Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Meal # 62 - Egypt

Having been the home of the Pyramids since the 27th Century BCE, Egypt can legitimately claim to have invented the tourist attraction. It has been a popular destination for travellers ever since, a melting pot of different cultures and the gateway to Africa. May our journey into the "Dark Continent" commence!

Bedouin Kitchen

103 Grey Street

Saint Kilda

If you can’t find your way to the Bedouin Kitchen, you can always look it up in your Lonely Planet guide to Melbourne, where it is listed as an attraction. Or you can go the website (, which at the time of writing is charmingly unfinished and contains such gems of information as “The Bedouin Kitchen has a reputation for providing the highest quality service and etc etc.....” and “Stuff about functions goes here”.

The actual restaurant is a striking location. With intricate metalwork lamps hanging from the ceiling, rich red walls and wood furniture, it is both cosy and exotic. A caravan of diners came this week, including Flick, Dale, Rami, Caroline, Sai, Paul, Deb, Nick and Naomi. The mood was celebratory, with several big announcements (a baby, an engagement, a new digital set top box) warranting good cheer and champagne.

With its warm atmosphere and live entertainment in the form of belly dancing, this was a great venue to celebrate in. (Just as well no one got engaged the week we went to Sumatra…)

The Meal

The menu was divided into two sections: mezze (entrée-size snacking plates) and claypots, which were larger meals. The food was best suited for sharing, with a combination of claypot and mezze dishes providing a varied meal.

Several Middle Eastern favourites, like meatballs (here called kibbeh) were to be found on the mezze menu. Kibbeh’s main point of distinction from your regular meatball is that the lamb mince (spiced, naturally) is rolled in burghul wheat and then chargrilled. They were served with yogurt.

By contrast, the whitebait was more similar to a Greek dish. Dusted in flour and zahtar, the fish were lightly fried and served whole, heads and all. This wasn’t for everybody. Zahtar itself is worth sampling though. Based on a blend of thyme, sesame and salt, and occasionally including other spices like sumac or cumin, it is one of the most distinctive flavours of the Middle East. It featured in several dishes at Bedouin Kitchen, so you it is possible to try it here without fish heads.

The mezze menu also included a number of vegetarian options, from basic salads to more exotic dishes like the pumpkin drizzled in tahini and honey. We had the artichoke and pea salad which was a simple but surprisingly effective dish. Using just artichoke hearts and baby peas, its light dressing of olive oil and dill allowed the natural flavour of the vegetables to be expressed beautifully.

It would be possible to have a whole meal of mezze, but the claypot is a staple of North African cooking so we of course we had to try them. Pride of place among those offered on the menu was Ful Medames, sometimes referred to as Egypt’s national dish. It’s a fairly basic kind of meal actually, consisting of semi-mashed fava beans spiced with coriander, garlic and zahtar. In Egypt ful gets served in a variety of ways, including with an egg for breakfast or in sandwiches as fast food, but here it came in a pot with rice.

Another distinctly Egyptian dish was the Melokhia. Described on the menu as an “Egyptian desert weed”, melokhia is actually made from the edible leaves of the same plant that produces jute fibres. It was served as a kind of dark sludgy soup, made from the desert weed in question and lamb stock, and was served poured over rice. Apparently, the Fatimids (former sultans of Egypt, back in the day) once made melokhia their signature dish and banned anyone else from having it. What people were missing out on as a result of this decree was an earthy flavour fairly similar to silverbeet.

We also had the Bamia with Lamb. Bamia is the Arabic word for okra (also somewhat gruesomely called “ladies fingers”), a popular vegetable throughout Africa and the Middle East. Combined with slow cooked lamb and rice it made not only for a distinctively Middle Eastern meal but also one of the tastiest we had. It would be hard to imagine anything more comforting on a cold night, unless that were the Middle Eastern mash. This hearty treat comprised coarsely mashed potato, flavoured with potato, butter, garlic and coriander.

After all this food, we didn’t have room for dessert, although the menu did have some tempting options, using flavours like cinnamon and orange blossom, along with some uniquely Egyptian drinks. We hadn’t eaten too much to get up and dance though!

The Verdict

This was an interesting stop. The venue had real atmosphere and the menu was distinctive. We had some concern that any Egyptian restaurant we found would end up serving generic Middle Eastern food – kebabs etc – but this certainly wasn’t the case. Not only did the menu include many Egyptian signature dishes, like the melokhia and the ful medames, but even the more generic meals seemed to represent the melting pot that is Egypt, equally reminiscent of Morocco as Arabia. In all, it was a convincingly authentic North African experience, right down to the belly dancing. While that did of course include the compulsory get-a-patron-up-to-dance theatre of embarrassment, it was also a good performance in its own right, executed with flair and energy.

Also in the positive was the range of vegetarian options on the menu and, of course, being back in the Middle East, kosher diets were no problem. However, it must be said that some of our diners were a bit nonplussed by their meals. All the dishes were decent but a lot of them were just that, decent, without flavours that really jumped out at you. Whether that’s because dishes were modulated for Western tastes, or if it’s just an aspect of Egyptian cookery we can’t say.

Nonetheless we had an entertaining night here. The prices varied, with most mezze under $10 and claypots between $15 - $20 if vegetarian and $25 + for those with meat. While the service could be a bit haphazard, the staff were friendly and generally attentive. Bedouin Kitchen is certainly worth a visit, and in breaking from the generic mould of pan-Middle Eastern cuisine and serving genuine Egyptian-style dishes, it is doing something fairly unique.

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