A recent glance at a world map was a gastronomic education. Morocco and Lebanon, it transpires, are further from each other than Scotland and Estonia. Why, then, was I under the impression that their culinary cultures were so similar? Is it just that North Western European interpretations of these dishes homogenise them into one indistinguishable bowl of humus?
I think I’m ‘going through a phase’ at the moment, something my parents were hoping I’d have grown out of in my late teens with the end of the gothic era, but haven’t. After a trip to Tunisia last autumn, I embarked on my career in belly dancing. Six months later and I’m officially an intermediate belly dancer. Following an intrepid mission to the Tzar Peterstraat, I came home complete with mauve triangular scarf which rains golden droplets when it moves. Digging out an old skirt from my gypsy phase circa 1995, and cutting the bottom off a tight black t-shirt, the outfit was complete. I’ve even overcome the fear of showing my belly in public, to the point that I’m considering having my bellybutton pierced, depending on whether I can convince myself that this isn’t related to some kind of mid-twenties crisis. No phase is complete without its own soundtrack, and I’ve correspondingly been increasing my North Africa music collection, and now own CDs by Hossan Ramzy and Mahmoud Fadl.
Meanwhile, my interest in North African food has gone from keen to obsessive. I acquired ‘Arabesque’ for Christmas – a beautiful, understated book that charts typical recipes from Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. My flatmates were benefiting from my new toy, preserved lemon paste, for weeks. And amidst all this Maghrebian proactivity, of course, at weekends I’ve been frequenting Amsterdam’s version of the eating establishments one might find in Fez, Istanbul or Beirut.
The first was Nomads, sister restaurant of the much talked-about Supper Club and home to bare-chested waiters who should probably be on catwalks, not restaurant floors. It being my brother’s 40th birthday, we had to go somewhere special. Special, in this case, was constituted by reclining barefoot on sequined cushions whilst tiny dish after dish was set before us on an enormous, and precarious, copper platter. This also happened to be the night when I met my soon-to-be belly dancing teacher. To be perfectly honest, the low lighting, the fear of knocking 16 plates of mezze onto a half-metre thick pile of authentic Kairouan carpet, and the sheer quantity of gorgeous unashamed flesh on display, meant that I really can’t remember all that much about the food. But for entertainment value alone, Nomads should be on every Amsterdammer’s must-do list.
Some weeks later, I found myself at the charming Beyrouth, with its unapologetically doner-kebab-esque sign and its easy-to-miss location on the Kinkerstraat. While Dutch restaurants may be famed for their poor service, the Lebanese staff of Beyrouth have thankfully brought their own service culture with them. We had to turn away two waiters before we were finally ready to order from the complicatedly long menu. In the end, we plumped for the Maza (or mezze) to start with, which would probably have been more than sufficient in itself. Humus that oozed the nuttiness of tahini without its bitterness; tabbouleh that was 90% fresh herbs and 10% bulgar wheat; baba ghanoush the quality of whose olive oil disguised just how much garlic it had in it; a fresh simple tomato salad; and enough Lebanese flat bread to soak up the severest of hangovers. Which, of course, I had. The main courses were equally generous, and even I was defeated after a molehill-shaped pile of lamb fried with peppers and tomatoes. Dessert was simply not an option.
Most recent in my North African culinary tour of Amsterdam has been Zagros, a Kurdish restaurant in de Pijp. Having only a very rudimentary awareness that the Kurds and the Tutsis had been fighting with each other some time in the last decade, I hadn’t quite worked out which country this so-called Kurdish food might be from. But no matter! Similar to Beyrouth in service and mezze, this extremely reasonably priced little eaterie is lacking only in atmosphere. A re-think of the décor could help, as could more customers, and from a taste perspective it’s hard to see why the latter are so hard to come by. Perhaps its alphabetical disadvantage means that prospective customers never quite make it as far as ‘Zagros’ as they flick through their Iens restaurant guide. Nevertheless, the mezze was fresh, tasty and served with more than a perfunctory ‘alstublieft’. I can’t quite imagine belly dancers and sculpted waiters fitting into the understated décor, but hopefully the hospitality of Zagros’ Kurdish owner will make regulars of those of us Amsterdammers with tabbouleh addiction…