Beirut Street Food at Yalla Yalla with Tony Kitous
Within the food industry, there are a few movers and shakers I’ve always wanted to meet. Tony Kitous has been on that list ever since I first came across Comptoir Libanais. In 2008, an era when finding a good place to eat with a vegetarian friend could be tricky, Comptoir Libanais offered a wild and exotic assortment of Middle Eastern dishes many of which were naturally veggie and all of which were delicious.
Yalla Yalla was actually started by Jad Youssef and his wife Aga but is now part of the family of restaurants which Tony runs and it offers much of the same kind of feel you’ll find at Comptoir Libanais. I was invited along there to join Beirut Street Food supper club and to meet Tony himself. Apart from the food, the chance to understand a bit more about the inspiration behind Comptoir Libanais was enough of a draw.
Tony explained to us that he wanted to share the food culture of his childhood – one of innate hospitality where no one will ever walk away hungry from the table. And he wanted to get people in the UK eating Middle Eastern food on a daily basis. Much of that I believe he’s already helped to achieve. He introduced his friend Michael Karam to explain a little more about the Lebanese wines from Chateau Ksara that we were drinking. Everyday wines, these are from the country’s oldest winery. Michael explained that the first wines in the world were made in Georgia but it was the Phoenicians from ancient Lebanon, who were traders, sailing around the Mediterranean in around 3,000 BC who shared wine with the rest of the world. The Lebanon is a relatively small producer of wine, with a production of around 10 million bottles a year – compared with around 4 billion in France! That, together with unrest in the Middle East and the consequent bad publicity, means the wine is not that well known. But of course, it is perfect for drinking with food from the region.
In true Middle Eastern style, we soon had a heaving table of food. Everyone loved the various dips which included a delicious fried courgette and tahini that was light and creamy with a fresh taste.
Muhhamara Hallabyah is a mixed nut and Aleppo roasted pepper mixture. The perfect contrast to the smooth creamy courgette dip and lovely complement to a kind of twist on Baba Ganouch – the Baba Bij Joz- Aubergine and Walnut Dip
Cauliflower seems to be the trendy vegetable of 2018 here, deep fried to give it a nice nutty taste and topped with the ubiquitous tahini sauce.
When the Samboussek Halloumi appeared I wanted to eat them by the fistful. Light, crisp pastry with a lovely gooey halloumi filling and a piquant yoghurty sauce.
The aubergine and pomegranate salad tasted as good as it looks. I seem to remember being told that aubergine or eggplant was as common in Lebanese food as the potato is in our own cuisine. With salads like this, I am not surprised.
Even the simple village tomato salad came with a light pomegranate and mint dressing
The spectacular Moussakhan is a unique spicy chicken pie with a filo type pastry shell.
And, the final of our savoury dishes was Moussabaha – chickpeas topped with yoghurt and tahini sauce. This, if I am honest, is the dish I am most likely to make at home. It would work well with almost any combination of salads and it is the kind of simple recipe that my cookery skills will not find too challenging. I’m sharing the recipe, which you’ll find along with all the others from our supper club, in Tony’s book ‘Feasts from the Middle East’.
We went on to enjoy a dessert of Rose Mouhalabia with summer fruit compote – a kind of Lebanese panna cotta that is set using cornflower and so is suitable for vegetarians
And of course, a whole assortment of Baklava to go with the coffees and mint teas.
Our supperclub was also an introduction to WeFiFo, a food tech and social eating platform that is aiming to help promote shared food experiences like supperclubs. Not only are WeFiFo partnering with Tony for more supperclub events (the next is on 12th August) but they are also working with a range of food enthusiasts – from home chefs through to supermarkets like waitrose! They have experiences all across the country so it is definitely worth checking out what is on offer on their site – for more details please visit https://www.wefifo.com.
I’m looking forward to finding out more – and to trying some more of the recipes from Feasts from the Middle East! In the meanwhile, just to tempt you – here’s the recipe for Moussababa
- 200g dried chickpeas
- 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 200g Greek yoghurt
- 50g tahina
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 tsp cumin plus extra to season
- 100ml olive oil
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tomato finely chopped
- a little chopped flat leaf parsley
- paprika to serve
- Either the night before or 8-10 hours ahead put the dried chickpeas in a bowl, cover with cold water and leave to soak.
- Drain the chickpeas, add the bicarbonate of soda and cover with more cold water. Set to one side for 30 minutes
- Drain the chickpeas again then tip into a medium-sized saucepan and cover with cold water.
- Cover with a lid, bring to the boil and reduce the heat. Simmer uncovered for 40 minutes.
- Make the sauce by mixing together the yoghurt and tahina in a large bowl with half the garlic. If necessary thin the sauce with a little water.
- Drain the chickpeas and put into a bowl. Add the rest of the garlic, the cumin, 50ml of olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Mix well.
- Spoon the chickpeas into the serving dish and pour the sauce on top. Dress with the remainder of the olive oil, the chopped tomato, parsley and a dash of paprika and cumin.