Turn to Middle East for inspiration for warming autumn dishes

I love cold weather, not just for the autumn fashion when the boats boots and coats start to come out, but more especially for the food.

Autumn-winter food has a rich tapestry of textures and flavours that are warm and inviting. You can be walking down the street in your neighbourhood and be caught by the rich aromas emanating from your neighbours’ homes, that  make you want to barge in and demand an invite to the meal.

My go-to favourites for autumn are Middle Eastern dishes. The flavour, colour and aroma of their food makes my home inviting, so for this month I tapped into this rich heritage for inspiration with the recipes.

Barley tabbouleh with hummus
Tabbouleh has its origins in the Eastern Mediterranean regions and is generally prepared with bulgar wheat. I have used barley,which is more easily available and more affordable. The hummus is a beautiful compliment to this dish.

You can skip making the hummus and use store bought if you prefer.

Barley tabbouleh with hummus


For the barley tabbouleh:

1 cup pearl barley
Salt and pepper to taste
1½ cups fresh mint leaves
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 small cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 cups parsley leaves, chopped
1 bunch spring onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
¾ cup pistachios, coarsely chopped
½ cup roasted red peppers, diced
½ cup sliced cherry tomatoes
For the hummus:
½ cup tahini
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, mashed and roughly chopped
2 x 410g cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed under cold running water
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup water
½ teaspoon salt


For the tabbouleh:

In a pot, bring two 2 cups water, barley and ½ teaspoon salt to the boil. Lower the heat and bring to a simmer, then cover and cook until done, for 30 to 35 minutes. While the barley cooks, puree mint, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice in a blender. Finely chop the remaining one 1 cup of mint. In large bowl, toss barley, parsley, spring onion, pistachios, roasted peppers, cherry tomatoes, chopped mint and mint dressing. Taste, and season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper as needed.

For the hummus:

In a food processor, combine the tahini and olive oil, and pulse until smooth. Then add the garlic, chickpeas, lemon juice, ½ cup water and ½ teaspoon salt. Process until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt or lemon juice as needed.

To serve:

Scoop hummus into onto a serving platter and drizzle with some olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika. Top one side with tabbouleh, adding extra mint leaves and pistachios, micro herbs and pomegranate seeds.


kunafa phyllo pastry cheesecake
kunafa phyllo pastry cheesecake

Kunafa (phyllo pastry cheesecake)

My go-to is usually baklava when it comes to Middle Eastern sweet treats, so hallenged myself to try something new. I found a great blog, cleobuttera.com, wit his amazing kunafa dessert and mine is adapted from that.
The original recipe uses kunafa pastry, which is similar to phyllo, finely shredded with sweet Arabic cheese, akawwi cheese and ashta.

I wasn’t too sure about making my own ashta, which is basically clotted cream made by adding vinegar or lemon juice to fresh milk and warming it. Once it clots it is flavoured with rose water and strained.

My version uses mozzarella and ricotta cheese as replacement for the sweet Arabic cheese and akawwi,and mascarpone for the ashta. The mozzarella provides the gooeyness that the sweet Arabic cheese bring to the original recipe and the ricotta helps hold the shape.
You need to work quite quickly with the pastry as it dries out fast once shredded.

Make sure once you’ve mixed it with the butter you separate the strands with your hands otherwise it clumps.


Phyllo pastry (I used a full pack)
½ cup melted butter
For the filling:
100g mascarpone
200g grated mozzarella
200g ricotta or chunky cottage cheese
For the scented sugar syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon rose water


To make the syrup:

Mix all ingredients in a pot and on medium heat, cook until the syrup begins boiling. Cook for another two minutes, until the mixture has a thick consistency. Let it cool and set aside to use later over the kunafa.

To make the kunafa crust and filling:

Heavily grease a 30cm round cake pan with butter, set aside.
Shred the phyllo pastry (to do this I kept my phyllo pastry rolled as it  was from the packet, then I cut it in half length-wise and finely sliced it into strips).

Place shredded pastry into a bowl and pour the melted butter over.
Mix the butter evenly with your hands, into the pastry shreds, making sure it gets well coated.

Transfer three-quarters of the of pastry into  the pastry shreds, making sure it gets well coated.

Transfer three-quarters of the amount of pastry into the prepared pan and firmly press it on the bottom and up the sides to make a crust base. Press firmly down with your hands or the bottom of a glass.

Place all the cheeses in a bowl and cream with a hand-held electric mixer. Then flavor flavour with some of the syrup to your desired sweetness. Spread mixture onto the prepared base in the cake tin and top with the remaining buttered pastry.

Bake in a pre-heated oven on 180°C, until the top and sides are deep golden brown.

Remove from the oven and immediately pour on the scented syrup. Let the kunafa rest for five minutes to allow for the syrup to soak in, then flip on to a serving platter. Garnish with some pistachios and serve hot.

  • Khaya brings readers more Middle Eastern-inspired recipes next week.