Culinarily speaking, the term Middle Eastern is a vague catch-all for the cuisines spanning Mediterranean Turkey through to Iran: it's kind of the equivalent of referring to Asian food; it's not specific enough by half.
The lands of Syria, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Eastern Turkey, the Egyptian Sinai and, in some estimations, Cyprus make up a historical geographical Eastern Mediterranean area known as The Levant, whose populations share enough culinary commonality for us to be able to refer to a Levantine cuisine. Fans of aromatic, spiced, grilled meats, tahini-rich hummus, freshly-fried falafel, soft pita, lemony baba ganoush - or better yet, all of the aforementioned in one big mezze platter - here are places that will satisfy your craving.
KIBBEH AT IMA, Auckland City
Shaped like little rugby balls, kibbeh consist of a thin outer shell made from a dough of burghul wheat, very finely minced lamb and onion, cosseting a centre of minced lamb, onions and toasted pine nuts fragrant with baharat (the go-to spice blend throughout the Levant, for which there are as many versions as there are cooks). The balls are shaped by hand, with care taken to get the outer dough as thin as possible, then the kibbeh are fried until that delicate outer shell is crisp and golden and the inside is tenderly cooked. Yael Shochat of Ima describes making kibbeh as "A labour of love; they're most often made for special occasions ... They're great served with hummus and tabbouleh, which is what we do on our dinner menu, plus you can have them as part of the Middle Eastern platter on our lunch menu."
KNEFEH AT GEMMAYZE ST, K Rd
The sweet dish knefeh (variably knafeh, kunafa) is, as chef and owner of Gemmayze St, Samir Allen, describes, "One of those dishes people get obsessed about and divided over - especially in Lebanon, where my mum's side of the family is from." It's a dish of fresh, soft cheese curds, sweetened with syrup, with a pastry element, but there are various takes on knefeh - for example Gemmayze uses soft cheese whereas Palestinians love their knefeh Nabulsi, made with a stretchy, mozzarella-like cheese. This Levantine cheesecake is eaten for breakfast and dessert, which sounds like a fine idea. Samir and his pastry chef, Claudia Long, come up with modern interpretations of knefeh. They use ricotta in theirs, and serve it hot, with seasonal additions that might include poached fruit, sorbets or honey syrup. It's an approach that Samir says gets most folk's seal of approval. "Except my auntie," laughs Samir. "She's so protective of knefeh that when she comes in I just serve her a traditional version."
SHAWARMA AT PETRA SHAWARMA, Kingsland
Shawarma is the Arabic term for marinated meat grilled on a spit, which is then shaved off and eaten with rice or wrapped in flatbread. (The Turkish know it as doner kebab.) Whereas most kebab joints stuff everything but the kitchen sink into the wrap, at Petra Shawarma, Jordanian-born sisters Dalal and Maryam Omar believe in serving shawarma the OG way: the fragrantly spiced grilled meat is joined by hummus and pickles in bread, while the salad comes on the side. No soggy messes here, Petra serves up shawarma as they should be.
FALAFEL FROM KOHKOZ, Alfriston
Natalie Fakhoury thought Aucklanders deserved a better standard of falafel, so she took her Lebanese family recipe to market, literally: you can find Kohkoz Real Lebanese Cuisine falafels served freshly made at the Clevedon Farmers' Market and you can also buy them in packs at Farro supermarkets and the Howick Market. "Good falafels," says Natalie, "should be crunchy on the outside, moist and fluffy on the inside, and packed full of flavour. To get it right, the heat of the oil must be perfect." Whereas inferior versions might use dehydrated powders, Natalie uses fresh herbs, onion and New Zealand garlic to make her falafels, and a spice blend that has cumin and coriander to the fore. Natalie's favourite way to enjoy falafels is "in Lebanese bread with lettuce, tomato, parsley, radish, pickled turnips, pickled cucumbers and tarator (a sauce made from tahini, lemon juice, salt, garlic and water)" - and you can get this sublime sandwich at their Clevedon stall.
BAQLAWA FROM SHEFCO, Mt Roskill
There's so much to love about baqlawa (the Arabic spelling of baklava), which is why, a few years ago, I couldn't fit my clothes by the end of a month spent in the Middle East. Crisp, buttery, paper-thin layers of filo pastry interspersed with nuts, often spiked with cardamom, orange blossom or rose water, and always drizzled generously with sugar syrup. Shefco's on Stoddard Rd, does a roaring trade in freshly-made pastries at Eid, when folk buy huge trays to take to family feasts, at that time they'll sell a few thousand kilos.