Boston chef Ana Sortun is gaining renown for her "Arab-esque" cuisine--for its strong flavors, its exotic accents and (most surprising of all) its delicious and satisfying vegetarian dishes.
Vegetarianism does not come easy to me, even though I wish it would. My problem with most vegetarian dishes is that I always feel I've been handed a substitute: tofu masquerading as beef, pork or chicken only to be given away--one bite later--by its texture (or lack thereof). I'm expecting chocolate and get carob; I want cream in my coffee and get soy milk; I want ice cream and get Rice Dream (Ben and Jerry need not lose sleep!). It's the mock apple pie syndrome. Even to those of us who absolutely love Ritz crackers, it is not apple pie and will never come close. We've all been there--the Barbie-like doll who isn't really Barbie, the mix tape that promises all your favorite songs by the Original Artists without telling you that the Original Artists is the name of the group that recorded the tunes.
But I believe that vegetarian dishes are often healthier than meat-intensive ones. And at restaurants, I often find I'm looking over the menu with an eye for meatless items. At Oleana, Ana Sortun's year-and-a-half-old restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I've finally found vegetarian food so delicious and satisfying that even a skeptic like myself is not left craving meat. Oleana serves its share of carnivorous selections, but unlike many restaurants, which offer a single obligatory vegetarian dish, Sortun's menu is full of fabulous choices that also happen to be vegetarian.
I have long been a fan of Sortun's without knowing it, having frequented the Cambridge restaurant Casablanca, where she was chef for five years. The 34-year-old Seattle native (her parents are Norwegian) became interested in Mediterranean cuisine while working for the Tunisian chef Moncef Meddeb in Massachusetts after she graduated from France's La Varenne cooking school. Meddeb taught her how to combine Arabic spices with French cooking techniques. Sortun describes her cuisine as "Arab-esque," because she's most attracted to Arabic-influenced Mediterranean flavors.
"I need to know the rules before I break them," Sortun says, so she spends much of her free time traveling. One thing she's learned is that other cultures have greater respect for the dining experience than America does. "It's easy to make things taste good," Sortun says. But people forget to think about how food appears or consider its texture. And most important, she says, "People seldom think about how they feel after eating." She makes a practice of asking patrons for their reactions at the end of an evening. She wants them to feel as diners do in Istanbul, where, instead of feeling stuffed and lazy after a meal, they push back the tables and dance.
Recently, Sortun took a trip to Turkey, where she had "the best food I've ever had in my life" at Zencefil, Ferda Erdinc's vegetarian restaurant in Istanbul, only to realize afterward that there had been no meat in the entire meal. And Sortun wondered whether it was the vegetarian aspect that helped her achieve that satisfied yet energetic feeling. The experience led her to experiment with her own vegetarian dishes, many of which have wound up on the menu at Oleana.
After we spoke, Sortun invited me to a party at her friend's home, where she was planning to cook a vegetarian meze, a series of small dishes, which she served as a buffet. We began with warm, oregano-spiked olives tossed with sesame seeds. Next Sortun showed us how to eat the Egyptian carrot dip on the table: She took a bit of pita and dipped it olive oil, then in an Egyptian spice mix called dukka, which includes ground cumin and coriander seeds; finally, she spooned on the pureed carrots, which had been flavored with ginger and harissa. This blend of sweet and spicy, she says, is at the heart of Arabic cuisine. Her watermelon-and-tomato salad with a jalapeño-accented feta sauce was a second example of this hot-and-sweet mix. Then she served another quintessentially Middle Eastern dish, köfte. Her version, fried red lentil and bulgur patties flavored with cumin and hot paprika and served with a cucumber and tomato salad, was inspired by one she had at Zencefil.
Though it's impossible to compare the various dishes, if pushed to pick a favorite, I would go with the fideos she made us, pasta broken into pieces and toasted--a method the Moors brought to Spain--that Sortun cooked in a hearty broth with chickpeas and Swiss chard. The broth, flavored with saffron, fennel seeds and other spices, was so dark and rich that if I hadn't known better, I would have assumed there was beef in it.
As I sipped a cup of thick, robust Turkish coffee, I realized with sudden clarity--perhaps from the jolt of the coffee--that I had been eating continuously for two hours. And how did I feel? I felt great, completely satisfied but--if time and space had permitted--energized enough to push back the tables and dance. As I stepped into the cool night air, what a surprise it was to find myself in the middle of Cambridge, when I was expecting to see an open market with spices and carpets. I was looking for palaces and mosques; I was listening for the wheels of chariots racing to the ancient hippodrome.
Many of the Middle Eastern ingredients mentioned in the following recipes are optional, but all are available by mail order from Kalustyan's, 212-685-3451.