Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Snackistan: an east-of-centre land where tummies are always full and there’s a smile on every face. It does not, of course, exist. Snackistan is, rather, a borderless confederation of the Middle East’s favourite foodstuffs. It’s the simple fare that people eat every day; the food of choice across the region.

We all like to snack. With our busy lifestyles, eating “little and often” also seems to be better for our overloaded digestive systems. The Iranians have a proverb for this: “Eat little and sleep sound.” They have another saying: “Eat little, always eat.”

These days formal dining is being nudged aside in favour of meze-style spreads, and at the same time, street food has come of age. It is far from a recent innovation. Greek and Roman writers alluded to open-air food vendors, while in medieval times cities such as Cairo boasted an array of specialised food vendors (tabbakhun), from halwaniyyun (halva sellers) to haraisiyyun, who hawked harissa. In Turkey, takeaway kebabs became popular, and Istanbul was already becoming a street-food capital. Pie stalls evolved to sate the carb requirements of the poor, many of whom were without a bread oven at home.

If street food is the poor man’s food of antiquity, meze had grander origins. The concept almost certainly evolved in the courts and eateries of Iran; the word meze is derived from mazeh, which is the Farsi word for “taste”. The original idea was to serve tasters of food to mop up arak, wine or beer.

Snackistan celebrates all these less formal styles of eating.


Sally Butcher runs the Persian food store Persepolis in London


Lemon-roasted almonds with saffron

This is one of the most popular imported products in our shop: the salty citrusy flavour is impossible to resist.

Makes a bowlful

150ml lemon juice (fresh is best but you can cheat and use good bottled stuff)

½ tsp ground saffron steeped in 150ml boiling water

200g raw almonds

3 tbsp olive oil

1½ tsp sea salt

1 tsp citric acid (aka lemon salt)

● Mix the lemon juice and saffron water together. Spread the almonds out in a shallow dish, and trickle the juice-water over them, turning the nuts over in the liquid so that they are well coated. Leave them for an hour, turning occasionally.

● Drain the almonds and pat dry: unless you are a rial millionaire, I insist you retain the saffron marinade in the name of thrift.

● Preheat the oven to 180C. Spread the almonds out on a small baking tray and bake them for around 10 minutes.

● Next mix the oil and salts together in a bowl then tip in the hot almonds, stirring with a spoon to ensure that the nuts are all coated. Spread them back on to the baking tray and bake for a further 10-15 minutes, or until they are a rich golden brown.

● Leave to cool a little before sampling: they get really hot in the oven. I speak from burnt-tongue experience. They will keep for 2-3 days: after that, they start to go a little soft, so best just to eat them all up quickly.

Tip Keep the saffron marinade in a jar in the fridge. You can add it to fish, vegetables, salad dressing, roast chicken … Or just use it for more nuts.


Warm barberry and posh prawns with lentils

There are quite a few traditional Middle Eastern prawn recipes, mostly from around the Gulf and the Mediterranean littoral. But Muslims in some parts of Snackistan avoid them altogether owing to a debate as to whether they are halal (some fish is, but each sect/mullah interprets the issue differently): many regard them as makrouh, which means they’re frowned upon but not disallowed.

A more authentic meze dish might be simply prepared prawns cooked with butter, lemon and parsley – but this one will elicit far more oohs and aahs, and even the odd mash’Allah – literally, “God has willed it.”

Meze dish for 8 or a starter for 4

250g Puy lentils

100g barberries*

Big knob of butter and dash of oil

Around 16 really meaty king prawns, shelled and deveined

⅓ tsp ground saffron steeped in a splosh of boiling water

4 tbsp olive oil

1cm fresh ginger, minced

3 tbsp pomegranate molasses**

Juice and grated zest of 1 lime

Salt and coarsely ground black pepper

4 spring onions, chopped

½ bunch each of fresh mint and parsley, de-stalked and chopped

● Pick through the lentils (even big brands can still contain small stones) and place them in a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil and cook for 30 minutes, or until they are just cooked. Drain and leave to cool.

● Next check through the barberries, which can also contain half the countryside, and soak them in cold water for around 20 minutes. This will enable any residual sediment/barbs to sink to the bottom of the bowl. After this time, carefully scoop the berries out of the water, squeezing the moisture out.

● Melt the butter in a frying pan along with a splodge of oil (to stop the butter burning) and lower in the prawns. Sauté for around 3 minutes before adding the barberries (unless you are using pre-cooked prawns, in which case you can cook the berries and prawns at the same time), then cook for 2 minutes more, stirring constantly. Next, add the saffron water, mix well and take off the heat.

● Whisk the 4 tablespoons oil, ginger, pomegranate, lime juice and zest, and seasoning together in a bowl.

● Finally, mix it all together. Stir the prawns and barberries through the lentils, drizzle with the dressing, then finally stir in the onions and herbs. Serve while it is all still warm.

*Barberries: If you can’t find barberries (try your local Middle Eastern store), substitute with cranberries in the winter and redcurrants in the summer.

**Pomegranate molasses: There are now, amazingly, quite a few varieties of pomegranate molasses from which to choose, such is the trendiness of this ingredient in the west. In this context, an Arabic one is a better bet: it is less dark and gloopy and a little less sour.


Oolonganch litsk (Armenian stuffed mussels)

Much of the Muslim world regards shellfish (and any seafood without scales) as haram or taboo. As most of Snackistan is Muslim, this means that the consumption of mussels is not that widespread, but in Armenia and Turkey they are really popular as street food and meze dishes.

I have to admit that I was a bit puzzled by the popularity and diversity of shellfish recipes in Armenia: it is, after all, landlocked and not particularly well stocked with freshwater species. But Armenia has shrunk over the millennia, and it previously boasted both a Caspian Sea littoral and easy access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The Turks, of course, have a huge coastline and a longstanding love of seafood.

Meze for 6

18-24 large fresh mussels, cleaned and debearded


75g currants

1 large onion, chopped

Knob of butter

75g pine nuts

1 tsp ground allspice

1 tsp dried dill

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

125g pudding (or any short-grain) rice

Big handful of fresh parsley, chopped

Olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

● Place the mussels in a bowl of lukewarm salted water and leave for 30 minutes or so: this tricks them into opening, whereupon you can disarm their closure mechanism, thus making you feel like a piscatorial James Bond. You should also soak the currants.

● Next, fry the onion in a blob of melted butter: once it becomes translucent, add the pine nuts, spice, dill and a little seasoning, followed by the rice. Take off the heat and stir the parsley through the mixture.

● Now take each mussel in turn and, using a small knife, gently prise them open from the fat end towards the pointy bit: you are aiming to sever the ligament at the pointy end but you want the shell halves to remain attached. Once done, wash the mussels again in cold water.

● Spoon a little of the rice mixture (about a dessertspoonful) into each mussel, press the shell together and arrange them carefully in a saucepan. Place a plate on top of the shellfish, then add a good slosh of olive oil together with the lemon juice and enough water to cover the mussels. Bring the contents of the pan to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for around 45 minutes. Take off the heat and serve the mussels with extra lemon wedges.

I like these hot but they are traditionally served at room temperature and may also be enjoyed chilled.


Beef kebab, Georgian-style

If Iran is the Leicester Square of Snackistan, then Georgia is its Piccadilly Circus: it is truly at the intersection of the Middle East and Europe. It faces the Black Sea but pokes into Turkey and extends up into Russia. It is both the snapper-up of unconsidered cultural trifles (courtesy of all the through traffic), and the proud owner of a more or less uncontaminated culinary and linguistic heritage. The nation mostly comprises Orthodox Christians, and was under the Russian thumb for many years, yet the inhabitants (the ones with whom we are acquainted at least) seem more closely allied to Iran than anywhere else.

Fast food seems to be a bit of an anomaly in this nation of feasters: Georgians regard themselves as the inventors of the dinner “toast”, and their dinner parties, known as supra, are legendary. They are what is perhaps the forerunner of the supper club phenomenon: an evening of formal eating and informal drinking, wherein every addition to the repast is heralded by an announcement by the tamada, or toast master. Beef kebab is perhaps one of their few truly authentic street food recipes.

Serves 4

For the marinade

800g sirloin (porterhouse steak), cut into 3cm cubes

1 medium onion, grated

4 garlic cloves, minced

250ml pomegranate juice

1 tbsp apple or cider vinegar

1 tsp cracked black peppercorns

1½ tsp dried thyme

1½ tsp dried oregano

3 bay leaves

2 tbsp olive oil

To assemble

1 red (bell) pepper, cut into 3cm squares

1 yellow (bell) pepper, cut into 3cm squares

1 green (bell) pepper, cut into 3cm squares

8-12 green chillies (optional)

2 red onions, cut into chunks

Pinch of sea salt

● Put the beef together with all the other ingredients for the marinade in a bowl and mix well. Chill for around 6 hours, or overnight.

● Remove the meat from the fridge 30 minutes before you want to cook: this allows any marbled fat to warm slightly, which means it will melt readily. Thread the beef cubes on to skewers, alternating with bits of pepper, chilli and onion (which handily all take the same amount of time to cook). Now is the time to season them with a little sea salt.

● Light the barbecue or preheat the grill and cook the kebabs, turning them regularly, for about 7-8 minutes, or according to preference.

● Serve with flatbreads, lemon and thick yoghurt. These are bad boy kebabs in as much as they smell really appetising as they cook: be prepared to share with the neighbours.


Rabbit and fig kebabs

Rabbit is widely enjoyed around the Mediterranean and across north Africa but it does not feature so much in the cuisine of eastern Snackistan. That is not to say that it is not eaten east of Ankara: the rabbit must have seemed like a wild snack back in the day, readily available in the wildest and remotest landscapes, easy to catch and relatively easy to clean and cook. And it is still consumed across Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other -istans. But it is not regarded as a delicacy and, when talking to customers from those parts, they often dismiss it as “peasant fare”. Furthermore, some Muslims question whether it is halal or not.

I first enjoyed sizzling, aromatic rabbit kebabs at a midsummer fiesta on a sweltering Manchegan night: I have to confess that this recipe is born of that somewhat seminal experience but the flavouring owes a bit to Morocco and another bit to Turkey. The dates and figs give this quite a festive feel: perfect fare for a Halloween or Guy Fawkes barbecue perhaps.

Serves 4

For the rabbit

1 nice (albeit headless) rabbit, skinned and jointed*

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

2 tbsp date syrup (if you cannot find any, use honey instead)

2 tsp harissa paste

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tsp dried thyme

1 heaped tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tbsp rapeseed (canola) or sunflower oil

1 level tsp salt

For the figs:

8 small fresh figs (yes, you can use canned ones if they are out of season)

150g labneh or cream cheese

½ tsp ground cumin

Handful of fresh mint, washed and shredded


● First catch your rabbit …or pay a visit to your butcher. Wash the rabbit joints and pat them dry. Mix all the other ingredients together in a bowl, and add the bunny, turning it over so that it is well coated. If you have time, chill for 6 hours, or overnight.

● If time is limited, score through the flesh on the thicker joints of meat, tip it into a plastic bag with the sauce, and leave it somewhere “ambient” for 30 minutes or so.

● Remove the stalky bit from the figs with a pointy knife, and use a teaspoon to excavate a little of the fig flesh (which you may eat: cook’s pickings and all that). Mix the cream cheese with the cumin and the mint, and spoon it into the fig cavities. Next, brush the outside of the figs with a little oil, and nestle them into foil, either as a parcel or individually.

● When you’re ready, light the coals on the barbecue (or heat the grill/oven – the latter should be set at 190C). Rabbit joints take slightly different times to cook, so arrange the coal so that it is hotter at one end. Remove the meat from the marinade (which you should reserve for basting) and shake it to remove any surplus liquid. Skewers aren’t essential, although using them does make turning the meat over easier.

● Generally speaking, the further towards the rear of the rabbit from which a joint comes, the longer it takes to cook: thus you need to put the rear legs kind of over the coals, the saddle (the middle bit) next to them, and the front legs furthest away from the heat. Thus arranged, the meat should take around 8 minutes per side to cook through: use the reserved marinade to brush on the rabbit if it starts to look dry.

● If you are cooking in the oven, the rabbit should take about 40 minutes: put the rear legs and saddle in first, and the front legs after 10 minutes.

● Pop the figgy foil parcel/s on to the grill and cook for about 6 minutes or until the cheese is piping hot (they will take slightly longer to cook in the oven).

● Serve the rabbit and figs with a crisp green salad and some warm flatbread.

*­­­Rabbit: You can use boned rabbit but there is a kind of Neanderthal appeal in eating any barbecued meat on the bone.


Kubba halabi (rice kibbeh)

I was pleased when I discovered that not all traditional kibbeh/kubba (croquettes) are made with wheat. This (mostly) Iraqi recipe features a mashed-up rice casing, with a moreish and unusual filling.

Makes about 10

For the filling

3 spring onions, finely chopped

Oil, for frying

300g minced lamb

1 heaped tsp baharat (or a cheat’s mix of black pepper, paprika, cumin and coriander)

1 level tsp lime powder or add the zest of 1 lime (it won’t be the same but it will help)

50g raisins (soaked for 10 minutes)

50g chopped nuts (you choose which)

Big handful of fresh parsley, chopped


For the casing

150g split red lentils

400g pudding (short-grain) rice

1 level tsp ground turmeric

½ tsp salt

150g halloumi or mozzarella, grated (optional but scrummy)

Rice flour as required (actually any flour will do, but let’s keep it all gluten-free, shall we?)

● Fry the onions in a little oil. After a couple of minutes, add the lamb, stirring well, followed by the spices. When the lamb is just starting to brown, mix in the (drained) raisins, mixed nuts and parsley, together with salt to taste, and set aside to cool a little.

● Meanwhile, boil the lentils with the rice until the latter is slightly overcooked, adding the turmeric towards the end of the cooking time. Drain, then stir the salt and grated cheese through the rice, mashing and pummelling it all so that it coheres into one sticky ball (if you have a food mixer with a meat-mincing function, this would do the job very well). Using wet hands, break off a lump the size of a large egg and mould it into an oval shape. Cup this egg-shaped lump in one hand and use your forefinger to poke a cavity in the kibbeh. Next, insert a teaspoon of the lamb mixture and then use your thumb and finger to pinch the rice mix together so that the filling is completely encased. Repeat with the rest of the rice paste.

● Spread a little rice flour out on a tray, and roll the kibbeh very gently in it before arranging them on a tray and chilling them for an hour or so. Deep-fry them in hot oil (in batches if necessary) until they are golden brown, then remove them carefully and drain them on kitchen paper. Serve hot with lemon wedges.


Kabak kizartmasi (Turkish courgette fritters with yoghurt “sauce”)

You can coat practically anything in batter and fry it and you will get a queue of salivating people at your kitchen door. Obviously this is not everyday food but it is a simple snack option and makes for a great little meze dish.

The Turks seem partial to vegetables thus prepared and there is a whole range of kizartmasi dishes: aubergines, carrots, cauliflower and potato all get the same treatment. But courgettes, with their refined bitterness, lend themselves particularly well to the creamy crunchiness of batter.

Meze for 4

150g plain flour

½ tsp salt

½ tsp ground black pepper

125ml beer (yes, you may drink the rest of the can: be a shame to waste it)

1 level tsp ground turmeric

1 level tsp paprika

2 large courgettes, cut into 3mm-4mm slices

Oil, for frying

To serve

100g plain, not too thick yoghurt

4 garlic cloves, minced

Pinch of salt

Drizzle of olive oil

Squeeze of lemon

Aleppo pepper (or a mix of cayenne and paprika)

● Sift 100g of the flour into a bowl along with the salt and pepper, then slowly whisk in the beer until you get a smooth thick batter. Set the bowl aside for about 1 hour so that the batter can “rest”.

● Scatter the rest of the flour on a plate and mix in the turmeric and paprika. Dip the courgette slices in and out of the flour. Heat a good slug of oil in a frying pan and give the rested beer batter a good stir. Take one of the floured courgette slices and dunk it into the batter; allow to drain, then fry in the hot oil, turning after 2 minutes, until it is golden on both sides.

● Repeat with the rest of the courgettes: you will probably have to cook them in two batches.

● Mix the yoghurt with the garlic, adding salt, olive oil and lemon to taste. Sprinkle the kizartmasi with the Aleppo pepper, and serve them on a plate with the garlic sauce in a bowl on the side.


Mana’eesh (Lebanese street pizza bread)

Mana’eesh is a popular Lebanese street snack: part open sandwich, part mini pizza. At its simplest, it is just a particularly flavoursome bread. Get creative and you’ve got a whole range of canapés, picnic and party possibilities open to you. I offer two toppings: the first is the most traditional, za’atar. The second is a Syrian version which sees a sweet broccoli filling topped with dukkah.

Makes 15

For the basic dough

7g sachet dried yeast (or use about 12g fresh)

Pinch of sugar

250ml lukewarm water

500g plain flour

1 tsp salt

1-2 tbsp olive oil

● Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the warm water and set aside for 10 minutes.

● Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl and make a well in the middle. Now add the yeast-water combo, mixing at first with a wooden spoon, then, when the ingredients come together, your hands. Form the dough into a ball and roll it in a little oil to keep it moist. Cover it with a damp cloth and leave somewhere warm for 2 hours to rise.

● When risen, knead the mixture with verve, vim and vigour on a floured work surface, then divide it into 15 balls. Leave the dough to rise for a further 15 minutes, then pull them into small flat rounds with your hands and spread them out on 1 or 2 oiled baking trays.

● Preheat the oven to 230C.

● Bake the bread rounds for 8-10 minutes, or until they are slightly risen and lightly browned. These will keep for several days in a covered plastic tub, and can be eaten hot or cold. This bread/pastry is slightly soft, and so can also be warmed in a microwave.

Za’atar topping

Za’atar is one of the most famous Snackistani spice/condiment blends. Every town and village across the Levant makes it differently but it is basically a mixture of wild thyme (which is in itself known as za’atar) with sumac, sesame and salt. You can buy it easily enough in good Middle Eastern stores now but it is also simple to make. Grind 2 parts thyme (in the absence of real wild thyme) with 1 part sumac, a handful of sesame seeds and salt to taste. To turn it into a distinctive and aromatic bread or pizza topping, mix the spices with olive oil to form a paste, then smear the paste across the raw mana’eesh dough just before you cook it. The addition of grated mozzarella or halloumi is an authentic optional extra.

Dukkah: a really top topping

Dukkah is used both as a condiment in Arabic countries and as a snack in its own right. It is basically a coarse-ground spicy nut/seed mix, but it is very tasty and can be used in all sorts of culinary contexts. The original recipe calls for equal quantities of raw hazelnuts and sesame seeds, together with half that amount of cumin and coriander seeds. You toast all the ingredients together, then crush them coarsely and season to taste with sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper. For this recipe, I vary it slightly by using 50g each of sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds, and 50g hazelnuts or almonds. Add 1 tbsp each of cumin, coriander and fenugreek seeds, then toast, season and blend.


Seeded broccoli sfiha

Sfiha is yet another version of mana’eesh, this time from Syria. It uses the same dough but is formed more like an eccentric tart. The conventional filling is lamb but I like this veggie/vegan version.

Makes 15

50g raisins

2 medium heads of broccoli, broken into small florets

2 medium red onions, finely sliced

Oil, for frying

2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tsp brown sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 quantity mana’eesh dough, pounded and proved (as previous)

Grated halloumi or mozzarella (optional non-vegan topping)

2-3 tbsp Snackistani dukkah mix (as previous)

● Soak the raisins while you make the rest of the filling.

● Blanch the broccoli in boiling water for around 2 minutes, then drain and refresh it under cold water.

● Fry the onions in a little oil until they are soft and nicely browned, then add the garlic and (drained) raisins, stirring well for 2 minutes. Next, add the vinegar and sugar and a little seasoning, and let the mixture bubble gently for about 5 minutes before taking off the heat.

● Preheat the oven to 230C. Lightly oil a couple of baking trays.

● Divide your proved mana’eesh dough into about 15 balls and allow them to rise for another 10 minutes before pulling and pressing them into flat discs. Put a spoonful of broccoli in the middle of each, followed by a covering of the caramelised onion mixture. Sprinkle a little grated cheese on top, if using. Taking one of the discs, pinch the edges of the dough in four places so that it folds up to form a square-ish tart (the rim should be just 5mm-6mm high), and slide it on to the baking tray. Repeat with the rest of the sfiha and bake them for around 15 minutes, or until the pastry is just starting to turn a pleasant golden colour.

● Remove from the oven, sprinkle liberally with dukkah, and serve hot, warm or cold. These keep for 2-3 days in the fridge.


‘Snackistan’ by Sally Butcher is published by Pavilion, £20


FT reader special offer: Snackistan

Readers can buy a copy of ‘Snackistan’ for £15 (RRP£20) including free UK p&p. Call 0844 576 8122, quoting reference CH1778

Get alerts on Food & Drink when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article