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The demand from the guests was to get Dubai food in Kolkata. Souk, the Mediterranean restaurant of Taj Bengal Kolkata, has already earned its reputation amongst the guests for its choicest of Mediterranean dishes across various countries such as Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Morocco and other countries. For quite some time, diners would subsequently request for food such as they have eaten at Dubai, which is one of the most popular destinations for Arabic food, especially among a large section of the community in Kolkata.
Celebrity Chef Majed al Shabagh, who is originally from Syria and settled in Dubai for the last 20 years, had to be brought in to Souk Kolkata, to organise the Dubai Arabic food festival. The Arabic food in Dubai is an amalgamation of different favourite dishes from the Mediterranean countries and as the chef says, tabouleh (traditional Arabic parsley, tomato salad with bulgur, lemon juice and olive oil), hummus (famous Egyptian dip of chickpea paste with tahina sauce and lemon) and baba ghanoush (Lebanese dish of fresh vegetables and char grilled eggplant flavoured with pomegranate syrup) are found almost in all Mediterranean restaurants and if that was not enough, it is sold in some Indian restaurants in Dubai too. Although these three common dishes are present in the menu, this festival is more than just these mezze platters with some pita.
If Indian food is like an orchestra where all individual spices play their own notes and also try to maintain a balance to create a symphony of taste, Mediterranean food is a like a classical recital of one instrument which spell bounds the audience for hours with some minor help. So, most of the dishes have one or rarely two ruling spices and as a principle they do not mix the spices. The use of herbs on the other hand is quite popular and such as the spices, it is usually one herb which takes over the dish.
The cold mezze has more than just these three dips. The most unusual one is hummus bill lahem or hummus with cubes of lamb and pine nuts giving it a chunky bite with the creamy and smooth hummus. There is an assortment of Arabic salads having the famous fattoush which is a shami mixed vegetable salad flavoured with sumac. If the salads and the cold mezze are concentrated on flavours and textures, the hot mezze is nothing short of bombardment of taste. From sautéed chicken wings, falafel to a very different lamb kibbeh, which is baked and made with lamb fat, lamb and white bulgur mixture, some spinach fatayer; it cannot get any better.
The use of lemon in most of the dishes is quite evident from the rustic charm every grilled dish has. The array of grills is quite enviable with grilled lamb chops, mix grills, rubiyan or prawns, shish taouk and Aleppo lamb kababs are big on flavor, tender and juicy from inside and light on the palette. There are more than enough options for vegetarian lovers with fresh vegetable greens in Arabic spices, grilled mushrooms with thyme and sautéed onions, grilled halloumi cheese and batat mash'weh which are baked potatoes stuffed with labneh, lemon and spring onion. The main course with the artichoke lahm stew is going to become one of the signatures of Souk. The perfectly tender meat with artichoke, carrots, green peas and coriander in a smooth and creamy, and at the same time lemony sauce is nothing short of perfection and is a clear favourite. For staples, one can opt for vermicelli rice, which is light and has a very unique flavoured profile or some Syrian Ouzzi rice.
The dessert is a selection of dishes from across the region from the famous baklava to umm ali, the traditional Egyptian sweet with nuts and cream, molhabya, perhaps second in line after Baklava in popularity being a Syrian pudding flavoured with pistachio, rosewater and honey, a whole assortment of Turkish tit bits and indulgent apricot ice cream and tahina infused icecream.
There are few places in Kolkata where one can get true Mediterranean cuisine in Kolkata and amongst them; Souk is definitely the go to place. Perhaps the fact that Mediterranean cuisine and cooking methodology along with the restricted usage of spices may not have been a very popular cuisine for Kolkata but the response to festivals like these definitely proves a point that times are changing and Kolkata is getting ready to embrace yet another cuisine.
This food festival is on till the 18th of September 2016 and is on á la carte for weekdays. However, weekend lunches are available in the buffet format as well.
A true blue Kolkata foodie, Anindya loves cooking and eating his Kosha Mangsho. Anindya weaves stories around food as he believes exceptional food is an emotional experience. Previously a restauranter, now a passionate photographer and traveller, he runs a successful blog called Pikturenama and contributes to other publications.