The finest humous in England: Arabica food boxes reviewed

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

Restaurant-goers who cannot let go of restaurants — for professional or other reasons — are floating on a sea of takeaway boxes, which have none of the glamour. Which of us fell in love on a takeaway? I wish I did not have to write about them, nor you to read about them, but if this is the worst thing that happened to you this year — packaging — it is not so bad.

I have already begun a small counter–revolution by shopping at the greengrocers and the cheesemongers, and I suggest you do the same. Even so, they are faintly mesmerising by volume: a box-themed version of the Rumpelstiltskin myth, which is familiar to all children, and adults with an eating disorder. Perhaps it is a metaphor: we float on glut and are lucky, if not happy.

I have eaten many food boxes this year and my favourite is from the restaurant group Arabica. Perhaps this is coincidence, because I am not good at Middle Eastern food. Tabbouleh salad needs time I do not have and more parsley than I can find. I love this food, though, more than any other: for its colour and vitality; for its evocation of heat on ancient cities; for its salads. I often daydream about the falafel shack near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, where a man forms and fries falafel in front of your eyes, throws it into pitta bread with chips and pretends to remember you from your previous visit a decade past. That is a restaurateur of genius, not Keith McNally of Balthazar.

Before pandemic I would go to Shepherd Market in Mayfair, a district that has yet to be ruined, to eat at Sofra, which is Turkish, or Iran Restaurant, which is self-evident. Iran Restaurant had gaudy sofas on a Georgian alley and so is only slightly like Iran. I am very fond of this Georgian London version of Iran, because it is very odd. It would be cultural appropriation if it insisted it was Iran, or not Iran but better than Iran, but it doesn’t so it isn’t.

In normal times Arabica has restaurants in Borough Market and King’s Cross, and stalls at the Southbank Centre Food Market, King’s Cross and Borough Market. There is also a counter in the food hall in Selfridges, which is a peculiar blessing — rich people do not like food the way you and I like food — from which they sell food native to Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Israel and Palestine. Nowadays they offer food boxes delivered nationally twice a week: a Lebanese Beef Feast; a Deluxe Meze Selection; a Chicken Tagine Meal Kit; a Vegan Feast; a Feast for Beirut; a jar of preserved lemons; a Baklava Gift Tray for £35.

The Feast for Beirut (£45 for two) arrives with its cloaks of packaging, each element in its place; like all fine dining in pandemic, it is both wondrous and awful, because it should not be like this. It should be eaten when walking round Jerusalem, or at least Selfridges; this is life boxed up for the fortunate, and it is claustrophobic. I would almost rather be at Decks on the Sea of Galilee, except the car park is full of tour buses with racist signage, so I wouldn’t.

Here is the finest humous you will find in England, with rounded pitta bread, which I char on the hateful Aga; a tabbouleh salad like a herb garden; baba ghanoush; grilled halloumi, a crispy river of salt; pumpkin kibbeh; beef short-rib stew; vermicelli rice with onions.

If you will eat food boxes, eat ones like these: something you could not possibly replicate yourself, even with a bookshelf full of Yotam Ottolenghi and lemons.

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