It only recently came to my attention that I've squandered years of mezze experimentation away on the standard hummus, tabbouleh and baba ganoush order. After two decades of living in the Middle East, would you believe that this is the year when I finally discovered fatteh, makanek, and, most recently, hindbeh?
When I first tasted hindbeh at the same Lebanese restaurant that has fed me shawarmas since 1986, the acuteness of my mezze myopia frighteningly flared up from the plate of swampy greens. It was at that moment that I realised the importance of a full menu check-up before rattling off the standard toasted-khubz-and-hummus order. This modest mountain dish was a clump of chicory greens that had been cooked down to a dense, murky green bog. The inhabitants of this unattractive marsh were caramelised onions, garlic, olive oil and a thick tangled brush of more golden onions on top.
While chicory - or dandelions which are sometimes used - might be guilty of a slight bitterness, my hindbeh plate was clear of that charge. The leaves had most likely been soaked or blanched, and the earthy combination of sautéed garlic and olive oil would have mellowed out any unfriendly sharpness left behind. Far from being bitter, there was an unexpected sweetness that lingered from the trail of caramelised onions. Recipes and books recommend the ritual squeeze of lemon, a handful of soft boiled chickpeas or a piece of khubz to scoop up the hindbeh but, personally, I prefer to tune in to the delicate voice of the cooked greens without having any flavourful noise in the background.
The next time you feel like regaling yourself with pretty bowls of scalloped dips and fancy fatayers, remember to order the humble hindbeh. It will not look pretty nor taste complicated, but it will transform a basic weed into something that is rustic and soul-satisfying.
Automatic Cafeteria, Deira, 04 222 4478; Al Hallab, Mall of the Emirates, 04 341 1880.
Arva Ahmed blogs about hidden food gems in Old Dubai at www.ILiveinaFryingPan.com.