I hadn’t prepared fresh bread in a while, and my first Levant country was an apt ending to the hiatus. Bread is ancient food in this part of the world, fuelling the Assyrians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Phoenicians and successors who kept the cradle of civilization rocking. Today, the Khubz Arabee is a common denominator in all countries in the region, each one boasting its own proud version of the semi-leavened flatbread. Khubz Arabee is also called Syrian bread, which I’ve justified as a somewhat tenuous connection to my Syria edition’s food pick.
My go-to dip for this type of bread is Hummus or Babaghanouj, but I wanted to try something different, preferably with seasonal vegetables. I searched the Syrian sites, and swiped right on two promising candidates – Mfarakit Kusa, a courgette dip with dried mint, and Mutabal Shawandar, a beet dip with tahini sauce. Damas Gate in Shepherd’s Bush was chosen after a review of Middle Eastern shops, both for the name and wide selection of Syrian products.
Of the various theories on how Shepherd’s Bush got its name, the one I found most pertinent was that the land was probably a resting place for shepherds taking their flocks to Smithfield Market in Central London. For, 400 years hence, the area is still marooned in its ordinariness as a transit stop. A hasty patchwork of sights greeted us – a library turned theatre, a music venue, forgettable fast food franchises, shops selling this and that. A triangular green in the middle had long forsaken any attempt to liven up the place, instead pointing the visitor eastwards to Holland Park and Kensington. The area’s greatest claim to relevance in recent years is the Westfield Shopping Centre, one of the largest malls in the country, and a worthy nominee in 2009 for the Carbuncle Cup (awarded for the ugliest building of the year). Shepherd’s Bush is, to wheel out a fashionable euphemism, a work in progress.
The old BBC Television headquarters was a literal example. Sold to a private developer a few years ago, it is due to reincarnate later this year as a mixed-use venue of offices, housing, hotels and leisure facilities. The entire complex was a construction site, and sealed any chance of a visit. We walked a few blocks south to Uxbridge Road. Shepherd’s Bush Market, a row of street vendors flanking one side of the railway viaduct would have been a worthy stop, but it was closed for Sunday. In any case, our destination lay on the other side of the viaduct. Here, the neighbourhood’s mood board changed. Textile shops sold Hijab dresses, travel agents showcased their Hajj deals, restaurants offered Damascene food, pharmacies had Arabic signs. Soon, we reached our destination. The shop was lavishly stocked with all the expected Arabic ingredients, and had a surprisingly large in-house butcher. I got the courgettes, dried mint, tahini sauce and a lemon for the dips (I had already got the beets at Sainsbury’s). The shop also had a selection of freshly prepared falafels and filo pastries stuffed with things, and we took a sample home.
I whisked 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast and 1 teaspoon of sugar into a little bit of warm water, and let the yeast do its work; in 10 minutes, a heady froth had emerged. I poured it into a mixing bowl containing 2 cups of flour, ½ teaspoon of salt and a glug of olive oil. Another ½ cup of warm water went in, and the entire mixture was kneaded to a pliable dough, helped along the way by a few more drops of olive oil. The dough was left to rise for about 2 hours.
During this time, three good-sized beets went into the oven for roasting. The courgettes were cut up, sprinkled with salt, set aside to drain for about half an hour, then squeezed dry. I fried a shallot and 4 cloves of minced garlic in olive oil until golden, added the courgettes, a tablespoon of dried mint, and the juice and zest of the lemon. The whole thing stewed for 10-15 minutes until it had softened. Then, I semi-pulped it with a hand masher, seasoned, shut the heat and left it to cool.
By this time, the dough had ballooned to twice its original size, and ready for the second proof. I gently kneaded for about 2 minutes, separated into 6 balls and let them rise for another 30 minutes. I turned my attention back to the beets that had cooled off after roasting for 1 ½ hours. I peeled and grated them, added 1 mashed garlic, 2 teaspoons of tahini sauce, a dribble of olive oil and gave it a good mix.
With both dips ready to rock, it was time to roll. The dough balls were rolled into circles and baked in a super-hot oven (highest setting) one after the other, each one taking barely 3-4 minutes to puff up, removed instantly once ready and kept loosely covered in a dry towel to avoid hardening.
The tasting yielded mixed results. The beetroot dip was pure symphony, the freshness of the beets and the slight grittiness of the tahini melded by the olive oil into a deeply satisfying flavour. The bread was good, soft, warm…a decent effort by most amateur measures. The courgette dip was overpowered by the lemon; the poor mint barely stood a chance against this tart attack. Al Tikrar Yialem Al Humar!