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How London Fell Hard for Middle Eastern Food

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“Quietly, unexpectedly — and without anybody bothering to consult me — Jewish food has become really, really good,” The Guardian’s food critic Jay Rayner said at London’s Jewish Book Week earlier this month. “Frankly, I’m appalled.” Rayner was referring to London’s new love affair with Middle Eastern food. Salt beef and bagels and lox are out – Israeli cuisine with bold and aromatic Sephardic flavors is in.

Yotam Ottolenghi was the one who started it all. His eponymous delis in Notting Hill, Islington and Belgravia introduced Middle Eastern flavors to London in a way that was inciting, healthy and bountiful, working with eye-catching platters of fresh vegetables in a way opposite to how English cuisine treated (and still treats) fresh produce. His cookbooks “Plenty” and “Jerusalem,” as well as his television series on Middle Eastern food, brought his passions and ideas to a wider audience.

Ottolenghi is to London today what Gordon Ramsay was (more broadly) a decade or so ago, in the sense that those who have worked and trained with him have gone on to found their own establishments. Sarit Packer and her husband Itamar Srulovich opened Honey & Co. in 2012, a tiny restaurant with only 10 tables on Warren Street. Such has been their success that they signed a book deal back in 2013; “Honey & Co.: Food From the Middle East” was published last year.

Meanwhile up on the Finchley Road, Josh Katz (another member of the Ottolenghi family) became the founding chef of Zest when it opened at JW3 — London’s Jewish community centre — in 2013. Unlike Ottolenghi, Nopi, and Honey & Co., Zest is kosher — dairy kosher, specifically — and therefore its Sephardic-inspired menu focuses on fish and vegetarian mains, as well as new takes on traditional meze dishes such as creamed beetroot tahini and hummus served with spiced wild mushrooms.

Outside of Ottolenghi’s orbit, The Palomar — the newest addition to London’s Israeli food scene — is the joker in the pack. Located on Rupert Street at the intersection of the gay, Chinese and theater districts, The Palomar brings modern Israeli cuisine to London straight from Jerusalem. Its founders are the owners of Machneyuda, the lively culinary sensation located in Jerusalem’s famous shuk. The Palomar’s menu draws on popular dishes from the mother restaurant, including the creamy, cheesy polenta, served in a jar with mushrooms and asparagus.

“We serve modern day Jerusalem cooking. Jerusalem is a melting pot where everything infuses together. The cultures that came to Jerusalem combined with what was already here, and we took all of those influences and put them into the food,” Tomer Amedi, head chef at The Palomar, said. Amedi joined Packer, Srulovich, and Katz for a Jewish Book Week panel to discuss why London has fallen head over heels for Middle Eastern food in the past few years.

“It’s about the relaxed dining atmosphere. It’s about the balance between vegetables and protein. It’s about the experience of eating with your hands,” Packer said. “It’s a different palate of flavors.” The food at Honey & Co. is, essentially, the food at Packer and Srulovich made at home, and to that extent people “make an instant connection with it.” It is food that “hits all the right notes.” Srulovich added that the dining public in London is “very open and willing to try everything. They are grateful for something good, made with quality and care.”

Not to say that everything translates. London diners have not caught onto the idea of eating Israeli chopped salad at breakfast, Srulovich said. Packer went on to explain that Israeli chefs have to moderate the flavors of certain dishes to suit the taste of the clientele. Tabbouleh in Israel and Lebanon is often made with lots of lemon juice and fresh herbs and very little bulgur wheat. But, the lemon would be too astringent for the British palate, she said, while fresh herbs are not sold in abundance as they are in the Middle East.

Indeed, all of the Israelis on the panel agreed that the quality of the herbs, fruits and vegetables in London is less than those found in Israel, simply because they have to be imported. On the other hand, Packer, Srulovich and Amedi concurred that the meat, fish and dried herbs and spices were of a higher standard than back home, while being in a world city gives one access to a wealth of ingredients that you cannot obtain in Israel, including decent pork (The Palomar has a wonderful pork belly dish served with Israeli couscous — I know because I’ve ordered it) and produce from countries like Lebanon and Syria.

So is Middle Eastern food here to stay? “London is always awaiting the next thing,” Packer said. “There are always trends, but if you are really good, you can stay the distance.”

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