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Middle Eastern festive feasting

Categories: News and previews

Ahead of her upcoming demo, chef Yasmin Khan shares tips on incorporating Middle Eastern flavours into your festive meals

A few years ago, as part of the research for my cookbook Zaitoun, I visited Bethlehem, a small Palestinian town in the heart of the West Bank. It was late November, just a few weeks before Christmas, and the Church of the Nativity was filled with pilgrims who had travelled thousands of miles to pay their respects at Jesus’ birthplace. I, however, was on a different kind of pilgrimage, taking a journey through Palestinian kitchens on a mission to learn about the region’s culinary treasures.

Walking through Bethlehem’s food markets one afternoon I was struck by the abundance of local, seasonal produce on display: from cauliflowers to pumpkins, chard to cabbage. Indeed, Palestinian cuisine’s emphasis on plant-based food was one of the culinary surprises of my travels through the region.

The other surprise was how often I encountered a kitchen filled with the scents I most commonly associate with Christmas. Wherever I travelled in Palestine, I was never far from a waft of alluring allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg or clove that filled the air with their sweet, mystical, aroma. I suppose, given the origins of the nativity story, it should be no surprise that the flavours of Palestinian kitchens are the perfect way to spruce up any festive feast.

The crusaders
The most traditional way to incorporate Middle Eastern flavours at Christmas is with desserts and sweets like Christmas cake or spiced biscuits. Indeed, our famous mince pies are believed to have originated from the crusaders, who returned from the Holy Land with an affinity for mixing dried fruit with nuts and meat. But you can also incorporate them in savoury courses, by brining your turkey with orange, cinnamon, caraway and allspice for a tender, juicy and flavoursome roast.

My favourite way to bring a taste of the Middle East to my Christmas feast is through vegetables, which I like to give prime position at my table. Taking the time to add spices and herbs to vegetable sides is a guaranteed way to elevate your Christmas meal into something truly special. It also brings an enlivening splash of colour and crunch to your spread.

Here are some simple ideas to incorporate Middle Eastern flavours into your Christmas meals:

Get fruity
Dried fruits and fruit molasses are very common, adding a much desired sweet and sour tang. Try adding raisins, pine nuts, prunes or apricots to your turkey stuffing, or make a dressing using pomegranate molasses, garlic and extra virgin olive oil to spruce up your brussels sprouts.

Celebrate the sour
Many dishes make judicious use of sour flavourings, from lemons, limes and verjus, to astringent spices such as sumac. A squeeze of sharp orange juice works wonders on braised red cabbage or roasted carrots, and a sprinkle of sumac on crispy roast potatoes is a real delight.

Go heavy on the herbs
Fresh and dried herbs are also used in abundance at this time of year. I often turn to za’atar—a wonderful dried herb spice mix made with wild thyme and sesame that works incredibly well with roasted meats and vegetables. Try sprinkling some on a whole roasted cauliflower, or on thick wedges of butternut squash.

Join Yasmin for tips, tastings and recipes Friday 30th November in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm