What is Levantine food?
It’ll certainly make your tastebuds swoon but food from the Levant also promises a flavour journey that transports you to the very heart of a bustling medina in the Middle East.
What is the Levant? It is a place, a taste, a region of shared plates and a wide palate of tastes embracing numerous cultures in the southeast corner of the Mediterranean, the “fertile crescent” that was the cradle of civilisation. For it was in the Levant that humans embarked on their first adventures in agriculture, more than 10,000 years ago. Irrigation, cities and civilisation eventually followed, and with them, diners, table settings and the first menus, as our newly settled species pulled up a chair and smacked their lips in anticipation.
Middle Eastern cuisine
For the fertile crescent – broadly encompassing Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Cyprus – is home to one of the healthiest, freshest, most delicious and ancient cuisines on the planet. The ancient Romans and Phoenicians heartily enjoyed many of the dishes that are served in Levantine restaurants today – the likes of hummus, baba ganoush, and tabbaleh. You will even read of skewered meats in Homer’s Odyssey, which makes the sish kebab as old as poetry itself – with a refreshing tzaziki dip to one side. And while the names may have changed, the tastes are as rich as ever, and they are delicious.
But when it comes to the food, where to start? Let’s begin with the dips and salads. There are lots of variations on the classics such as hummus, baba ganoush, and tabbouleh, as well as more niche small plates such as fadi (zucchini, yoghurt, lemon, tahini), pancar (beetroot, yoghurt, garlic, pistachio) and hammera (red pepper, pomegranates, walnuts).
The variety is dizzying. It seems the one rule is, there are no rules. Rather, it’s a moveable feast of small plates to relish (and “relish” is the original meaning of the Persian word “maza” from which the term “mezze” derives). Chickpeas, tahini, feta, halloumi, aubergine, peppers, zucchini, olives, pomegranates, mint, lemon and yoghurt – all these are among the Levant’s staple ingredients, and perfect for vegetarians and vegans intent on an evening’s feasting, scooped up in strips of warm pita bread.
Classic Levantine dishes
For pescatarians, dishes of freshly grilled whitebait and squid, set beside yoghurt dips flavoured with spicy harissa paste or a simple coupling of mint and cucumber, are just the start of an ocean odyssey of tastes. Baked, battered, roasted or grilled, the likes of seabream and branzino (sea bass) are delicious Levantine fish staples, while the many ways to cook and serve octopus, prawns and mussels will make your taste buds swoon.
For carnivores, the range of chicken dishes – whole, cubed, skewered, grilled, roasted – are augmented by all manner of spicy marinades, from the paprika and lemon-infused taouk to the more complex seasoning for merguez chicken (paprika, cumin, fennel, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon and pepper); or how about grilled skewers of beef with a tahini-based, lemony and garlicy tarator sauce; or one of the greats of Levantine feasting, a slow-roasted lamb shoulder steeped in spices and served with pomegranates, yoghurt and pistachio sauce.
Common ingredients in Levantine cuisine
All these dishes call on the magic of fresh herbs and spices, many different kinds of nuts, including pine, pistachio, almond and sesame, as well as beans and pulses, and plenty of squeezes of lemon, whose presence in Levantine cuisine is required as much as sunlight. Some of the spices are familiar – cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, caraway, nutmeg, cardamom. Other ingredients are unique to the Levant – the likes of baharat, an Arabic mixed spice, or the lemony flavours of sumac. These, and herbs such as mint, parsley, and cilantro all leave their distinctive signatures. You’ll want to return to them time and again.
The Levant has a rich history of winemaking, too. A good Levantine wine list will read like a sommelier’s Grand Tour of the Eastern Med. You’ll find superb reds, whites and roses sourced from Lebanon, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Crete, while the subtle Levantine additions to a cocktail list – think a martini dressed with cucumber, elderflower, lemon and mint – will leave you after your aperitif feeling both shaken and stirred.
So where best place to immerse yourself in the Middle Eastern delights of Levantine mezze? Tucked away on Bute Street near South Kensington Tube, Levantine restaurant CERU (short for Cerulean, the sunniest of azure blues) welcomes you with its beautifully tiled interior shaped around an open kitchen, the air suffused with an enticing medley of spices, pulses, meats, seafood and vegetables – all the separate elements that make up Levantine cuisine.
CERU's kitchens are stocked daily with the finest and freshest from London’s food markets, making up a menu of more than 100 dishes, each offering a gateway into a flavour journey that’s as exotic as it is delicious. Open seven days a week, for lunch, brunch, cocktails and dinner, CERU transports all the magic of this great Middle Eastern cuisine to your own table. If your desire is for a truly exotic journey of transporting tastes, book your place at CERU.