Cuisine Focus: MENA

Hannah Kassam explores cuisine trends and challenges in Middle East and North African food

Ingredients, Restaurants

How popular is MENA cuisine in the region?

Khaled Eftaiha, executive chef, Reem Al Bawadi: MENA cuisine is very popular in the region, primarily because it is healthy and fresh. Customers increasingly look for these qualities in food. MENA cuisine is a fusion of characters, which appeals to the UAE’s evolving taste buds, but it is also traditionally shared and attracts customers who are looking for authentic flavours that deliver a cultural experience. Food is central to Middle Eastern culture, and we are committed to delivering authenticity and sharing a spirit of Arabic hospitality.

Ibrahim Ayoub, head chef, Mazaher, Dubai: MENA cuisine embodies diversity while having a degree of homogeneity and includes Lebanese, Iranian, and Turkish cuisine. What makes it so popular is the many different traditional ways there are to prepare and cook it.

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Charlie Antoun, brand manager, Eathos — owner of Kababji: Eathos recently conducted market research in Saudi Arabia and discovered that Lebanese is one of the top five cuisine choices for expats and locals. MENA and in particular Lebanese cuisine continues to be popular as it caters to all flavour profiles and offers something for everyone.

Has MENA cuisine’s growth been challenged by the popularity and availability of other cuisines across the region?

Eftaiha: While the growth of global cuisines may have posed some challenge for the growth of MENA cuisine it continues to hold a special position in the region. We still enjoy good business despite the proliferation of other world cuisines.

Fredrik Van Rooyen, head of operations, Karak House, Dubai: MENA cuisine cannot lose its charm in the region, not only due to its popularity and diversity, but because it stems from the region. Authentic flavours, a huge variety, the multitude of options in the use of produce all keep MENA cuisine interesting to all cultures.

Antoun: The MENA region and, in particular the UAE, has a strong expat community with the demand and prevalence of the variety of cuisines on offer growing daily. I do not believe this diminishes the popularity of Lebanese cuisine in the region due to its traditional ties, and restaurateurs’ willingness to adapt to trends and develop concepts around this to provide high-quality product.

What is the latest trend in MENA cuisine?

Van Rooyen: In Dubai, the home-grown concept segment is growing which is great to see. We are glad to be in one of the emerging categories that we believe is going to be a trend for 2017 and in the coming years

Eftaiha: The latest trends in MENA cuisine are street food, casual smart dining and superfoods. Street food has had a healthy makeover and with its grilled meat and vegetables, MENA cuisine is perfectly suited to this trend. Health-conscious superfood fans are also lovers of MENA cuisine, as it features a wide array of vegetables and pulses, from chickpeas and pine seeds to eggplant and lentils.

Ayoub: The general health trend among consumers has certainly prompted the region’s chefs and restaurants to introduce diversified Lebanese dishes into their menus

Antoun: Health is the biggest current trend in MENA cuisine but importantly alongside this, customers want fast food at a reasonable price. In order to meet the demands of market trends we have also developed light options and a vegan menu.

Are there any challenges you face in offering MENA cuisine?

Ayoub: The high level of competition, the many different price points and the array of cuisine on offer currently in Dubai is a big challenge especially when it comes to MENA cuisine — considered the ‘local’ food in Dubai.

Van Rooyen: Competition is inevitably one of the biggest challenges. What we find tricky is that our Dubai residents have a tendency to stick to classic and familiar dishes but at the same time enjoy a modern twist on the classics. Sometimes, finding the perfect balance between having both (or sometimes all) the options on your menu becomes challenging.

Antoun: Attracting millennials is a huge challenge, but can also be the key to standing out from the competition. To align with trends and modern demands as a company we cannot be afraid to adapt and move with the market, but we must ensure that at the same time we stay true to our core brand values. Lebanese is not a fad, it’s not going anywhere, so the challenge lies in recognising opportunities and having the team and structure in place to take advantage of these in order stand out from the competition.

How’s the supply stream?

Ayoub: Today in Dubai, anything is possible. We can source all our ingredients from different suppliers to ensure we have authentic products and dishes on the menu. The only challenge can be high prices of imported items but we feel it is important to remain true to the dishes we serve.

Van Rooyen: Owing to the plentiful variety from the Middle East, we have got so much to choose from. Lately, a lot of localising is taking place where supplies are more available — leaning towards organic — as opposed to imported products.

Eftaiha: We find it easy to source our ingredients, as our supply stream is well established. We need fantastic quality ingredients to meet our own high standards, so we work with a top-notch supplier that understands our requirements and consistently delivers great produce.

Antoun: We rely on both national and international supply chains which offer a range of changing challenges from timing to availability of certain produce. We also try to combat any issues by working closely with our current suppliers — as well as constantly scanning the marketplace for better quality, and if possible, local ingredients.

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