beginning a few weeks ahead. Chef Khetle isn't surprised. "Indians are far more well-travelled now, and the Middle East and Mediterranean regions have become popular food and travel destinations in the last few years." In fact, Arja Shridhar, co-founder and director of Rue Du Liban, says she learnt about Med cuisines during a trip to Turkey nearly 15 years ago. She loved the street-food at first bite, but "couldn't pronounce its tongue-twisting names". Shridhar always knew that she had to bring it back home. Her restaurant, which is currently only open for dinner, will be catering to the afternoon lunch crowd in a few months' time.
An Indian sensibility
At Maffy's, the menu runs into reams of pages with sections being divided into cold plates, hot sharing plates, hummus, the char-grills, bastillas (loaded phyllo pastry pockets), pide (hand stretched Turkish pizza), arayes (chargrilled sandwiches), mains and desserts. There are both vegetarian and meaty options. For every Turkish Adana kebab (hand pounded skewered meat kebab over char-fire from Adana-Mersin, a city in the South Eastern province of Turkey), there's broccoli labneh meshwi (crunchy broccoli florets chargrilled with sour cream and onion).
There's even a fictional tale woven into its concept, where an eponymous mascot who has trodden the wide-ranging geographies of the Middle East, returns to Mumbai hoping to the recreate flavours. It's pretty much the story of the new age, globe-trotting Mumbaikar, observes Rakhangi. "Earlier, you were able to tuck into authentic Middle Eastern cuisine only at 5 stars. Middle-rung eateries were still caught up with Chinese and Italian. It's only now that we have more access," he says.
According to chef Devendra Khetle of Rue Du Liban, the fact that the cuisine cannot be enjoyed solitarily, is what makes it such a big hit with Indians. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
The fact that Levantine and Mediterranean cuisine share the same spices and herbs as those used in Indian food, does the trick. "But, it's not spicy or fiery on the palette like Indian cuisines," says chef Khetle. "Here, we use spices cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to add flavour and aroma to the dish." BahÄÂÂrÄÂÂt spice, for instance, is the Med equivalent of garam masala, comprising black peppercorns, cardamom, cassia bark, cloves, coriander and cumin seeds, nutmeg, turmeric, saffron, among others, says Chef Ajay Thakur, head chef at Bayroute. The is also za'atar, a blend of dried herbs like oregano, marjoram, thyme and sumak, with sesame seeds and salt. "Za'atar is used as a topping on grills and dips, or mixed with oil and applied on breads," says chef Khetle. Ghee and curd are other common ingredients.
A few dishes on the Rue Du Liban and Bayroute menus also remind you of the Indian equivalents. There is the popular batata harra (fried potato cubes sautéed with red chilli, garlic and coriander), which is a lot like the aloo roast prepared in India, but which at Rue Du Liban takes three days to make, because the potatoes are chilled in a freezer, before they are deep-fried to make it crispy.
"Our stuffed parathas are their arayeses. It's just that their breads are stuffed with cheese or meats," chef Khetle. The Indian seekh kebab is a lot like the kafta meshwi, seasoned minced lamb kebab placed on Lebanese bread with biwaz (flat bread). "We make baingan ka bharta, and the Lebanese, prepare baba ghanoush, where instead of tempering the baingan (egg plant), they roast it and add onion, parsley and lemon juice," says chef Thakur.
But while flamboyant new restaurants and extensively-researched menus have become the order of the day, traditional favourites continue to draw patrons. At Bayroute, the 'hummus Bayroute' is prepared twice a day, because it's so much in demand. "It's a chickpea and labneh mixture with za'atar. We did a tasting of 40 different recipes before we perfected this one," says chef Thakur. "It takes around 16 hours to prepare a hummus, from soaking to boiling, cooling and pulverising it. The quality of the chickpea matters a lot when making it."
Rue Du Liban's hommos Beiruty has the same appeal. Served with marinated cherry tomatoes, spring onions and olive oil, the hummus, smooth and ungrainy, melts in your mouth like butter. Even those who've relished the dish before, will remember this as the first of many.
While innovation is central to any new venture, the process is still ongoing. At Bayroute's new outlet in Juhu, which opened earlier this week, a new section called the Bidayah has been introduced on the menu. "It's an Arabic-style tapas, which goes well with the cocktail menu, and is served just before the soups and salads," says chef Thakur. The Lebanese nachos (fried pita chips topped with refried ful medames [cooked fava bean], jaitoon [olives] and avocado salsa) and tamarind wings (grilled chicken wings cured in seven spice, tossed with date and tamarind glaze) are among a few dishes that stand out. "From here, we move to the cold mezze (small dishes comprising fresh dips and bread), hot mezze (fried/grilled/roasted dishes)," chef Thakur adds.
The fact that the cuisine cannot be enjoyed solitarily, is what makes it such a big hit with Indians, feels chef Khetle. It's a shared cuisine, he says, explaining. "Our menu has been designed in a way that you just can't order one single dip or bread, and leave it at that. These are meals that are eaten in small portions with the entire family. The idea of coming together, and sharing a meal is a culture that this cuisine inculcates. What is there to not love about it?" chef Khetle asks.
Where do you go?
Rue Du Liban, Kala Ghoda
a) A meal for two: Rs 3,000
b) MUST TRY Batata harra (Rs 600) + Manakeesh za'tar (Rs 600)
Bayroute, Cuffe Parade, Powai and Juhu
a) A meal for two: Rs 3,000
c) MUST TRY Hummus Bayroute (Rs 555) + baklava served with gulkand ice cream (Rs 625)
d) Lunch and dinner
Maffy's- Pan Arabian Bistro, Colaba
a) A meal for two: Rs 1,500
c) MUST TRY Signature smoked hummus with spicy shrimpsn (Rs 400)
a) A meal for two: Rs 1,200
c) MUST TRY Naqish Dajaj
(Flatbread topped with chicken cooked in sumac as spices, nuts and cheese) (Rs 320)
d) Lunch and Dinner
Arbab, Bandra West
a) A meal for two: Rs 1,200
c) MUST TRY Mashawi Mushakkal - Arabic mixed grills (Rs 750)
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