Known to be one of the healthiest, Lebanese cuisine is also high on flavour and palate. The Middle-Eastern delicacies are a gourmet’s delight and Executive Oriental Head Chef, Ali El Bourji from Atlantis, The Palm Dubai’s Ayamna restaurant is at the Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai collaborating with Souk’s own Master Chef Simoun Chakour. Chef Ali was here to share the finer nuances of Lebanese cuisine, considered to be one of the Top 5 cuisines in the world, as we relished his elaborate mezze and desserts.
His live cooking demos on shows, and recipes and food presentations featured extensively in the media have a steady fan following. Chef Ali who has visited India twice before, is fond of the ubiquitous Butter Chicken and the modesty of Indians. Besides reading and watching films in his leisure time, here is a chef who enjoys road and mountain biking. We caught up with Chef Ali over a Lebanese lunch at Souk and this is what he has to say about the cuisine and his signature dish...
What makes Lebanese cuisine special apart from it being the healthiest food?
- Lebanese cuisine reflects the cultural variety of Lebanon. It’s a mix of Mediterranean ingredients with middle eastern spices and sauce influenced by the Ottomans, made from nature’s goodness that made it famous world-wide.
I believe there are more vegetarian-based preparations than seafood and meat?
- Most of the Lebanese dishes are originally vegetarian and adding meat poultry or seafood is an option, the reason behind it is the simplicity of our ancestors who used to eat what they grew or found randomly in the ground; adding meat was considered a luxury that not everyone can afford.
What would be some of your innovative items?
- I always add my special touch for each and every dish I serve to my guests. I never go to the extreme with changing the taste while I am totally different with presentation so I make sure that all my dishes are presented with an attractive frame because now we are eating with our eyes before tasting the dishes. I created live skewers shawarma (Lamb & Chicken) that I used to serve on a skewer full of charcoal with all condiments to enable the guests to create their own special bites enjoying, sharing it as well as learning how to cut shawarma in a professional way.
Have you incorporated typically Indian ingredients in any of your Middle Eastern dishes?
- Arabic or Middle Eastern cuisine is a combination of the rich diversities of Middle Eastern, Medi-terranean and Indian influences. As a result, ingredients that are predominantly used in Middle Eastern cuisine such as mint, yogurt, saffron, sesame, rice and certain spices are similarly used in Mediterranean and Indian cuisine as well. However, the essential concept in Arabic cuisine is hospitality and one can experience true Middle Eastern hospitality when dining at Ayamna in Atlantis, The Palm Dubai.
Does Lebanese mezze style of share-plate dining still exist?
- The whole concept of Lebanese feast is about generosity and sharing, that’s why you will see many dishes on the table to be shared by family and friends - it is all about socialising.
How innovative can one get with Baklava?
- Baklava is originally made from a thin layer of dough with nuts filling in different shapes, recently some chefs are trying to innovate using chocolate or ice-cream filling, I still prefer the traditional though, taking into consideration that Lebanese baklawa is totally different from Turkish or Greek as it is more light and doesn’t contain a lot of dough layers with less syrup.
What would be your favourite Indian cuisine and also a dish you relish?
- It’s a difficult question to answer. India is such a large country with a wide variety of traditions and culture and of course food. My favourite cuisine is from the north of India, something I really am a fan of is Butter chicken served with fresh hot butter naan.