Lebanese food festival at Afraa
“Many people consider food from Lebanon to be heavy. But its not. We eat a lot of vegetables and our dishes have many vegetarian items in it, which is in alignment with the weather. They are healthy too, and are good for the skin. Olive oil, yoghurt, fresh and pickled vegetables, beans, and chickpeas are a huge part of our diet,” Chef Jameela Zakey remarks while we sit around her, talking about the Lebanese food festival at Afraa, City Center I. A good brunch never fails to make me happy, and we eagerly await the food she has made. 
Chef Jameela Zakey
Chef Jameela  is a cheerful, smiling presence, and immediately makes me feel comfortable. After the initial few moments, I wondered how she could recreate dishes which had ingredients that were difficult to source here in India, and she agrees with my stance. But then, she explains the need to adapt and use certain ingredients in lieu of others, and sometimes, importing what one is looking for. It is no longer very difficult to source ingredients, and the food we are about to have are a result of local sourcing, plus additional ingredients which are difficult to come by. A common example, she provided, was the meat, where she felt it to be not suitable for a Kabsa, so she omitted making a mutton version of the dish, and stuck to only making the version with chicken. 
Mezze Platter. L-R: Labneh, Baba Ghanoush, Hummus

 The Mezze platter consists of a creamy Hummus, Baba Ghanoush, and Labneh, served with slices of crisp pita. At first, we thought the cucumber slices and pepper were just for the show, but they are an important part of the meal – they are pickled and served, something also known as mukalal as Jamila explained. The pickles were especially amazing with the Hummus, the pickled vegetable adding a much-needed hint of tang to the rich dip.

Ful Medames

 I was rather looking forward to the Ful Medames, which originated in Egypt, allegedly, and travelled to other parts of the middle east, namely to Syria, where it is quite popular in the Aleppo region, and is a dish which can be served hot, at room temperature, or cold. The main ingredients, fava beans, were sourced by Jamila, and served in a thick tomato-based sauce which also contained a considerable amount of tahini, from what I could taste.

Manakeish bil Jibneh

 As Halloumi cheese was featured, I was also quite excited to see the Manakeish bil Jibneh, but I thought the final dish was a bit too dry for my taste, and the olives did not help it liven up much.

Felafel

 The Felafel was served with more pickled vegetables, hummus and pita. I made myself a sandwich with the bread, the hummus, and vegetables, and bit in. Thankfully, these are exactly the kind I love – with a decided crunch and fluffy, moist innards, and yes, these were my favourites so far.

Batinjan bil Bechamel

 But then came the Batinjan bil Bechamel, eggplant slices, cooked with a rich tomato sauce (slightly similar to an Imam Bayildi, but there’s where all similarities end, topped with extra cheese and Bechamel sauce), and it had slices of cooked eggplant in tomato sauce, topped with a thick Bechamel sauce, and then sprinkled with cheese. Then, the entire thing was baked till everything was soft, and well, as I am a lover of eggplants, these received two thumbs up in my books.

Musakal

 A Musakal is another name for a mix, and here, a mix of chicken, mutton, seafood and fish, with saffron rice, a dab of hummus, roasted vegetables, and pita bread, came to our table, and was greeted with delighted squeals. The chicken was perfectly cooked, the saffron rice was rich and fragrant, and I did not risk the prawns for the fear of swelling up like a puffer fish.

Saffron Rice

 More saffron rice hit the table, along with a delectable dish of spicy chicken, which Jamila insisted we eat with our hands. “Middle-Eastern food is all about sharing and eating with your hands, and in most houses, people would eat from a shared platter. It increases love, we think.”

Dijaj bi Basal wa Sumac

 I have a special soft corner for both Baklava and Kunafa. Kunafa is a recent love, thanks to T who introduced me to them at a lovely place called Kunafa in Delhi and then, I tried more of the same thanks to friends. Anyway, Chef Jameela had promised me good Baklava, and these were remarkable, with the scent of clarified butter slowly infusing into the air, as the plate rested on the table.

Baklava in Kolkata

 The Kunafa was with a thin layer of semolina covering a base of light creamy custard. Although I missed the Kunafa with the cheese filling as I have had before, this was also quite good, and the pistachios added to the nuttiness.

Kunafa

 Chef Jameela insisted on feeding us the Omali (which vaguely translates to ‘Ali’s Mother’, I think), and who can resist the lure of creamy pudding with a baked, pistachio and nut-crusted top? I knew resistance was futile, so I gave in, finished the dish, and went back for another Baklava.

Omali middle-eastern dessert

A Lebanese Legend is on at Afraa, City Center I, from 11th to 20th of September, 2015, and you can avail the dishes I tried, and more at the restaurant, during lunch or dinner. A meal for two costs roughly 1500-1800/- INR, and there are sharing platters, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, at quite reasonable prices. To book your table, contact Afraa at +91-9748031000. 

Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee dined at Afraa at the kind invitation of the management.

Written by Poorna Banerjee

    1 Comment

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