MENA: A culinary geography to watch

MENA: A culinary geography to watch

MENA 50 Best,” the 50 Best Restaurants in the Middle East and North Africa awards were presented on Jan. 30 in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. The 50 best places to eat from countries in the region were shared among 14 cities, with Orfali Bros Bistro in Dubai taking the number 1 restaurant award.

In the past, there used to be a much-repeated bragging phrase in Türkiye. When a sentence started with the Middle East and the Balkans, it would be followed by “the biggest, the best, the first” in a boastful manner. Türkiye was in the center of this vast geography. Now we need to get used to the expression MENA which stands for Middle East & North Africa.

Türkiye can sometimes be included in this group, although not technically, we are on the edge of this big definition, and we are sort of connected, not only geographically, but also culturally, especially foodwise. It is time for us to put this region under the spotlight in terms of tourism and gastronomy. The 50 Best Restaurants list, one of the world’s leading restaurant ranking systems, has initiated a separate list as MENA 50 Best for the last two years. This is something we need to watch especially closely from Türkiye. Why? Because we have a similar culinary culture to this geography and share a common history with many of the countries in the region if we think of the largest borders of the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, this year’s winner is the Orfali brothers, as their name implies, stem from a family of Urfa in origin

Culinary Fraternity

The brothers Mohammed, Wassim and Omar Orfali were born in Aleppo. While Muhammed is the chef of the Bistro, the other two brothers are unrivaled in desserts and pastries. As we know, during the Ottoman period, provinces such as Urfa, Antep, Kilis and Hatay were under the Ottoman state of Aleppo. Therefore, we have a culinary brotherhood with Aleppo, which lead to a great dinner just two weeks ago. Michelin-starred Neolokal restaurant from Istanbul collaborated with Orfali Bros Brothers to make a four-hands dinner in Dubai to emphasize this culinary fraternity. Chef Maksut Aşkar from Neolokal and Muhammed Orfali have known each other for 8 years and felt like brothers from the very first day. Maksut is from Antakya but his family is originally from Aleppo. This Aleppo heritage is felt in both of their kitchens. They finally got together at Orfali Bros Bistro in Dubai and cooked a joint meal. When I asked Maksut for the menu, it took me a while to realize which dishes were who’s on the list. The Aegean pumpkin “sinkonta” was definitely Maksut’s, but the rest could have been from either of them. As a matter of fact, both chefs are proud of their own versions of the “imam bayıldı” plate, though it was not on the menu of that special joint dinner, both dishes are the interpretations of the Ottoman classic olive oil-braised eggplant dish, both chefs make their own take on the great classic dish, ending up in a completely different plate, yet so similar in taste. By the way, it is worth remembering that Aleppo cuisine was a gastronomic center in Syria during and after the Ottoman period, but the influence of Istanbul as an imperial center cannot be underestimated. If we want to add new interpretations to our cuisine today and position ourselves in the world-class, we need to closely follow chefs like the Orfali brothers. That’s why MENA 50 Best is a list that we need to follow very closely and scrutinize every place on the list that is based on traditional culinary culture.

Who is in the top 50?

When the list was announced, I wrote to the chair, Claudia de Brito, asking for the details. There are 19 countries in the region, 6 regional chairs and 250 secret voters, each of whom has to choose seven restaurants. The list includes winners from 14 different cities across the MENA region, from Marrakech and Tunis to Riyadh and Kuwait City. This year, Dubai
restaurants have an overwhelming victory with 15 places on the list. Tel Aviv from Israel follows with six venues.
Amman with five restaurants and Cairo with four restaurants are candidates to be remarkable gastronomy destinations. Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Manama, Marrakech and Riyadh follow with three restaurants each, and Giza, Tunis, Casablanca, Kuwait and Salmiya are represented with one restaurant. The list inevitably includes places featuring Asian cuisines, especially Japanese, which are becoming increasingly popular across the globe. What caught my attention was the high number of places that have their repertoire rooted in traditional food culture. This is a promising development. For example,
Tawlet Mar Mikhael at number 19 in Beirut has a special place with its dishes made by women that were uprooted from their homelands by wars and migration. Number one Orfali bases its cuisine solely on traditional fare and includes a pide section in the menu. From Israel, George & John focuses on Moroccan Jewish influences and Animar in Jewish Persian. This year a lot of restaurants were focusing on regional and local. It was especially seen in entries from Lebanon, Israel and Dubai. This fact showcases that people are still looking for and valuing their traditional tastes.
Meanwhile, another element that draws attention is the unifying power of cuisine. Roy Yerushalmi, the regional chair for Israel, whose mother’s side is from Istanbul, emphasizes this point and explains how local chefs come together on the axis of taste, regardless of religion and ethnicity. He says “I think that the 50 Best rank in the Middle East is the most fascinating one when it comes to geopolitics. It demonstrates how food can really bring people together. Chefs who are Lebanese Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, and of course, Israelis, with everybody else, have had a chance to get to know each other to eat each other’s food and to have wholehearted conversations, in these dire days this point should not be overlooked.” In turbulent geography, hope for the future perhaps lies in the food tasted in the past, in traditional convivial tables, our mutual cultural heritage.

Highlights from MENA 50 Best

  • Orfali Bros Bistro in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is named The Best Restaurant in Middle East & North Africa 2023, sponsored by S. Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, and The Best Restaurant in the UAE;
  • OCD Restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel, is awarded the Sustainable Restaurant Award, sponsored by Arla Pro;
  • Em Sherif in Beirut, Lebanon, wins the Art of Hospitality Award;
  • Chef Moustafa Elrefaey is voted by his peers as the winner of the Estrella Damm N.A. Chefs’ Choice Award;
  • Karim Bourgi takes home the MENA’s Best Pastry Chef Award, sponsored by Valrhona;
  • Fusions by Tala in Manama, Bahrain wins the Highest Climber Award, rising 36 spots to No. 3;
  • Ossiano in Dubai is the recipient of the Highest New Entry Award, sponsored by Aspire Lifestyles, after landing at No. 4.

Aylin Öney Tan,