Al Sharouk Woodfired Oven

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Al Sharouk Woodfired Oven, 544-546 Mahoneys Rd, Campbellfield. Phone: 9359 5773

On a previous, mid-week visit to Al Sharouk with Bennie and Nat, we’d been greeted by a well-stuffed Middle East-style grocery but little by way of eat-in food – or, at least, none that tempted us sufficiently to linger.

Second time around, and flying solo, my desires are a little different.

Lunch, a meal, for sure – but I’m also seeking some specialised Middle East ingredients.

This is so I can roll up my sleeves and get cooking some of the marvellous recipes in Delights From The Garden Of Eden by Nawal Nasrallah, an epic Iraqi cookbook I received in the mail a few days earlier.

This tome – packed with recipes for mostly home-style Iraqi food, countless anecdotes and much food history going back several thousand years – has been secured on the no-doubt righteous recommendation by Annia Ciezadlo in her cool book Day Of Honey.

I feel sure Delights From The Garden Of Eden will be the cause of many, many future years of pleasurable reading and cooking.

But I feel nonplussed as I step through the door of Al Sharouk and discover … that it is now all restaurant and no grocery.

Oh well – I take an upbeat, half-full approach and thoroughly enjoy my lunch and talking with Al Sharouk proprietor Martin.

He’s an Iraqi Christian who moved to Australia more than three decades ago, although his Campbellfield eat shop has been open for just nine months.

It’s no surprise, then, he knows all about the ingredients I seek – baharat, a spice mix that is a sort-of Iraqi equivalent of garam masala; and noomi basrah, which are dried limes.

Martin reckons I should have little trouble securing them from the likes of Al-alamy in Coburg or International Foods in Altona.

As he’s expressed an interest in having a quick look at my new book, I scarper back to my car as he’s knocking my lunch together.

There’s a range of salads and dips on display. Pies and pizzas from the mighty wood-fired oven are available, too.

But I quickly zero in on the two stews available – one a pale number with lamb shanks, the other more of a tomato-based effort with lamb on the bone and chickpeas.

I go for the latter, which turns out to be a variation on Iraqi stews called tashreeb. These are traditionally served on a base of flat bread.

But I’m plenty happy to have mine with Martin’s rice, which he calls an Iraqi biryani.

It’s beaut and studded with peanuts, peas, currants and – most appropriately – the dried limes called noomi basrah, which impart of sublime tartness. Think of something along the lines of a mild Indian lime pickle.

This is very homely food much to my liking – the rice riches work well with the tashreeb chickpeas, and I even get a silky, tender whole onion.

But that’s not all – my single piece of lamb is superbly, predictably tender and toothsome.

Martin has two kinds of chooks getting the heat treatment from his spit pit – the first lot are whole stuffed birds referred to in Delights From The Garden Of Eden as Pregnant Chicken; the second are butterflied birds in lemon and garlic.

I buy a half animal of the latter to take home, but wish I’d gone with a whole of the former – they look so plump and sexy, and are likely a fine bargain at $12.

Other than that, I forget to check prices – suffice to say Al Sharouk is a genuine cheap eats haven, as my lamb rice lunch, a can of soft drink and half a chook to go come to $22.

It’s been cool meet Martin and enjoy some of the kind of food I soon hope to be cooking my own self.

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