A Lebanese red pepper dip with cumin and pomegranate; a medley of ingredients that would have winged their way in ancient times from one end of the Mediterranean to the other.
I find food culture one of the most fascinating ways to trace our common history in the region. Malta, with its grand natural harbour settled by the islands’ first documented inhabitants – the Phoenicians – has clear culinary and cultural overlap with the eastern Mediterranean. This classic Lebanese red pepper dip to my mind recalls Malta’s past as a strategic stop-over and trading port since ancient times, midway in this sea cum region that was an entrance to the silk and spice routes. Spices are still found for sale, just as they always were, close to Grand Harbour; there’s a hole-in-the-wall spice shop in Valletta that looks as if it’s been there 150 years or more. Inside, the spices are loose in drawers and large sacks. The wonderful aromatic ingredients are served up in scoopfuls not a pathetic little cellophane packets.
Last week, we dined at a Lebanese restaurant downtown on the fringes of Sliema, a seafront resort in Malta. Red Bistro chef and hubby were celebrating 19 years of married life. Now we’re ‘long in the tooth’ about dining out, we weren’t keen to feast on regular Italo-style food that we make at home, nor did we fancy an Asian meal. We were in search of decent prices and something new on our tastebuds.
We headed a mere 20 minute drive to discover a cuisine that lies four hours further east along the Med from us in Malta; Lebanese, courtesy of Ali Baba. The restaurant was opened in 1986 and until last autumn was just as it was back then – no-frills, 80s’ decor with a slight Middle-Eastern appearance, and run by the father of the current owner. It got a face-lift last year, and its menu upped a bit (not that it wasn’t extensive and tasty before) to include some special twists on traditional Lebanese cuisine. We opted for mezze with hot and cold dishes. I love mezze as little dishes keep arriving, each with its unique flavour to discover and umm and err over. One of the first to arrive was an orangey-red dip – almost a hummus – but not quite. We couldn’t remember what we’d ordered and I think the waiter had recommended this one; it was divine. Apparently, it’s Muhammara, which translates as roasted red peppers, walnuts, brown bread crumbs, garlic, chilli and pomegranate molasses.
Keen to make the meal live on, I’ve tried to recreate this eastern Med red pepper dip. Every restaurant has its ‘secret’ ingredient or one that’s impossible for the lay-chef to find. Googling pomegranate molasses, I discovered that it is reduced pomegranate juice – a thick syrup. You could use Grenadine if you like instead of making your own syrup. This dip is a moreish snack on pitta for lunch or to accompany an aperitif as the sun goes down, especially on our hot June days in the central Mediterranean. Quite frankly, it was about all I wanted or needed to eat all day!
Seeing it in photos, I am already thinking of my next Ali Baba visit. Its chicken livers and lamb-stuffed pitta were incredible!
All images © Liz Ayling 2013
Lebanese ‘Muhammara’ red pepper dip
Serves 6-8 as a dip to accompany drinks.
6-8 red bell peppers or 3 large regular peppers
1/2 cup brown breadcrumbs
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
2 garlic cloves (or up to 4 according to taste)
1/2 tsp sea salt
fresh-ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper or half tsp red chilli flakes if you like it hotter
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (thick syrup) or Grenadine (optional)
1. Prep peppers: char the whole peppers til blackened and crispy either on a BBQ grill or hot plate, directly on the hob (if gas flame) or under a regular oven grill. Turn peppers to ensure all sides are charred nicely, then place them in a strong polythene bag or Tupperware container with lid. Seal, allow to cool for around 5 minutes until cool enough to handle to slightly softened. Using some kitchen paper (and rubber gloves if you like), rub off the charred skin and use a small paring knife to scrape any bits left on. Then cut off the stalk end, cut pepper lengthwise in half, scrape out seeds and set aside while you make the brown breadcrumbs in a food processor.
2. Making up dip: place all the ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor. Pulse to begin with until large chunks of pepper and walnuts are more finely chopped. Then, little by little, drizzle in the olive oil with the processor on full speed. Stop to scrape down the dip off the sides of the bowl and continue drizzling the oil and whizzing until you have a desired consistency. I prefer it quite smooth but stiff enough to stay on crackers. Feel free to make it chunkier if you like.
3. Place in a serving bowl and chill for an hour before serving.
Serve with any flat breads. I made my own BBQ rosemary flat breads to accompany it. This dip is also a useful sauce to coat white fish in; just smear a good tablespoon or two on each raw fish fillet, add a squeeze of lemon and a small amount of olive oil and bake fillet, covered, at 180°C for around 20 – 30 mins depending on thickness of the fish.