Middle Eastern food is good for the body--and the soul. It's healthy, with few fatty ingredients, yet satisfyingly starch-heavy, since rice and flatbreads serve as its foundation. It's replete with flavors, particularly the kind that grab at your tastebuds in the salty and sour regions. It's beautiful, colored with tomato reds, parsley greens and saffron yellows against a chickpea-beige canvas occasionally ornamented with the dark browns of kabob meats. And after eating a Middle Eastern meal, you rarely suffer the maladies associated with the indulgences of Western gluttony--heartburn, indigestion, clogged arteries.
That a cuisine bent on keeping body and soul together comes from a region of the world best known for its devout religions is no coincidence. Many of the components come right from the earth--fresh vegetables and herbs, whole grains--or, like unleavened bread, stay close to the ground. Alcohol is rarely used in preparation, since Islamic law forbids it. And although a plethora of restaurants in this country ply carnivorous Americans with gyro sandwiches and shish kabobs overloaded with meat, animal flesh is used sparingly in the Middle East, usually as a small part of a large meal dominated by bean purees and vinegary salads.
Cooking styles overlap throughout the countries that make up the Middle East, and one of the most consistently popular parts of a meal are the elements of mezze, appetizers such as hummus and falafel that are either served individually or in small portions together. So it was in the best mezze tradition that I went for the "All in One" sampler at Salam, a new Middle Eastern eatery in Aurora.
From 1982 to 1986, owner Mike Ahmadi ran Ali Baba in Englewood; this past January he decided to give the restaurant business another try with Salam. "The large Middle Eastern community has little for it here in this part of town," says Ahmadi. Even so, he realizes that his liquor sales and weekend belly-dancing don't exactly jibe with the edicts of the Colorado Muslim Society, located just up the road. Ahmadi's Pakistani chef, Jim Bardini, has worked in several Middle Eastern eateries in the Denver area, but he laughs when I ask him to give me a list. "Then we will give them the business," Bardini says good-naturedly. "I'm in this business now." He does reveal that he was once in the business of cooking Greek food at a cafe in California, and his affinity for the ingredients found in both Middle Eastern and Greek cooking was readily evident in my sampler.
Considering all the effort that had gone into the assemblage of this repast, I felt a little guilty about the platter's $7.95 price tag; the plate was so full that not one speck of ceramic could be seen--not even on the edges. It was piled high with Middle Eastern delights: kabobs of chicken, beef and kifta (spiced ground beef shaped into oval patties with onion and parsley); falafel, gyros, hummus, fettoush, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj and two dolmas, all attractively arranged over a huge mound of saffron-tinged rice. The chicken, marinated in a recipe of Bardini's own devising, is a particular specialty; all the cook will say about any of his marinades, though, is that they involve olive oil, vinegar and spices. But clearly Bardini is on to something. The key to great kabobs is the seasoned liquid in which the meat sits before it is grilled, and the chicken, beef and kifta all came out wonderfully tender, with a slight acidic bite.
The other meat offering, gyros created from minced lamb and beef that had been pressed and then roasted, was on the salty side but not overly so, and it was full of flavor. The falafel was well-seasoned and perfectly fried, and that other infamous chickpea presentation, the hummus, was equally good, light on the lemon juice and heavy on the garlic. Even the fettoush and the tabbouleh, two dishes hard to mess up given their simplicity, were stellar. The fettoush, a salad of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, onions, lemon juice and olive oil, featured just the right ratio of ingredients. For the tabbouleh, cucumbers had been deleted from the same lineup and cracked wheat added.
The only disappointment was the bitter baba ghanouj, which hadn't been listed as one of the platter's components. Since everything else we tried at Salam was freshly prepared, I got the impression that the eggplant may have been past its prime when it was pureed for the dip. (Eggplant is very perishable and grows more bitter as it ages.)
Cooking tends to blur national boundaries, and both the moussaka ($6.95) and gyro sandwich ($3.50)--dishes native to Greece--demonstrated how well they've absorbed other Middle Eastern influences. Salam's smooth version of moussaka ($6.95) combined tomato paste with layers of fried eggplant and ground beef; the large, cakelike square had been iced with bechamel sauce mixed with parmesan. The gyro sandwich featured an odd twist: a slathering of dill cream cheese. Since I'm allergic to dill, I had to pass this one on to my taste-tester husband, who thought the combination worked well.
Although Greece also makes its presence known at House of Kabob, the focus here is Persian cuisine, courtesy of new owner Manijeh Sadegh. The Iran native took over the eatery, located in a plaza devoted almost exclusively to Middle Eastern foods and wares, five months ago; since then, she's made great strides in its restoration. Although the kitchen was once so filthy that some people were afraid to eat there, Sadegh says she recently received a 100 percent rating from the health department. I can believe it: House of Kabob is now spotless. Sadegh is also proud of her paint job, a green that was a tad too evocative of St. Patrick's Day for me but still represents a vast improvement over the cheesy, dirty look the place had before.
Even the cooking is better. While the menu doesn't look particularly different from that of the old regime, the dishes certainly taste different, thanks partially to higher-quality ingredients. Even the service is friendlier--not that there was much competition for our server's attention when we dropped by for lunch, since only three tables were occupied. But at least we felt no pressure to hurry through our meal, and we had time to try several courses, starting with hummus ($3.95) as an appetizer. The chickpea puree was fabulous: It tasted as though it had been made fresh for our order, but it still had a well-melded quality that kept the tahini (sesame paste) and lemon juice in check. Chopped onion strewn around the hummus added an addictive bite. We found the whole deal hard to resist, stabbing at the mound with shards of torn pita until all that remained was a thin smear of olive oil and a few stray bits of parsley.
The lamb's tongue soup ($3.95) took a bit more getting used to, but by the end of our meal we'd slurped up every last drop--although we only ate half of the actual advertised organs. Two tongues had been steeped--probably for at least half a day, since a tongue is a tough item (see for yourself by biting your own)--in a simple broth that brought to mind the restorative powers of chicken noodle soup. The Iranian fesenjan curry ($7.95) with chicken was also something of an acquired taste, with an unexpected sauce of walnuts and pomegranate. When the waitress brought the dish, she recommended that we add a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. While that altered the flavor, it didn't make the curry taste any more familiar--or appealing, for that matter.
Less unusual but more eater-friendly was the ghaime bamia curry, a huge helping of beef in a brown gravy filled with split peas, dried lime and okra that thickened the sauce. The combination platter of two shish kabobs ($7.95) brought more familiar favorites: lamb and beef, the chunks lightly charred around the edges and dripping saffron-kissed juices, along with onions, green peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes.
On our return visit, we ordered more of that marvelous hummus, and it was just as good the second time around. We also tried a house specialty, eggplant ($3.95) baked with tomatoes, garlic and eggs, then blended into a chunky dip. It was so tasty that it called to mind another Middle Eastern eggplant dish called imam beyaldi, which translates to "the priest fainted." I'm sure he would have swooned over this one, too.
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Because as we found out, eating Middle Eastern food can be a truly religious experience.
Salam, 2651 South Parker Road, Aurora, 755-4040. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday.
House of Kabob, 2246 South Colorado Boulevard, 756-0744. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.