The food was crowd pleasing back garden BBQ, until someone brought out a bowl of what at first glance looked like some sort of salsa. I enquired and was told it was Baba Ghanoush. Naturally intrigued, I tried some along with the accompanying flatbread which had some sort of herby topping. It was delicious, unlike any Baba Ghanoush I'd had before. The colour was much darker and the texture much looser and the flavour had a real zing; in contrast to the creamier versions I'd had in the past.
The flatbread was also ridiculously good, almost cracker like in texture with a herbaceous, savoury topping which also contained sesame seeds giving it an extra crunch. The contrasting flavours and textures were unlike anything I'd eaten before.
On questioning the cook further, I was told the addition of pomegranate molasses was probably responsible for the fruity zing and the herby topping on the flatbreads was called za'atar. Immediately, neurons started firing and memories of many Yotam Ottolenghi programmes surfaced where I'd heard these ingredients mentioned frequently. Although definitely Scandinavian, it also turns out the cook was married to a Syrian, which also explains much.
Returning to Birmingham, I was determined to re-create what I'd tasted. The two pivotal ingredients, of course, would be pomegranate molasses and za'atar. I recalled someone mentioning there was a Persian supermarket on the Hagley Road so off I trotted to Pars in the hope that they'd stock both these ingredients.
It didn't take me long to find pomegranate molasses, I'd often noticed on my travels that certain foodstuffs commonly feature in many middle eastern countries.
|Also called pomegranate paste/concentrate.|
I asked if they had any za'atar only to find he'd never heard of it. I explained as best I could what it was (David Lebovitz does it much better in this article) but no luck.
Feeling a bit deflated, I left the shop. On the way back to the station I remembered there was a Lebanese bakery over in Balsall Heath, so I continued past Five Ways and had a wander to see if I might be able to find something approximating the bread I'd had a few weeks back. It didn't take long to find Soul-Ful Lebanese Bakery (used to be called Al Barakah, 167 Mary St, B12 9RN), and within seconds of entering the shop I found exactly what I was after. A rack to the left of the counter had freshly made flatbreads, some topped with za'atar. I asked where was best to buy za'atar in future, "here" was the reply. So I asked for some to take home. Before he packed it up, I was offered a smell of the za'atar so I duly obliged. "Very good for the memory" he added, I wasn't quite sure how to answer so I nodded politely and paid up. I picked up a copy of the menu on the way out and made a mental note to come and eat here soon as they operate as a cafe as well as a bakery. And now, how could I possibly forget?
Serves 3-4 as a starter/mezze.
1 aubergine, blackened over a flame
1 large tomato, diced
2 tbsp chopped walnuts
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 small garlic clove, crushed
0.5 tsp salt
generous squeeze of lemon
Start by charring the aubergine over a gas flame (or charcoal). This is probably the most important step as it imparts a wonderful smokey flavour to the aubergine. This needs to be done for around 20 mins or until the aubergine is soft and the skin is blistered. If your smoke alarm goes off, then you're probably doing it right.
|This must be done over a flame, no other way gives you the smokey flavour.|
When the aubergine is soft and cooked through, peel off the blackened skin and mash. Combine with the tomato, walnuts, parsley, pomegranate, salt and lemon. Garnish with some good olive oil.
|Syrian style Baba Ghanoush.|
|Flatbread topped with Za'atar and olive oil from Soul-Ful Lebanese Bakery.|
|The Za'atar I bought cost £2 for a large jam jar sized amount.|