Sunday, July 8, 2012

By the Rivers of Babylon

I rarely read the Portland Press-Herald, so I did not know that Tandoor Bread on Forest Avenue had been reviewed until I entered the place. Good. Maine is truly blessed to have Audai Nasser baking his tenur here. (First hint at what a blessing: The article mentions that some of his customers come up from Boston.) We might be even more blessed to have his wife, Kanat Saad, cooking ful (fava beans) for us.

Ful and bread is the meal of poverty through much of the Arab world. When done right, however, it is also one of the most delicious things anywhere in the world. This ful was more right than I have ever had before. Hot Librarian, thinking ahead to a few nights wherein she will need to cook in my absence, asked, "How hard could it be?" I replied that ful is one of the easiest things to make--just onions, good olive oil, salt and lemon juice--and one of the hardest to make well. The proportions have to be exactly right.

We also had falafel, which came with the ful, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and onions and that wonderful tenur as part of a plate for one that would have been enough for three. Texturally perfect, and its flavored married beautifully with the ful and vegetables to form a perfect sandwich. That stated, if you're not in the mood to overstuff yourself, and opt instead to order a simple falafel sandwich, you will be offered amba (or, as the proprietress referred to it to a pair of bemused customers, mango sauce).

Amba, as I explained when it became clear that the other customers were reflexively inclined to reject it, is not at all sweet, and similar in flavor to an Indian mango pickle. It is also, I continued somewhat pedantically, Iraq's great contribution to world gastronomy and thoroughly addictive. Don't believe me? Ask any Israeli under the age of 50. When the Iraqi government lashed out after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 by expelling the massive, millennia-old Jewish community from Baghdad, one of the results was to expose millions of Ashkenazi Jews who had never had anything more flavorful than schmaltz to the joys of amba. Even if the ful weren't as fantastic as it was, I'd be planning a return visit just to get my next amba fix.

Fortunately, we had all three come from a nature walk at Gilsland Farm, in the mood to eat in great quantities. So in addition to my ful and falafel, HL had ordered a selection of pies for her and Little One to sample--meat, cheese, spinach, and za'atar. I did not sample the cheese, but HL and OL both relished it--salty and gooey without being greasy. The meat pie was perfectly seasoned with allspice, cumin and probably more, and the za'atar smelled like a Palestinian hillside. Only the spinach pie was disappointingly underseasoned.

I could not leave without bringing some baklava home: walnuts, almonds, honey, rose water and cardamom perfuming layer after layer of phyllo, at turns crispy and luscious. And there I wept for the rivers of Babylon.