The Edgware Road is one of the oldest roads in Britain, stretching a rather impressive nearly-10 miles in a straight line from Marble Arch to Edgware. Its southern end is rammed with Middle Eastern restaurants, shops and cafés, the air humming with the fruity puff of shishas, customers' cheeks filling with smoke, hamster-style, between their chatting and sipping.
Although this is a very diverse area of London — the first Indian restaurant was built here in 1810 for example, and the first Jewish synagogue in 1870 — the fact remains that the area is best known today for its Arabic population. It is often referred to as Little Cairo, or Little Beirut. Walking up this stretch of buzz and bling, it’s hard to believe it’s just moments from Buckingham Palace, or indeed that it was once covered entirely by forest.
Edgware began to attract Arab migrants in the 19th century thanks to an increase in trade with the Ottoman Empire. In the 1950s many Egyptians moved to the area, and from the 1970s the influx of Arabs continued rapidly due to the Lebanese Civil War; 20 years later people fled here from political unrest in Iraq and Algeria.
Many refugees left behind highly skilled careers in their home countries, which they were not able to pick up on their arrival in the UK; many started businesses in the food industry, celebrating the cuisine of their homeland through coffee shops, patisseries, cafés and restaurants.
To walk down the Edgware Road is to be immersed in the dizzying world of colour, pattern, honeyed scent, chatter and social eating — all of which is just so typically Arabic. Tables fill the streets, and the people fill the tables, passing the mouthpiece of a hookah between friends. The scent of roasted coffee beans and sweet tea rises from demitasse or glass cups, mingled with the warmth of cardamom, while sticky dates and candied fruits wink from plates alongside. Mezze flies onto tables, little round dishes clattering against each other, each full of promise, glittering with olive oil. Puffy mats of bread are torn and smeared into hummus, baba ganoush and kibbeh nayeh (chopped raw lamb and bulgur wheat — a version of the national dish of Lebanon).
The food shops are caves of wonders; behold the ingredients and delicacies sought out by Arabic customers. There are fruits and vegetables — blushing pomegranates, feathery herbs, crisp miniature cucumbers, gourds and fresh dates.
The olive and pickle section is always vast — barrels brim with the marinated and preserved, olives twinkling with oil and neon-purple turnips. A walk around a corner reveals the sweets counters, packing so much icing sugar, pastry and syrup; the fragrance of orange blossom and rose water muddle with the toasty scent of nuts and honey.
There are great fluffy swirls of ice cream, building blocks of halwa and sticky, dripping baklava.
To talk about ‘Arabic cuisine’ is to paint some very broad strokes indeed, and for the purposes of this series we will narrow things down. First up then, it’s a Lebanese dish: the fattoush. This salad uses seasonal vegetables, crisp shards of pitta bread and citrus-y sumac to make a very refreshing dish with plenty of interesting textures.
The bread would often be deep fried, but to do that ‘just’ for a salad seems ridiculous even to this dedicated kitchen nerd. Toasting provides the necessary crunch and makes the salad lighter.
1 small lettuce of your choosing (one with a little bit of crunch is best, but save the iceberg for your burgers), leaves broken into bite size pieces
About 15 cherry tomatoes, lovely and ripe, halved (you can of course replace with larger tomatoes, and different coloured ones will make you look particularly brilliant)
1 Lebanese cucumber, or ½ regular British cucumber (de-seeded if the latter) and sliced
2 spring onions, very finely sliced
1 Lebanese flatbread, or 1 large pitta bread, toasted until crisp (if using the pitta you may need to split it and re-toast), broken into pieces
1 large bunch of mint, leaves picked
1 large bunch of parsley, leaves picked
For the dressing:
1.5 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic
2 teaspoons sumac
Salt to taste
Toast the pittas until very crisp, and then mix with a very small amount of oil. Mix the salad vegetables together in a bowl. Make the dressing by whisking all ingredients together with 1 teaspoon of the sumac and seasoning with salt and pepper. When you’re ready to serve the salad, toss in the dressing and bread pieces and scatter with the remaining sumac.