Why you need to get acquainted with your local middle eastern supermarket

According to The Guardian, searches for for Tahini on Waitrose.com rose by 700% throughout 2019. Those for Chickpeas, Rice, Bulgur Wheat and Quinoa were up by 36%.

I pity the fools who go to Waitrose for their fix of these products (if Waitrose would be so kind as to sponsor me I might not rip on them) – in terms of price, quality and variety, they’d be much better off heading to a Middle Eastern Supermarket.

Ever since I went to Edinburgh university and discovered Maqbool’s supermarket (an excellent all-in-one shout for Arab and South Asian products), I’ve been hooked on Middle Eastern cooking products. It helped that I spent my first year of university effectively training to be a housewife to stave off boredom, loneliness and the shock of being in such an unstructured environment after two years being effectively institutionalised (in the best way possible) at boarding school. Suffice to say that I didn’t have the typical fresher’s experience, eschewing pints of beer for pints of homemade soup.

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Some of my early work, courtesy of Facebook (why I thought that anyone would be interested in me posting this on Facebook is beyond me). Note that it’s being eaten straight out of the pot to avoid washing up…

Cooking was my refuge from the anxiety I felt about day-to-day life. Under pressure to be living the ‘best years of my life’ and making the ‘best friends of my life’, neither of which were happening for me, I found an outlet in the kitchen. I can only apologise to my long-suffering first-year flatmates (shout out to Gabi, u a real one) for the experiments that occurred in our Deaconess kitchen – unfortunately, my ability to clean rather lagged behind that to cook.

My ability to clean has thankfully improved over the past six years, but my passion for cooking has remained static. For those who wish to stalk me, on a given Saturday morning you’ll most likely find me strolling along North End Road, and in and out of its fantastic Middle Eastern grocery stores. In any case, stop me, for I’ve become the food blogger stereotype of writing an essay about my life before getting to the actual point of my post, which is to wax lyrical about the wonderful things you can get in your local Middle Eastern supermarket (from a vegetarian’s perspective).

My favourites:

Tahini

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As is evident from the above article, you can get own-brand Tahini in most British supermarkets these days – thank you, Ottolenghi, for so thoroughly normalising this previously-niche (in the UK at least) wonder ingredient.

That being said, the quality of your standard British supermarket Tahini pales in comparison to that of an Arab brand. Prices are also much more reasonable – true to my Stingy Legend™ principles, I tend to buy that which offers the best bang for your buck, which has recently been the Sofra brand (pictured – I believe it’s a Turkish brand) at £3.99 for 907g. By contrast, Waitrose’s own-brand retails at £2.75 for just 300g of a passable but somewhat stodgy product. That’s £4.40 per kg versus £9.17 per kg for a superior product. A no-brainer.

What can you use it for?

Everything. The most obvious and likely the trigger of its increased sales is Hummus (my recipe for this is pending), which has become a British middle-class stalwart in recent years. To limit your use of Tahini to Hummus is to do the product a gross injustice. Tahini is a wonderful addition to sweet and savoury dishes alike. I love the stuff so much I could eat it straight out of the jar (odd flex but try it before you slam it).

  • Mixed with lemon juice, garlic and cumin, it makes a wonderful, easy to make salad dressing or sauce for other dishes (particularly nice in a preserved lemon & aubergine stew or shakshuka – I need to write up these recipes).
  • Tahini is excellent in South East Asian-inspired dishes, as a stand-in for Asian sesame paste, which seems impossible to obtain in London (conversely, for my Hong Kong friends, Asian sesame paste is a decent stand-in for Tahini, which is nigh-impossible to find in Hong Kong). I make a sesame sauce for my spiralized carrot or mooli noodles by mixing soy sauce, miso, lime juice, tahini and sesame oil.
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Spiralized carrot noodles with bell pepper, aubergine and miso-tahini sauce
  • Hummus isn’t the only dip worthy of Tahini as a base. Moutabal, an aubergine and tahini dip similar to Baba Ganoush, is also a great use of tahini – I never seem to be able to achieve the smoky flavour of baba ganoush when roasting aubergines in my oven, so this is a good alternative. Traditionalists may ‘roast’ me for this, but using other pulses such as broad beans, white beans and butter beans in the place of chickpeas can make a very nice hummus-esque dip.  
  • Sweet dishes incorporating Tahini are less commonplace than savoury, but can be equally wonderful. Ottolenghi has a great recipe for tahini cookies. Much like peanut butter, tahini makes for a lovely, creamy (and vegan!) topping for porridge.

Cheeses & Other Dairy Products

It’s safe to say that Feta (Greek, but common in Middle Eastern dishes) and Halloumi are stalwarts of the modern middle class British fridge. Equally, Greek yoghurt (also used across the region, under different guises) can be found in any self-respecting Tesco express. But to limit one’s exploration of cheeses from the region (loosely speaking – don’t want to get into geopolitics here) to these alone would be a deep shame. Lurking in the fridge of your Middle Eastern supermarket are similarly delicious and versatile products.

For example, Labneh, a strained yoghurt thicker than standard-issue Greek yoghurt, is fantastic atop everything from stews & salads to desserts. For savoury purposes, it’s delicious mixed with harissa or made into a thicker version of tzatziki (a mint and cucumber dip). I’ve developed an obsession with Akkawi cheese, a super salty (my weakness) cheese preserved in brine – it can be used similarly to feta but keeps for much longer, so it’s great to have a jar in the fridge.

Preserved Products

Preserved and pickled products are set to have a major moment in 2020. They’re delicious, easy to store (food waste begone), low in calories (provided they’re not preserved in oil) and great for your gut to boot. In this space, I find standard supermarket offerings rather woeful. What was life like before I discovered pickled artichoke hearts, preserved lemons, and smoked aubergine straight from a jar?

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As for uses of the above, they are multiple. To make a lazy baba ganoush, one can use this smoky aubergine straight out of the jar, without having to smoke the aubergine oneself. Despite many attempts, getting an authentic smoky flavour to the aubergine has proven nigh impossible in my conventional oven. It’s also great eaten straight out of the jar, or added to a salad. 

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These babies are famous in my office for being impossible to open

Artichoke hearts are great in a mixed salad to add zing, with the benefit of not needing any preparation (other than arm strengthening exercises to open the bloody jar).

Another product worthy of an honourable mention is preserved lemons, which are fantastic in everything from salads to stews. My favourite use is in a bell pepper and aubergine stew with some kind of bean (gotta get that veggie protein), with pomegranate molasses to sweeten it slightly, served with quinoa / bulgur wheat. The Kitchn (great site) has a list of uses since I’m too lazy to create one myself.

As with every product I’ve mentioned, these are but a few examples of the offerings of these wonderful stores. Also great are pickled turnips, olives of every variety under the sun, and all kinds of exciting cooking pastes (harissa, biber salaci et al).

Beans, Pulses & Grains

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One of the secrets to my Hummus is the use of quality chickpeas. While most chefs swear by the cooking dried chickpeas method (this can be a good one too), it saves time and energy bills to avoid this. This doesn’t mean you have to use crappy, undercooked tinned UK supermarket chickpeas; I buy my chickpeas in a jar, where they come plumper and better-tasting than the usual variety. Not entirely sure why, but they do.

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Chickpeas aren’t the only pulses available. Exciting varieties of every bean, pulse and grain can be found at the Middle Eastern store. Favourites of mine include coarse brown bulgur wheat, freekeh, middle eastern broad beans, mograbieh (giant couscous) and every variety of rice under the sun. Many of the listed ingredients are today available in any good posh supermarket, but not at these prices nor with the level of variety (for example, you’ll simply get standard issue bulghur wheat, not fine / coarse or brown / white).

Herbs & Spices

Herbs are a great way to level up a simple dish – for example, the classic Italian Caprese salad is nothing without basil. They are, however, expensive, sold in tiny quantities, and do not keep for particularly long. I was thus delighted when at university I discovered that Maqbools sold enormous bunches of herbs for just 99p (inflation may have changed this), and went through a phase of making variations on the classic tabbouleh (see a random sweet potato one below) with alarming frequency.

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Picture taken on my iPhone 5S so don’t bash the quality

Equally excellent (and great value) are the spices you can obtain at these shops. From the standard issue ground cumin to delicious mixes like Za’atar, they really have everything, and the quality is definitely superior. They are, however, generally sold in bags rather than jars – as a solution, I buy super cute little spice jars from Tiger (£1 for 2 as of my last purchase), and refill them.

Dates & Other Sweets

I quite honestly believe that Medjool dates are responsible for my ca. 5kg weight gain when I moved to London (inactivity also contributed so I can’t singularly blame the dates). These things are the bomb. They are also another item that is extremely expensive when purchased from standard UK retailers – a kilogram from Waitrose can cost as much as £20. I was purchasing them for just £4 per kg on North End Road at the height of my addiction (I’ve had to stop buying them for the sake of my figure).

Other wonderful confectionery products available in these stores include Halwa (a tahini-based sweet), Baklava and Turkish delight (and that’s just to mention the better-known ones).

Where I shop:

  • North End Road, which I adore for its wonderful vegetable market (Monday – Saturday), is also an excellent shout for Middle Eastern supply shops.
  • South Side of Edinburgh – Maqbool’s is the biggest, but the nearby area surrounding Nicolson Square Gardens is chock full of Middle Eastern providores, including the unassuming-looking iJaz Market opposite Lidl on Nicolson street.
  • Leaving this bullet point to be filled once I’ve discovered a decent one in Switzerland…

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to stock up on North End Road goodies to be smuggled back to Switzerland. Please forgive me for any gaps in my knowledge above, I know that cuisine can be political and don’t wish to wrongly attribute any foods to any one region, just to appreciate the variety available right on our doorstep!

– Alice

 

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