Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Mediterranean Flavour Fest at Souk, Taj Bengal

Talk of the Middle East and I think of a souk. A thousand images, vivid and wonderful, flash across my mind’s eye – stone walls and flamboyant arches, winding alleys lined by shops selling raw silk and dyes, beads and ornate clayware, bejeweled vases and silver teapots…and  then the spices, familiar and exotic, the aroma exciting and soothing all at once. Knolls of colourful spices and herbs and beans – from Iranian saffron to sumac to lavender and rose petals – it’s a feast for the senses. In fact, I could almost imagine the teasing aroma of a myriad spices mixed with the heady scent of burning incense fill my nostrils as I enjoy a leisurely stroll in a faraway souk in Northern Africa, perhaps. Wishful thinking, I say.

 But recently I landed at a souk of another kind. I had the wonderful opportunity of dining at the Taj’s specialty Mediterranean restaurant SOUK and to guide me through the lavish fare was none other than Sujan Mukherjee, executive chef, Taj Bengal.   

And the spread chef Mukherjee brought to the table proved to be an interesting display of the diverse flavours and the mindboggling variety that is Mediterranean food. From Egypt to Israel and Turkey to Morocco, the menu included a wonderful assortment of dishes from across the region that left me drooling. 
The meal kicked off with an amuse bouche that was not only pleasing for the palate but also a treat for your eyes. A dice of fresh, juicy watermelon topped with a cube of feta. The burst of sweet freshness that was the watermelon did a little tango with the salty treat that is the feta right inside my mouth. And my heart did a somersault. 

Next came the Mezze. Mezze (an assortment of bite sized appetizers quite like the Spanish tapas platters) is by far my favourite part of a Mediterranean feast. And while mezze could be as simple as stuffed olives and fresh vegetables and hummus and some bread, there is no end to the range. But I was quite impressed by the Mezze selection on the table. 

Of course there was the ubiquitous hummus (who could ever think of a mezze platter without this mash of chicpeas and tahini and olive oil?) but not just regular hummus – there was Hummus Turki, hummus topped with a blob of finely chopped Piri Piri chilies and olives, and Hummus bil Lahm, topped with tiny, deep-fried morsels of lamb, an Israeli specialty I hear. Now, easy as it might sound the perfect hummus is not child’s play. But chef Mukherjee has nailed it. Chef Mukherjee is known for being fastidious and rumour has it that he personally supervises and carefully sieves the chickpeas that go into his hummus. Not just any chickpea can make it in there. Reminds me of the Bourneville advertisement with that wailing and whining cocoa bean in it, yeah the one tossed into oblivion. However, of his two variations I was a little more impressed with the Hummus Turki, the burst of tangy heat simply sent the taste quotient shooting, at least for me, this despite my obsessive penchant for meat.

About the tabbouleh, a typical salad made with cracked wheat and parsley with a fresh lime dressing, what strikes you first is the kick of the lemon and then you fall in love with the freshness. We were treated to tabbouleh done the way it is done in Tripoli. Somehow that made the dish seem all the more exotic, or I was just romanticizing. And yes, the parsley, the main ingredient, wasn’t just regular parsley either. What does the trick for an authentic version of the tabbouleh is flat leaf Italian parsley and chef Mukherjee insists on using just that.

Tabbouleh evokes a few fond memories for me and has a special spot in my heart.. I had bonded with one of my dearest friends for the first time, though we are not in touch for a while, over a bowl of tabbouleh she had made. It was also the first time that I had tasted tabbouleh. She was an Arab and a great cook. But her version of the tabbouleh had couscous in it, instead of bulgur (cracked wheat) as in this version I was savouring just now.

And it was just the right accompaniment for deep fried delights like the falafel, an iconic Middle Eastern chickpea cakes, flavoured with herbs and spices like cumin, coriander and parsley, and deep fried. I am not a huge fan of falafel but during my year and a half in Brighton, I used to often visit a Lebanese joint which made an excellent falafel roll. And though chef Mukherjee’s falafels were neat enough, crusty and flavourful, it missed a little something.

What I was impressed by however was the subtly spiced Lahm Kibbeh, torpedo-shaped croquettes made of minced meat, pine nuts and cracked wheat, typical of the region, known to be of Levantine origin… that is from Eastern Mediterranean region. The kibbeh has a nice crust while inside its loosely packed minced meat that’s crumbly but not dry, in fact it was quite moist, it simply falls apart with a soft poise. That’s how a kibbeh should be, says chef Mukherjee. I agree. To get the right kibbeh you need the right meat...lean, without a trace of fat. And chef Mukherjee gets his lamb for the kibbeh all the way from Rajasthan. “You get the best meat there,” he says.


Now I am a huge fan of Mediterranean food because of its freshness and the subtlety of its flavours. What I really appreciate about cuisines from this part of the world is the fact that though there is an extensive use of spices, there is a poised restraint in the use of spices. So, while each dish promises a flavour fest, none overwhelms your taste buds. And the mezze platter i had just devoured celebrated that subtlety of flavours. Oh! Another interesting item on the mezze platter was the Swada Dijaj, marinated bits of chicken tossed in pomegranate molasses and fresh coriander. I think I detected a hint of lime too. I was not particularly crazy about it, but that could be because I couldn't get over the kibbeh and especially the Hummus Turki I was scooping up with my za'atar smeared pita. Zatar by the way is a mix of spices and herbs  used extensively in Middle Eastern and Med cooking.

Next in line was a platter of grilled meat and fish comprising Adana Kebab, a spicy minced meat kebab from Adana in Turkey ( you can also see my recipe of the same here), Tavuk Yogurtula Bitlis, another Turkish speciality, chicken marinated in special spiced and grilled, a recipe from Bitlis in Eastern Turkey, and Samak Meshwi, grilled fish with Turkish spices. Now, while the Adana Kebab was moist and juicy what it missed was the fiery kick it should have had. The chicken failed to impress me, and the fish...I loved the spicy and tangy marinade that laced the fish. The  grills came with a light truffle pilaf loaded with berries and it was quite the treat.

For the main course, there was the typical Moroccan Lamb tagine that came in the traditional clay pots called tagine (hence the name). The lamb, tender, melt-in-the-mouth, came in a subtly spiced sauce that had preserved lime, olives and chickpeas was served on a bed of perfectly steamed couscous.

Lamh Tagine

Now if you thought pasta was a monopoly of the Italians, think again. The Middle Easterns love their pasta too and the chef gave us a taste of it. Loaded with preserved limes, olives and prunes, the Middle Eastern style pasta was a little too tangy for my taste, but I sure did appreciate the distinctly different taste. 

By the time I reached the Samak Moroccan, pan fired fish fillets flavoured with pickled lemon, cayenne pepper and parsley and the Moussaka, I was too full to savour the flavours. In fact, the fish was a tad overdone and hence stringy and quite bland really failed to make a mark really, in fact far less. It  I had the desserts to accommodate.

Samak Moroccan


For desserts, we were served Omali, a dessert made with filo pastry and condensed milk and topped with pistachio. In loved scooping up the creamy Omali, cutting through the soft, golden crust. It is not too sweet and has a soothing effect on the palate. Then there was the refreshing rose petal ice cream, the chef’s signature dish. It is indeed the best summery treat around. But what came as a delightful surprise for me was the Baklava. I have never warmed up to the Baklava, greasy and dripping sugary sweet syrup. But this time around the Baklava, neither too sweet nor too greasy and chockfull with chopped pistachio warmed the cockles of my heart alright....ah I am exaggerating just a little bit. Let's say I could have had another helping. 

From left: Omali, Baklava and Rose Petal Ice Cream

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