Baguio has become a gastronomic destination, apart from the fog and the tourist spots that are sensory filling thrills. Prior to the pandemic, thriving Indian, Pakistani, Thai, and other Asian and western restaurants were patronized by travelers seeking savory meals that had different spices. The restaurant with the longest name, The Best Middle Eastern Cuisine in Town, located along Rimando Road beside Saint Louis University, was the new spot that had to be tested on a rainy afternoon.
Middle Eastern food brings to mind hummus and pita but google searching reveals the differences in the menu like kabsa, mandi, and zorbian. The cooking details make a lot of difference in the flavors of these names and distinctions.
Zorbian type meals are seared with spices like cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cloves, and cardamom pods. Once richly browned this is then simmered with whole or halved potatoes. The potatoes are removed once cooked and set aside.
The meat is cooked until about 80 percent tender. Then the broth is drained and set aside. Then yogurt is blended with green onions and half of the fried onions that were caramelized before the meat was seared.
This mixture is used to simmer the drained meat a second time until tender and 100 percent cooked. Then the rice is boiled in a pot with bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. When this is 75 percent cooked, this is drained with the spices removed. Then in another pot, the potatoes are covered with the meat, the rice poured to cover the two layers, then this is simmered for the last time in the yogurt mixture until the broth is fully soaked by the potatoes, meat, and rice. Then this is placed in a large serving dish then the leftover caramelized onion is used as garnish with the chopped parsley.
Authentic Yemeni mandi, on the other hand, is cooked in an underground oven called taboon using coals. In a pot, the slow cooked the chicken or meat that is rubbed with a spice called Hawaij is placed on a rack over the rice. The juices from the meats flavor the rice that is slow cooked in the same pot. This came with two sauces, yogurt and chili.
The simplest is chicken kabsa, so to speak. The cardamom, bay leaf, cinnamon, pepper corn, and coriander are sautéed in oil. Then onions and garlic are sauteed, after browned the spices Kashmiri, coriander, turmeric, and cumin are added. The chicken thighs or parts are added and sauteed a few minutes, tomato paste and tomato puree follow, also sauteed a few more minutes then, this is simmered with water added covering the meat. Then when the meat is cooked, this is drained and set aside. Then two or three tablespoons of tomato paste is placed in a bowl and three tablespoons of the seasoned broth added, the sauce is used to baste the cooked thighs, that are baked for another 20 minutes.
Water is added to the left-over broth to cook the amount of basmati rice that will be boiled in it. This is cooked in low heat. When this is ready, then the whole spices are set aside. The rice is placed in the serving dish that is topped with the baked chicken and garnished with cashews. However, in this restaurant, the garnish used is the caramelized onions that are browned, or ends are made crisp.
Eggplants are a big thing in middle eastern food, and I had to sample Beef Moussaka because it was new to me, and I never heard of it before. This spicy savory dish is likewise cooked in tomato sauce. The beef cubes were cooked in a rich spicy sauce made with potatoes and eggplants. There were sliced green peppers in the dish. Eaten with pita instead of rice, this is good with any kind of bread if you ask me.
Dessert was Arika, this was described as sweet savory dates – based dish made with a base of over ripened dates and ground flatbread. Cream and honey were added to the mixture. This was creamy and utterly sweet. To some it could be too sweet to consume in one sitting. But this is the perfect antidote to the spicy food.
Although the spices are common in many of their dishes, it is the varied ways of cooking them that makes these dish preparations unique in their textures and flavors. Those who like hummus and falafel will enjoy this restaurant that claims it is the best middle eastern cuisine in town that’s worth a try. — Nonnette C. Bennett