One of my personal takeaways from recent food-world controversies and the discussions about cultural appropriation and inequality in professional food spaces that they elicited, is that I’ve been too quick to dismiss the foods of my own heritage as boring and bland. As was suggested in this helpful twitter thread from writer Osayi Endolyn on the subject, I’ve been trying to mine my own culture for recipe ideas more often. When I write about other people’s food I try to accurately and precisely acknowledge and explore issues of origin, the power dynamics of race and the historical context of empire, colonialism and migration. But putting more effort into cooking my own food, which I suppose would be British and French, is something, I realize, that I could be better at.
I’ve fallen for the British garden staple broad beans after growing them for the first time this year (although they originated in the middle east and are commonly eaten across the Middle-East and the Mediterranean). I can’t buy them where I live, but I plan to grow them again next year, and a lot more of them. I’m also trying to cook with more seafood - like this white fish en papillote - and plan to make lots of meat pies and savoury tarts this fall and winter. Delicious UK has been a big source of inspiration along with an enormous stack of Nigel Slater books I’ve been going through.
At the same time, I will continue to eat other people’s food, and the cuisines of the Middle East are some of my favourites, and there are so many exciting new cookbooks on the subject. Two of the latest additions to my collection feature Middle Eastern cuisines - the Israeli food of Adeena Sussman and Michael Slomonov’s Sababa and the Palestinian food of Sami Tamimi & Tara Wigley’s Falastin. I’ve also got my eye on Eating Out Loud, the new book by Eden Grinshpan of top chef Canada fame and Parwana, a cookbook of Afghan food with an absolutely stunning cover.
I’m perhaps clumsily referring to this category of food traditions as “cuisines of the Middle East” because the Middle East is a big region, many culinary traditions have been developed there. It’s not a monolith. But there are some characteristics shared by some of these cuisines, or, at least, the versions of them that tend to reach Western audiences, that make this food so appealing:
- Judicious use of sour or briny flavours. Sour is such an under-utilized flavour in a lot of Western cuisines, but Middle-Eastern cuisines are often loaded with citrus fruit, pomegranate, preserved lemons and limes, tangy sumac, olives and pickles.
- Tahini. A magical ingredient. It’s the base for hummus and a means of producing a creamy texture without using dairy. I’ve mostly eaten it in savoury applications but recently tried Ottolenghi’s tahini cookies and now I want to add tahini to everything I bake.
- Eggplant and other heat-loving fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, figs and cucumbers. Middle-Eastern cuisines, suited as they are for warmer climates, are perfect for the time of year when summer crops are ripening. And I’ve got an abundance of homegrown eggplants this year that I’m looking to find a variety of uses for.
- Herbs. Too often used primarily as a garnish in Western cuisines, some of my favourite herbs - cilantro, parsley, dill - are commonly used in abundance in Middle Eastern food. Though, admittedly, I’m still coming around to the idea of adding mint, another Middle-Eastern favourite, to savoury food.
- Flatbreads. Middle-Eastern cuisines contain so many scoopable dips and salads; perfect accompaniments to flatbread. And, flatbreads come together so quickly relative to other breads.
As I cook through these books, I’m making a lot of scoopable foods, dips and finely chopped salads, and things that want to be put inside a wrap, like falafel and kofta made of meat or fish. It means I’ve been making a lot of pita, which means I’ve got a lot of pita leftovers. Pita can be frozen after baking, but another amazing use for them is to make homemade pita chips. These things are so good, and surprisingly easy to make, once you have the pita. It’s a solution for what to do with any homemade pita you have leftover that hasn’t made it to the freezer, but it’s also something you can just use store-bought pita to make, if you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own.
WHAT ARE PITAQUILES?
This recipe is my take on Adeena Sussman’s mashup between Israeli ingredients and chilaquiles - a traditional Mexican dish commonly eaten for breakfast that consists of fried tortilla chips simmered in a chile sauce or salsa and usually eaten with cheese, a fried egg and, if you like, a side of beans (I’d go for chickpeas with this version). The dish is designed to use up tortillas leftover from the day before that are beginning to go stale. Sussman uses leftover pita made into baked pita chips instead of tortilla. I added some roasted eggplant to the sauce, which it gives it a rich, umami flavour, and heaps of tangy sumac onions. The toppings for this dish are customizable, it’s the perfect vehicle for using up whatever leftover bits of vegetables, cheeses, shredded meats or beans you may have sitting in your fridge.
Eggplant Pitaquiles with Sumac Onions
An easy breakfast, brunch, or breakfast-for-dinner dish that’s perfect for using up leftover pita. Double the snack-able pita chips and sumac onions to have some on hand and top with fried eggs, fresh herbs and Greek yogurt or feta.
Adapted from: Pitaquiles in Adeena Sussman’s Sababa
FOR THE PITA CHIPS:
- 3 day-old pita (preferably homemade, but store-bought will do)
- 1/4 cup (plus 2 tablespoons) olive oil, divided
- 1 tablespoon za’atar
- Kosher salt & Pepper, to taste
FOR THE SAUCE & TOPPINGS
- 1 lb tomatoes, quartered
- 1 small eggplant, cut into 1” cubes
- 1 small onion, cut into wedges
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 jalapeño or other mild pepper
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-2 eggs per person*
Optional toppings: feta cheese, greek yogurt or sour cream
*Fried eggs are best served immediately. If doubling the recipe or intending to save some as leftovers, cook only as many eggs as will be eaten that day. Fry more eggs just before eating the leftovers.
FOR THE SUMAC ONIONS
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sumac
- 1 small red onion
- Make the Sumac Onions: In a small bowl, mix together the olive oil, cider vinegar, lemon juice and sumac. Slice the red onion thinly, ideally on a mandoline, and add the onion slices to the bowl. Toss to coat and set aside in the refrigerator while you make the pitaquiles, so that the onions will be cool and refreshing.
- Prep the Pita Chips: With a sharp serrated knife, slice the pitas into strips or triangles. Stir 1/4 cup of the olive oil, the za’atar, salt and pepper together in the bottom of a large bowl. Add the pita strips and toss well to coat with the oil. Arrange the pita strips in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and set aside.
- Roast: On a second parchment-lined baking sheet, arrange the tomatoes, eggplant, onion, pepper and garlic in a single layer. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and add salt and pepper, to taste. Roast for 15-20 minutes, until the tomatoes have begun to break down and the eggplant is easily pierced with a fork. Check frequently towards the end of the roasting time and remove anything - like the pepper or garlic cloves - that might be beginning to blacken and set aside. In the last 5-10 minutes of roasting time, add the baking tray of pita strips to the oven, roast for 6-7 minutes, or until they are crunchy and golden brown, turning them over once, half way through. Remove everything from the oven and set aside.
- Make Sauce: When they have cooled somewhat, add the tomatoes, eggplant, onion, pepper and garlic to a small blender or food processor along with the lemon juice. Blend until the consistency is smooth. Taste the sauce and season it with salt and pepper. Pour into a 10-inch skillet and heat through, 2-3 minutes. Add the pita strips and toss to coat (leaving a few behind, if desired, to add at the end for extra crispy chips). Warm through for another 3-4 minutes.
- Serve: As the pita chips warm-up in the sauce, fry the eggs in a separate pan. To serve, top with the fried eggs, herbs and cheese or sour cream, if using, and several heaping spoonfuls of the sumac onions.
The pitaquiles are best served immediately. If you would like to do some of the work ahead of time, both the sauce and the chips can be made ahead, but keep them separate until just before serving. The sauce will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days, or frozen for 3-4 months. The chips will last for a few days in a sealed bag or container, but are best eaten the day they are baked.