Sharon Salloum remembers eating fatteh for the first time as an eight-year-old while on a family trip in Syria. The rich, filling breakfast of soft, subtly spiced chickpeas with tahini, yoghurt, fried eggplant and toasted nuts, served over Middle Eastern flatbread, had been cooked for the family by her grandmother and aunt.
“As a kid, a lot of my first Middle Eastern food experiences, and my love for them, came from that trip to Syria,” Salloum says.
“It just changed everything for me, and the way I perceived all the food my mum would cook at home.”
Her version of the Levantine dish features some distinguishing touches: while she remembers her grandmother’s fatteh being brothy, hers is a richer consistency: instead of toasting the bread, she fries it until it is golden.
Salloum has always had an interest in food, but initially pursued other professional paths. Before she and her sister opened Almond Bar in Darlinghurst in 2007, they worked as a rehabilitation counsellor and a mathematics teacher respectively.
But “opening a restaurant was something I always knew I would end up doing”.
That restaurant closed its doors in July, after 14 years. These days the sisters focus on their cafe, Three Tomatoes. She says the cafe, now three-and-a-half years old, has shown her a different side of hospitality.
“I’m usually behind the scenes and I don’t really get to know many people, but in a cafe you do, because you see people so often. It’s funny because some of them will actually tell us when they’re going away, so that we’re not worried – because they know that we’ll be worried!”
Fatteh has become a mainstay of the cafe’s menu. “When I’ve taken it off the cafe menu, people have actually complained!”
Salloum contrasts cooking Syrian food in Australia to her “interesting” experience of trying to source ingredients while working in Denmark.
“It’s not like it is here, where you go, ‘I’m just going to pop over to Granville to get this, or I’m just going to go to Haberfield, to the cheese place.’”
“It made me realise how lucky we are. We have so many options available – any kind of groceries you want, any ingredient, they’re so easily accessible.”
Her cafe is in Ashbury, in Sydney’s inner west, and save for two things – real zaatar, and Syrian desert truffles – Salloum says she finds everything she needs locally.
Her other lesson, after a decade and a half of running kitchens, is to ignore the ongoing quest for Instagrammable plates: “I tried for a while there, and then I kind of stopped, because I realised I just needed to be true to myself and the cuisine.”
“Middle Eastern food is such a rustic kind of food, and it’s not about presentation: it’s about being hearty, and full of soul, and full of flavour.”
Sharon Salloum’s fattet betinjen
Prep 25 min
Cook 45 min
150g dried chickpeas
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 piece of cassia bark or cinnamon quill
2-3 bay leaves
2 tsp salt flakes
150ml vegetable oil
1 round piece of middle eastern bread, cut into eighths
1 small-medium eggplant (250g), cut into 1.5cm cubes
½ cup (140g) hulled tahini
¼ cup lemon juice (60ml, juice of about 2 small lemons)
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed
300g natural yoghurt
¼ cup (35g) slivered almonds, roasted
¼ cup (40g) pine nuts, roasted
A small handful parsley leaves, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
Place the chickpeas and bicarbonate of soda in a bowl, cover generously with water and leave to soak overnight.
In the morning, drain, then place the chickpeas in a small saucepan and pour in enough water to cover generously. Cook the chickpeas on a high heat to start. Once they come to a boil, reduce the heat to low. Use a slotted spoon to skim off any scum on the surface.
With the chickpeas on low heat, add the cassia, bay leaves and one teaspoon of salt and cook for about 15-20 minutes or until the chickpeas can be crushed easily between your thumb and index finger. Drain the chickpeas and remove the cassia and bay leaves.
Heat the vegetable oil in a medium-sized fry pan or saucepan over medium-high heat and fry the bread for 10-15 seconds on each side, until it is golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.
In the same oil, fry the cubed eggplant until golden-brown. The eggplant will soak up all the oil at first, but will release it back into the pan as it cooks. Remove and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.
Place the soft chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, pepper, garlic and remaining teaspoon of salt in a bowl. Using a wooden spoon, mix the ingredients together, gently crushing the chickpeas in the process. It should have a paste-like consistency; add two to three tablespoons cold water if you find the consistency is too thick.
Break the fried bread into large pieces and place in a shallow serving bowl. Spread the chickpea mixture over the bread, then spoon the yoghurt evenly over the top. Add the fried eggplant on top of the yoghurt and finish with the roasted almonds, pine nuts and chopped parsley. Finally, lightly drizzle with the olive oil and serve.
Note: almonds and pine nuts can be toasted in a dry pan, or roasted in a 180 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, turning the tray around halfway through cooking.