As adventurous diners look for something different, Middle Eastern food is experiencing a worldwide rise in popularity.
Feast and west
With hamburgers, pizza and greasy noodles available almost everywhere, adventurous diners are hungry for something different. Feargus O'Sullivan on how simple, healthy Middle Eastern food is sweeping the globe Could falafel be the new hamburger? It may seem unlikely (chickpeas aren't nearly unhealthy enough to wean the world off meat patties any time soon), but Middle Eastern foods are unquestionably going through a worldwide boom in popularity.
All over the world, jaded diners are downing foods from the Arab world like never before, with dishes once considered wildly exotic now becoming staple fare in many cities. This is great news for anyone outside the Middle East who likes variety in their food, but just as Neapolitans shudder when they are served American pizza and Indians baulk at the over-richness of European curries, exactly how recognisable is the wider world's take on Middle Eastern food to people who know it from its home turf?
At the moment, there are signs of Middle Eastern food's boom in popularity cropping up all over the world. In Britain, the Royal Geographical Society published a paper last month stating that Middle Eastern restaurants were quickly creeping up on the nation's curry houses in popularity. The paper even went so far as to suggest that Middle Eastern dining spots might soon become the nation's favourite cheap places to eat out.
Looking at Britain's restaurant scene, the evidence certainly seems to bear this out. On Manchester's famous "curry mile" in the district of Rusholme, for example, the long-established strip's 45 South Asian restaurants are now being jostled by 20 Middle Eastern establishments. Meanwhile, down in London, falafel stalls have also started to make their presence felt in the great curry stronghold Brick Lane.
While the food these new places offer is often of modest (if respectable) quality, the enthusiasm that's met the best of them is striking. Recently, humble Middle Eastern openings in London such as the mini-chain Hummus Brothers and the tiny but invariably packed Lebanese snack joint Yalla Yalla have received the sort of widespread, gushing reviews usually reserved for major openings with an army of PR muscle behind them. Britons, it seems, just can't get enough of the simple, healthy food these places dish up.
This buoyant enthusiasm for Middle Eastern food is more than a purely British phenomenon, however. In the past five years, those conservative eaters the Japanese have flocked to the new network of kiosks selling kebabs that have mushroomed all over Japan, providing one of the most recognisable foreign food presences in a country generally squeamish about outsiders' specialities. Likewise, Taiwan's famous night markets are making space for Middle Eastern foods, while Arabic-influenced street food has become hugely popular across Latin America in forms such as Mexico's Taco Arabe (grilled meat in pitta bread). This is especially true in Brazil. Home to an estimated 10 million people of Arab descent, the country's Lebanese fast-food chain Habib's has recently become among the country's most popular. Selling foods such as sfiha (the open-faced meat pies sometimes referred to as "Arab pizza"), and kibbeh (cracked wheat patties stuffed with spiced mince meat, then fried) the chain has reached far beyond the Arab Brazilian community to establish over 260 branches across Brazil.
So exactly why has the popularity of Middle Eastern food taken such a leap? The most obvious answer is its novelty. When it comes to restaurants, and fast food in particular, the public is generally fickle and easily bored. It's hard to believe, for example, that burger bars such as McDonald's and Burger King once seemed bright, buzzy and exciting to non-Americans not yet exposed to proper hamburgers. By the late 1990s their food was already starting to look boring and tawdry, a fact testified to recently when McDonald's franticly diversified into Chinese and Mexican snacks.
In many countries, pizza, Tex-Mex food and oriental noodles were all once introduced as exciting curiosities. Nowadays, however, pretty much any city in the world offers an embarrassment of boring burgers made with mystery meat, flabby, cardboard-like pizzas and greasy pseudo-Chinese wok dishes so packed with monosodium glutamate they're practically glowing. With watered-down, mass-produced versions of such popular foods available from Sydney to Stuttgart, it's no wonder so many people are hungry for something different. Middle Eastern food is perfectly positioned to satisfy this hunger - it's just about familiar enough to be accepted without suspicion, but still sufficiently uncommon to have kept its novelty.
Middle Eastern cuisines are not just a refreshing change, however. Unlike many of their competitors, they're generally very good for you. With its abundance of vitamin-packed fresh fruit and vegetables and fibre-rich legumes, Middle Eastern food even tends to prepare potentially guilty pleasures like red meat in ways that keeps their fat content relatively low. Certain key Middle Eastern ingredients, such as antioxidant-packed flat leafed parsley and chickpeas (whose high levels of soluble fibre have been claimed to combat high cholesterol levels) are currently so highly regarded that they're hovering on the edge of being classified as superfoods. With diners becoming increasingly health-conscious, this vitamin-rich guilt-free food is a godsend: exotic, fresh, satisfying and not even bad for you.
On a more personal, purely anecdotal level, my own experience has confirmed how healthy Middle Eastern foods can be; I found that within weeks of arriving in the region and switching from a typical British diet to one consisting exclusively of local dishes, I lost over two kilos without making any special effort at all. Granted, much of this healthiness can be lost in translation when Middle Eastern food is exported around the world (while the region itself has its own fair share of the obese), especially at the cheaper, snackier end of the market. Greasy shawarma and deep-fried falafel aren't entirely lacking in unhealthy calories, no matter how much salad you pack them in. Nonetheless, they are still infinitely better for you than most of their worldwide equivalents: falafel is practically the only protein-rich snack food suitable for vegetarians, while the chunks of meat in shawarma are far more recognisable and lean than the odd, mysteriously seamless slices you get with the international versions of its worldwide rival, Turkish döner kebab.
But quite aside from the way it tastes, Middle Eastern food's increasing ubiquity is as much a product of widespread emigration as it is of changing food fashions. Like the Chinese before them, some emigrants from the Middle East to the West have found that their new countries of residence are not the fountains of infinite opportunity they might have hoped for. The success of earlier food entrepreneurs from immigrant communities, such as Britain's hugely successful restaurateurs Alan Yau and Iqbal Wahhab, demonstrates to Middle Eastern newcomers that catering can still be a route to wealth and wide respect.
But while westerners are tucking into Middle Eastern grub like never before, does this new wave of Arab-inspired food really offer up an authentic taste of the region? With most new places offering fairly cheap and simple dishes, a slightly skewed picture of the area's cuisines often emerges, with grilled meat and falafel (often inauthentically wrapped in Greek Cypriot-style leavened pitta bread) dominating everywhere at the expense of more complex, sophisticated fare.
Much international "Middle Eastern" food is really a simplified version of Lebanese cuisine (though given the popularity of the country's food across Arabia and the Levant, this isn't exactly inauthentic) and often quite limited in its repertoire. Finding somewhere serving a decent spread of Lebanese mezze isn't too hard in New York or London, but essential delicacies like kibbeh nayyeh (raw lamb pounded until tender then mixed with cracked wheat and spices) are far too often off the menu for fear of scaring squeamish western customers.
Meanwhile, the more curious, unusual aspects of the cuisine - such as my particular favourite Armenian Lebanese dish, lamb kofta in sour cherry sauce - are nowhere to be found. Anyone seeking out non-Lebanese food, hungry for, say, a proper Emirati machbous or Iraqi masgoof (tamarind-marinated fish) can face even more of an uphill struggle. This rather limited state of affairs may not last forever, though. It seems likely that as world consumers become more familiar with Middle Eastern food, it will probably follow a similar trajectory to other exported "ethnic" cuisines. While many consumers lost their enthusiasm for versions of Chinese and Indian food that had been "adapted" for local tastes quite quickly, just tasting these foods already did the job of opening people's minds and sparking curiosity.
Nowadays, a range of bracingly authentic Asian restaurants for more adventurous, educated connoisseurs have opened in most major cities to cater for this newly-awakened hunger for The Real Thing. It seems that global Middle Eastern restaurants (such as London's well-received recent Lebanese openings 1001 Nights and Comptoir Libanais) are just starting to enter this phase too, ditching well-worn carpets-and-camels clichés and introducing diners to a more diverse set of dishes in surroundings that are more about chic than touristy exoticism.
For anyone hungry for a real taste of the Middle East, wherever they are, this is promising news indeed.