Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Eating with Eichholtz
For decades now, life in Maastricht has been enriched by butchers, bakers and grocers from the Middle East. First-class lamb meat, Turkish and Lebanese bread and an abundance of herbs have vastly improved the quality of life, or at least my life.
Oddly enough, though, there were few serious Middle Eastern restaurants to be found in our city until recently. This is beginning to change. As of a few years ago we have Marres Kitchen, which does serve excellent food and is a wonderful place to be, especially in the summer, but the menu never changes. There’s a fine Turkish restaurant, Mandalin, on the Kommel, and recent additions are Papaz (Spoorweglaan) and Bab Tomas (Tongersestraat). It’s high time to try out the food there.
Accompanying me today are Nagihan Mimiroglu, a PhD student at the School of Business and Economics, and Ahmad Rifai, a bachelor’s student at the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. We’re having lunch at Bab Tomas. Restaurant owner and chef Mahran Oufan is from Syria and has been a citizen of Limburg since 2015. He opened the restaurant in September, serving Levantine cuisine with Syrian, Lebanese and Turkish influences. Nagihan is Turkish, from Istanbul, with roots near the Black Sea. Ahmad is Syrian, from Aleppo. Clearly, I have access to the right expertise.
We ask the chef to select and prepare a number of vegetarian mezze dishes for us. While waiting for the food, we discuss Syrian and Turkish cuisines and eating habits. The differences begin with breakfast. In Syria, weekday breakfasts consist of sandwiches or light pastries such as croissants, eaten at work or school around ten a.m. At the weekend, in contrast, a Syrian breakfast is like a full meal, prepared by the whole family. In Turkey, weekday breakfasts are also full meals, with bread, cheese, olives, eggs, yoghurt and homemade jams, eaten at home around eight a.m.
In both countries lunch is a hot meal, but in Syria a late lunch – around three p.m. or later – is the highlight of the day, marking the end of the workday. In Turkey, lunch consists of soup and a main course, after which work is resumed.
The first dishes to arrive are four cold mezze (small dishes): hummus, tabbouleh, beetroot salad, and labneh – strained yoghurt with garlic and oil. Ahmad’s first reaction: this reminds me of our Saturday morning breakfasts! We’re served two kinds of bread alongside the mezze: unleavened Syrian flatbread and slightly leavened lavash, which more closely resembles the bread in Turkey. It turns out that there are significant differences in terms of bread culture as well. In Turkey, both rich and poor alike eat bread with every meal. In Syria, poor people eat it as well, but rich people eat much less bread.
Poor or rich, hummus is the litmus test of a good kitchen in large parts of the Middle East, so that’s what we start with. Unfortunately, we agree that there’s too much tahini (sesame paste) in the hummus today; its flavour is predominant, determining the aftertaste. But the cook makes a strong comeback with his labneh and beetroot salad. The labneh has just the right consistency, the garlic and herbs clearly present without overwhelming the dish. The beetroot salad has a deliciously subtle, sweet flavour. According to Ahmad, these two mezze are better than the ones his mum makes. I’d say this is the highest possible compliment, and it’s a good thing Ahmad’s mother doesn’t read the Observant. The tabbouleh – a salad of parsley, tomatoes and bulgur – is also very tasty, with crispy parsley and well flavoured with pomegranate, although Nagihan and Ahmad are of the opinion that it doesn’t contain enough bulgur.
Up next are the two hot mezze. The first consists of spinach pasties and the second dish is batata mutafayeh – baked potatoes with herbs and bell pepper paste, given a hint of acidity through lemon salt. The potatoes are delicious. The combination of subtle acidity and allspice is perfect and the potatoes are just right: crispy edges, soft inside.
The pasties, while good, are not as perfect as the potatoes. The spinach is slightly acidic, as it’s supposed to be in this dish, but the pastry is a bit greasy and should perhaps have been left to dry out a little longer.
All in all, we ate well. The last thing I learn today is that the name of the restaurant, Bab Tomas, comes from a borough of Damascus, where people enthusiastically took to the streets during the Arab Spring, full of hope for a better future. By now, almost everyone and everything in this borough has been killed and burnt down. Quite a reality check when you’re discussing herbs and the quality of the hummus.