ew would dispute Hong Kong’s status as a culinary melting pot – a stroll through Soho is like travelling around the world with your taste buds. Nevertheless, the Middle Eastern dining scene has not taken off in the capital as much as the other metropolises worldwide such as New York and London. In fact, the region’s cuisine is often misidentified as simply Mediterranean food, or is generalised with the more notable dishes such as kebabs, hummus and grilled meats.
With Middle Eastern cuisines’ popularity skyrocketing and diners with adventurous palates continue seeking new flavours, it’s time for Hong Kong to rethink the cuisine, which has been underrated in the city for years.
There’s something unique about Middle Eastern food – it comes with a story. Chef Jad Youssef’s culinary concept for example, is deeply intertwined with family traditions and childhood memories “I’ve always adored my mum’s kitchen in our Beirut home. My mother is a passionate cook and thanks to her culinary open-mindedness and her unscripted inventions in the kitchen, I fell in love with creative cooking,” says the Executive Chef of Maison Libanaise.
The Lebanese chef grew up helping his mother preparing home-cooked feasts and assisting his father at work in his popular pastry shop in the neighbourhood. “Dad’s pastry shop was always warm with freshly baked pastries, trays of baklava and knefe. He would be up working from 5am to get the knefe ready for the morning rush. Neighbours would drop by on their way to work for breakfast, coffee and a chat,” recalls Youssef.
The hearty execution of food and the connection with customers remain as the core of the Lebanese chef’s philosophy. “The fragrant aromas of rose and orange blossom water that clouded the bakery reached all the way to the end of the street, which I think is probably incomprehensible in the industrialised West now. Customers loved the old-style pastry shop interior and the daily hustle and bustle of Dad’s local neighbourhood gem.”
Family dinners are a pillar of life in the Middle East. “Every Friday night, our family would meet and have dinner together. The food itself is important, but it’s secondary to the actual idea of eating together,” recalls chef Asher Goldstein, Co-founding partner and Head Chef of Francis. “Even when we have grown up, the tradition continues. Every Friday, one of my sisters brings the bread, the other brings a pie and my mum makes the stew. Everyone brings a dish and we all share the food together.” In many ways, the sense of sharing a casual yet warm Middle Eastern meal is the key ingredient.
“THE FOOD ITSELF IS IMPORTANT, BUT IT’S SECONDARY TO THE ACTUAL IDEA OF EATING TOGETHER." – Chef Asher Goldstein
Food in the Middle East goes beyond just sustenance. The idea of eating together is central to Middle Eastern culture, and many households spend hours, even days, to prepare a remarkable spread of dishes for family meals. “I have seven aunties, and every holiday my mum would send me to different auntie’s place for two weeks. Growing up I always used to compare their cooking skills,” laughs Goldstein. “They all have Iraqi backgrounds so their cooking is full of stew and a lot of carbs. They all follow the same family recipes, which are passed on through generations.”
While both chefs hailed from the Middle East, they have left footprints in other corners of the world. Having won the hearts and stomachs of Londoners with his rustic Israeli cuisine and warm services at Yalla Yalla, a popular Lebanese street food restaurant-chain, Youssef joined the fast-growing Blacksheep Restaurants in January after calling London home for over a decade.
“Hong Kong had been on my mind for some time, as the culture of the city was fascinating to me,” points out Youssef. “Lebanese food is one of the most popular and fastest growing cuisines in the world but it isn’t as ubiquitous in Hong Kong as it is in other cities. The idea of being able to develop and popularise the food I love in a culinary hub like Hong Kong was hugely appealing to me.”
Currently taking the helm of Maison Libanaise, the three-storey hippie joint along the Soho escalator, Youssef is elevating experience of convivial meze-style eating by ensuring flavours and nutrition go hand in hand. “Middle Eastern dishes are full of flavours, thanks to the array of herbs and spices you’ll find in every dish. While techniques are relatively simple for Middle Eastern recipes, the ingredients lists tend to be long, however more variety means more nutrients,” says Youssef. “I love to create dishes using spices such as Lebanese five spice, sumac, cardamom and cinnamon to add depth and warmth, while pomegranate molasses, seeds and different nuts add texture and bite.”
Similar to his successful restaurant concepts in London, Youssef wanted authenticity at the heart of Maison Libanaise. “We’ve recently added a few of my favourite dishes that are very typical examples of the Lebanese cuisine you’d find all over my hometown of Beirut.” Some of the must-try dishes include Sawda Djej, a comfort dish that is packed with flavours and nutrients, thanks to the combination of the tender chicken livers and the fresh garlic and pomegranate molasses. In fact, The Guardian and Time Out crowned this dish as one of ‘The Best 100 Dishes in London’ in 2012.
Arayes, on the other hand, is also a humble crowd pleaser. Take a bite and you will be transported to the bustling streets of the Levant region. Think of it as a Middle Eastern sandwich filled with minced meat, tomatoes, onions, parsley and a melody of spices.
The welcoming restaurant offers hearty made-toorder street food for takeaway on the ground floor, known as Le Comptoir. For those who like to dine in, grab a seat at the al fresco space La Buvette, where you can enjoy tongue-tingling bites amidst vibrant Moorish mosaic and colorful tiles. In case the rooftop is full, dine on the first floor, although it can be slightly too loud at times.
Despite the idea of Middle Eastern cuisine may remain exotic for many local diners, Youssef highlighted one important element that ties both Chinese and Middle Eastern food together. “The family-style mezze dining that I love is not too dissimilar to the local Chinese way of eating. In fact, both our cultures prefer sharing lots of smaller dishes so you can try a lot, rather than having a big plate of one thing as you might in Europe.”
“MIDDLE EASTERN CUISINE IS ABUNDANT AND GENEROUS. IT’S A WAY OF EATING THAT HAS THE POWER TO CONNECT PEOPLE.” – Chef Jad Youssef
Originally from Israel and a native of Tel Aviv, Goldstein has over 12 years of culinary experience under his belt. “I was trained in a French cooking school in Sydney, where I learnt how to make bread, cure meat and make Italian cheese. I did a lot of learning but never tried to apply these techniques on Middle Eastern food during my time there,” points out Goldstein. “So when we were brainstorming the culinary concept of Francis, it just came naturally for me to focus on Tel Aviv cuisine with European influences.”
Nestled in the booming precinct of St. Francis Street, the new 30-seat restaurant is the joint concept between Goldstein, veteran restaurant manager James Ward and seasoned sommelier Simone Sammuri. The neighbourhood joint, despite only having opened in Wanchai in January, has attracted a steady stream of diners, who return for the restaurant’s simple but well-executed dishes and its impressive wine list.
The chef has generously studded his ingredientdriven menu with a range of authentic mezzes, which
“THE FOOD ITSELF IS IMPORTANT, BUT IT’S SECONDARY TO THE ACTUAL IDEA OF EATING TOGETHER.” – Chef Asher Goldstein