Middle East food market changing as lamb costs rise

Middle East food market changing as lamb costs rise

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Middle East food market changing as lamb costs rise

The rising cost of lamb meat is forcing many Middle East and Arab restaurants to change their menus, offering cheaper and less appealing “ground beef” as an alternative to the more costly lamb, and it is having a negative impact on the quality of food served at most Arab restaurants and grocery stores around the United States

By Ray Hanania

There was a time when you never had to ask if the Kibbeh or the stuffed grape leaves would be made with meat from a lamb, a sheep that is under 12 months of age.

Lamb meat is the most tasteful meat and it is fundamental to Middle East recipes.

These days, the lamb meat is being replaced by cheaper and lower quality ground beef. And it’s almost impossible to order Kibbeh (Kuftah)or stuffed grape leaves that are made with lamb.

Replacing lamb meat with less costly and less quality ground beef, usually 70 percent lean (30 percent fatty), is resulting in more profits for the stores but a less enjoyable experience for consumers.

Kibbeh is a football shaped food item with a shell made from fried bulgur, specially prepared cracked wheat. (Bulgur is a whole wheat grain that has been cracked and partially pre-cooked.) The outer shell encases what normally would be a center mixture consisting of diced lamb, onions, various Middle East spices and either pre-roasted almond slices or pine nuts.

Stuffed Kibbeh (Kuftah). Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Stuffed Kibbeh (Kuftah). Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Stuffed grape leaves are exactly what they sound like, grape leaves wrapped around an internal mix of rice and diced lamb.

The perfect grape leaf meal consists of a mixture of rice and lamb tightly wrapped. And when you bite into the grape leaf, you can actually taste or feel the individual rice with is strong and solid, and not mushy.

Stuffed Grape Leaves. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Stuffed Grape Leaves. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

The mushiness comes from cooks who prepare the mix quickly to save time at the cost of great taste. Rice retains its consistency when it is rinsed at least three or four times before using. The rice has much starch on it and if the starch is not removed through the rising process, it causes the rice to stick together and become too soft.

The worst stuffed grape leaves are loose, cooked directly in the meat sauce rather than above the meat and steamed, and when the rice is mushy like mashed potatoes.

Tight wrapping of the grape leaves mixture helps prevent the rice from becoming too mushy. The tighter the wrapped grape leaf, the better the rice cooks without soaking up the stew or juices directly. But, it is time consuming and it requires a careful and skilled wrapping process that is too often lost in the rush to sell more and generate higher profits.

Greek Dolmades, stuffed grape leaves served cold, drenched in olive oil and without any meat. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Greek Dolmades, stuffed grape leaves served cold, drenched in olive oil and without any meat. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Greek Dolmades, stuffed grape leaves served cold, drenched in olive oil and without any meat, are commonly offered in many Mediterranean themed deli sections in mainstream grocery stores. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Greek Dolmades, stuffed grape leaves served cold, drenched in olive oil and without any meat, are commonly offered in many Mediterranean themed deli sections in mainstream grocery stores. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

I’ve noticed the change taking place over the past few years in the Chicagoland area where it is almost impossible to find a great order of stuffed grape leaves or kibbeh made from high quality lamb. The grape leaves are mushy, soggy and not tight, resulting in a poorer tasting food recipe product.

Detroit still has several restaurants that provide both stuffed grape leaves and kibbeh with lamb meat, but the trend is hitting some restaurants and grocery ad bakery stores there, too.

You can still buy lamb, of course, at local ethnic or mainstream grocery stores at a much higher price. Lamb is the preferred meat during the Easter season for the Greek Orthodox Christians, and for many members of the Muslim community. But more and more, cheaper, less quality ground beef is finding its way into many of the Middle East recipes we used to enjoy and order in restaurants.

The next time you go to a Middle East or Mediterranean restaurant, ask the waiter or chef  if they are using ground beef or lamb in either the kibbeh or the stuffed grape leaves.

You will be surprised by the response.

Another victim of the rising price of lamb is kuftah (kufteh), which is normally spiced ground lamb wrapped around a skewer and roasted over a flame. Kuftah Kabobs are being made with ground beef, too. With the right spices, many customers think they are enjoying lamb.

To avoid the controversy, and catering to a growing food fad, many Arab and Middle Eastern restaurants are offering customers “vegetarian” grape leaves made without any meat in the rice mix. They are using vegetables like finely diced carrots, over seasoned in Cumin Powder which gives many recipes a stronger meat-like taste.

Many mainstream delis offer a large, oil drenched and loose grape leave stuffed with rice and spices, and cold. This is actually the preferred style of Greeks and it is called dolmades. They are served cold, drenched in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and usually consist only of rice and diced vegetable mix.

Being Arab, dolmades are only a placeholder for me, and not my food of choice. I’d prefer stuffed grape leaves but dolmades are easily wrapped and mixed so they can be quickly churned out in large quantities, improving store profits.

You will find many restaurants offering lamb at a higher, premium price, if you ask. They still make Mansaf (Mensif), the popular bedouin rice dish soaked in Jameed on toasted Syrian bread, with large chunks of lamb. But Mansaf is usually only served during the Holidays or Eid, and on Fridays at most restaurants. Mansaf is the national dish of Jordan and traditionally is eaten with guests using their hands, rather than utensils. It’s a cultural custom and it is fun. You grab the rice and ball it up and then eat it.

Mansaf (mensiff) -- lamb, rice, toasted Syrian pita bread and jameed sauce -- popular as a holiday dish and the national dish of Jordan. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Mansaf (mensiff) — lamb, rice, toasted Syrian pita bread and jameed sauce — popular as a holiday dish and the national dish of Jordan. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

RAY HANANIA — Columnist

Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author. He covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).

Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and at TheArabDailyNews.com, TheDailyHookah.com and at SuburbanChicagoland.com.

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.

His Facebook Page is Facebook.com/rghanania

Email him at: RGHanania@gmail.com

Visit this link to read Ray's column archive at the ArabNews,com ArabNews.com/taxonomy/term/10906
Ray Hanania