Before hummus was on the shopping list of every health-minded North American and tahini was sold in every grocery store, I had the good fortune of being introduced to authentic Middle Eastern cuisine. In my early twenties, I dated an Iraqi man who grew up in Abu Dhabi. His mom was an incredible cook, and over the span of our relationship, I got a steady introduction to a whole new world of foods – things I might not have tried until years later. Over several years, I was offered saucy spoonfuls of eggplant and okra-based dishes, an irresistible meat pizza called lahm bi ajeen, dolma, date-stuffed cookies and, perhaps my favorite, Middle Eastern braided cheese (which goes by jibneh mshallaleh and many other names). Coming from a small Canadian city of simple tastes, my culinary world blew wide open with every spice-filled bite.
What many people don’t realize, though, is that the Middle East is not a monolith. It’s made up of many subregions, all with their own twists, takes and terms for their region’s celebrated dishes. The culinary variances of the Middle East are so nuanced that traditions and ingredients vary not only by region but even from one family to the next.
After a difficult year of stasis that stripped us down to simplicity in every imaginable way, we decided to go beyond the plain backyard burger and other predictable grilled goods in favor of something more worldly. We were lucky to collaborate with Himi Hunaidi, an acclaimed Palestinian chef and owner of Toronto restaurant-turned-bodega Madame Levant (named after the Levant region, the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean) on “A Levantine Grilling Feast,” starting on page 40. One spin through the pages of this story will have you grabbing your tote and heading for the market so you can cook up these stunning, storied dishes from this pocket of the Middle East.
But big flavors don’t have to mean mile-long ingredient lists and daylong cooking marathons, especially when it comes to summertime cooking and meal prep. Which is why we’re staying true to a summer theme that never goes out of style with an entire issue – including the Levantine feast – that relies on minimal ingredients and 30 minutes or less to make each recipe inside.
Here’s to sunnier days ahead, a delicious summer and, hopefully, a few trips to the Levant from your backyard.