Is there anything more wonderful than tasting the cooking of a world famous Middle Eastern chef, in her own kitchen?
I vote no.
The initial clambering up the steep stairs to Anissa Helou’s kitchen is worth it just to be greeted by the fragrant delights and warmth that you tend to only get in Middle Eastern homes: fresh herbs and spices mixed with the holy aromas of baked bread and steaming aromatic rice. I was glad I hadn’t had a snack en route to the tasting!
Helou was the most gracious of hosts greeting each and every guest and, discussing the menu for her newest venture, Koshari Street, an Egyptian-inspired ‘hole-in-the-wall’ experience (www.kosharistreet.com).
‘Koshari is one of Egypt’s quintessential street foods’, the press release says, ‘this humble yet outstandingly tasty vegetarian dish of lentils, rice and pasta, topped with spicy tomato sauce, chickpeas and crispy fried onions… has been given a little dusting off and a good sprucing up’.
No one can deny that the simplest dishes on a menu are usually the best on offer: a few good ingredients combined with the fragrance of herbs and spices to whet the appetite and get the taste buds flowing. Helou has done just this, taking the concept of fast food into another healthy direction but cleverly avoids the clichéd meal versions currently available on the streets of London; using an authentic dish but tweaking it the way she only knows how, Koshari has three different levels of spice: mild, hot and mad!
Personally, I am not an adventurous eater when it comes to spicy food so I opted for the mildly spiced Koshari. Others tried the hot and the aptly named, mad which was indeed, quite mad, but absolutely delicious; in my colleague’s words “a whole new experience for my taste buds leaving me salivating for more”.
For me, the mild was perfect. Each morsel of Helou’s Koshari allows you to savour each different ingredient without being overwhelmed by the heat of the chillies. We also had a chance to taste White Tabbouleh which I was a bit nervous about as Tabbouleh is my favourite salad and I’m quite particular about it. I was very pleasantly surprised, Helou had once again adapted an age-old recipe; there was no cracked or bulgur wheat in sight and she substituted finely chopped parsley for shredded cabbage. Regardless of my personal opinions on the definition of Tabbouleh, Helou’s White Tabbouleh is divine; the quality of ingredients and flavours are going to be a sure fire hit with the London crowd.
And then it was time for dessert. I had seen on the menu that there were three options: Muhallabiyeh(fragrant organic milk pudding), Mishmishiya (apricot leather pudding) and Fresh Fruit Salad. I was secretly hoping that we would get a chance to try Helou’s Muhallabiyeh because it’s a favourite of mine but it was to be Mishmishiya on the tasting menu tonight. I’ve had apricot leather, or as it is locally knownAmr el Deen, before but this was my first time eating it melted into a pudding-like consistency. Now, I love Amr El Deen; it’s one of the weirdest textures but most delicious flavour I’ve ever tried; it also reminds me of Beirut. Helou’s Mishmishiya was not short of delicious! Having said that I’m not convinced the British public will readily warm to its pureed consistency. While it is true that Londoners are an adventurous bunch when it comes to food I think the team at Koshari Street might have a bit of a battle on their hands with Mishmishiya.
When Koshari Street opens at the end of March on St. Martin’s Lane, you will most probably see me leading the queue of people waiting to have lunch there. The Koshari is unquestionably one of the best lunchtime meals I’ve had in a long time; it’s also inexpensive and comfortably filling which, as most people working in London know, is a vital part of any lunch break.
I can’t wait for Koshari Street to open. I’ll certainly be taking my friends and family there for lunchtime! London: a city about to be blessed with Anissa Helou’s Middle Eastern culinary genius proving that it really is the food genre of the decade.
Koshari Street opens at the end of March 2013 on 56 St Martin’s Lane, London W1
Article first published on The Arab British Centre website;