Dive into Middle Eastern cuisine, with the help of our new MENA Academy Chairs

William Drew - 06/08/2021


The announcement of a new list of Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants for early 2022 presents an opportunity to learn more about the cuisines and idiosyncratic dishes of this rich culinary region. We talk food and travel with the six well-connected gastronomes who have been appointed to head up our MENA Academy of expert voters

From Morocco’s pastilla and Levantine baba ghanoush to Emirati khuzi, the variety of flavours on offer across North Africa and the Middle East is deliciously dizzying. Furthermore, the region’s finest restaurants are showcasing these dishes and more in ever more exciting and innovative ways – mixing local, regional and international influences to create a truly world-class dining scene.

In 2022, such diverse gastronomy and culinary talent will be celebrated with the inaugural ranking of Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna. The list – unveiled at a glamorous awards event in the host destination city of Abu Dhabi – is the result of votes from 250 food experts spread across 19 countries, who make up the MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy.

Each member of the Academy will make a selection based on their own personal dining experiences of the previous two years, choosing restaurants located within their own country and elsewhere in the region. It is an open vote, as long as the Academy member has dined at the restaurant itself during the period and has no financial interest in any of those selected; there are no pre-set criteria or shortlisted restaurants. All voting is confidential and secure and voters must remain anonymous, as per the pre-existing 50 Best rankings.

So how does the 50 Best organisation find and select the incognito gourmets who help create the ranking? It works in partnership with a series of respected regional figures in gastronomy, known as Academy Chairs, who are selected for their independence, integrity and extensive network. Each MENA Academy Chair in turn puts forward a range of passionate food-lovers, whether they be chefs, restaurateurs, food writers or simply well-travelled gourmets. The overall Academy of voters will be gender-balanced and spread across the MENA region; and their votes are cast securely and confidentially.

Here we meet the five MENA Academy Chairs appointed to date, and in the process find out more about the expansive culinary delights of the Middle East and North Africa.

Claudia de Brito
A Portuguese-Cape Verdean, born in Singapore and raised in the UAE, Claudia de Brito’s professional journey has been as non-linear as her background. She started her career in TV sales then moved into film journalism before settling on hospitality as her field of expertise. De Brito has covered F&B in the region for close to a decade as the editor of leading publications, including Caterer Middle East. Now a freelance writer, content creator and hospitality consultant, she is based in the UAE and will over the see the Gulf region, recruiting expert voters from across UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman.
Three quick questions:

What does the launch of MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants mean for the region?
I think this is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the wealth, depth and diversity of the region's culinary offering. It's also a well-deserved global platform for the outstanding homegrown talent that we have on the ground in the UAE and will hopefully inspire our up-and-coming chefs and restaurateurs. We are so excited to welcome the culinary world to Abu Dhabi next year to experience everything that the city has to offer.

Which local dish should visitors to your country try?
Luquimat are a great way for novices to get into Emirati cuisine. They are little deep-fried dough balls drizzled with date syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It's traditional to have them during Ramadan, but really you can have them any time – ideally with a cup of Arabic coffee.

What culinary myths about the UAE would you like to dispel?
The main culinary misconception is that everything is imported: ingredients, concepts, talent. This may have been true 20 years ago, but it certainly isn't the case now.

Leen Al Zaben

A culinary entrepreneur from Amman, Jordan, Leen Al Zaben has worked and lived across multiple continents. Introduced to great food at an early age, Al Zaben’s passion and expertise lie in storytelling through food as a means of bringing people together. She practices this through cooking, photography, writing and interactive culinary workshops. Al Zaben previously worked at June, a kitchen technology start-up based in San Francisco, before returning to her homeland. She will oversee the Levant-plus region, taking in Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

What does the launch of MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants mean for the region?
We have long been associated with conflict, pain and hardship; this is a great opportunity to shine light on what the MENA region actually is – a land full of beauty, culture and diversity, rich in cooking traditions and hospitality practices.

Which local dish should visitors to your country try?
I’m going to list two dishes! The first is shipswabasta, a Circassian dish that you can probably only find in Jordan, made of chicken cooked in a creamy walnut and garlic sauce served alongside dumplings made of burghul [cracked wheat] and rice, topped with a spicy oil. Rich and delicious.

The second dish is akkoub bil laban, made with a type of thorny wild asparagus (akhoub) that only sprouts in spring. It’s a delicacy because akkoub is quite tricky to de-thorn. Once stripped, it’s sautéed in olive oil or ghee and topped with cold garlicky yogurt. The flavour combination is explosive. 

Where are you excited about travelling to and eating in?
In Beirut, you get to experience both the traditional and the experimental when it comes to food. And I have yet to find a hummus that matches Abu Shukri’s in Old Jerusalem. I dream about it. 

Roy Yerushalmi

Celebrated travel journalist and culinary historian Roy Yerushalmi has written for a multitude of international publications for two decades. His features, wine selections and recipes are published weekly in Israel’s Globes financial newspaper and the Rex culinary recommendations site, the latter of which he founded. Yerushalmi splits his time between Tel Aviv and The Princes' Islands in Istanbul, where he’s working on his first cookbook, based on Israeli cuisine and his Turkish-Sephardic heritage. He will oversee the voting panel in Israel.

What does the launch of MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants mean for the region?
In the past decade, Israel and Tel Aviv in particular have been seen by many as world-class culinary destinations. Its cuisine has been an inspiration for numerous chefs, with an extraordinary, joyful dining scene, based on fresh raw materials and dishes. Israel's cooks and foodies, needless to say, are more than thrilled for the upcoming gastronomic recognition with 50 Best coming to the Middle East.

Which local dish should visitors to your country try?
Any dish consisting of local wild fish and seafood with supreme Israeli olive oil – a match made in heaven! 

Where are you excited about travelling to and eating in?
Personally, I am particularly thrilled by the possibility of traveling to Morocco and the culinary institutions of Marrakech, as well as the fish stands along the Atlantic towns of Agadir and Essaouira. Then Oman for its stunning nature and heritage sites, and the UAE for its fine dining scene. 

Sherif Tamim

A food, lifestyle and travel photographer from a family of artists, Sherif Tamim grew up in a variety of countries. Now based in Cairo, but regularly travelling across MENA and the world, he has a personal and professional passion for food-based travel experiences, exploring everything from street food to award-winning fine dining restaurants. Tamim will oversee the North Africa (East) region, comprising voters from Egypt and Libya.

Which local dish should visitors to your country try?
Molokhia – it’s the dish you grow up with in Egypt: you start eating it as a toddler, then you develop your own ways and stories around it. It’s a green soup made of spinach-like leaves finely chopped and mixed with chicken stock and garlic, served with rice and chicken, or rabbit, or even meatballs. Some like to drink the soup, some like mixing it with rice, chicken and onions. Some like it very thick and some like it perfectly ground and light. You can find it in many restaurants.

What culinary facts about Egypt would you like to share?
We are the only country that makes falafel out of fava beans not chickpeas and it tastes totally different! We actually call it ta’miya and it goes back to the Ancient Egyptians, who then inspired the Middle Eastern region to make the falafel we know globally today.

Where are you excited about travelling to and eating in?
I can’t wait to go back to Syria one day. I have never tasted anything as good as the food I ate in Damascus in 2010. Street food and fine dining in shared equal qualities and flavours. I would also love to explore Morocco and Tunisia.

Mohamed El Baroudi
The CEO of a luxury tea company that exports its products on five continents, Mohamed El Baroudi is based in Marrakech in his native Morocco. For business and leisure, he travels extensively around the world and uses his trips to discover new restaurants and dining experiences. He has a broad knowledge of the food scenes of Morocco, the MENA region and beyond. El Baroudi will be responsible for putting forward voters for the region of North Africa (West) taking in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
What does the launch of MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants mean for the region?
It's a wonderful opportunity to highlight our vibrant food scene. The restaurant landscape has changed dramatically (for the better!) during recent years and all these wonderful places will eventually get the global visibility and recognition that they deserve.

What culinary myths about Morocco would you like to dispel?
When people think about Moroccan cuisine, tagine is the first thing that will come to their minds. But they often ignore that tagine is not a dish, but a cooking method; and there are hundreds of tagine recipes, with infinite combinations of meats, vegetables and spices.

Where are you excited about travelling to and eating in?
My next destination will probably be the Gulf Region. I am always impressed by the vitality and diversity of the restaurant scene in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. And Saudi Arabia is coming up strong...

Aljohara Almogbel
Aljohara Almogbel is a practising lawyer but is equally a dedicated food enthusiast and avid traveller. She held the role of regional editor for Destination Riyadh for a number of years, and currently documents her family’s culinary adventures on Two Boots and a Farwa, a blog she runs with her sister, Sara. Aljohara and Sara also co-host a weekly podcast called The Story Behind, which showcases leading restaurateurs in the region. Based in Riyadh, she will oversee the voting panel in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
What does the launch of MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants mean for the region?
It’s a chance to showcase our amazing food scene. It’s criminally underrated, and frankly it deserves a bigger spotlight amongst the rest of the global cuisines.

Which dish should visitors to your country try?
Kabda sandwich in samooli bread, either homemade or from a bufeyah (hole in the wall) in the street. It costs just 5 riyals [$1.30] is a staple Saudi street food, and one of my earliest memories as a kid.

Where are you excited about travelling to and eating in?
We’re not done exploring Saudi Arabia, to be honest (can’t wait to visit Jizan!), but we’d love to go back to UAE and Kuwait and explore both a little bit more.

The first edition of Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be hosted in Abu Dhabi. A full event programme will take place in the UAE capital from 4th-11thFebruary 2022, with the gala awards ceremony taking place on 7th February.

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