Food & Drink: Alchemy of the Middle East: Chicken, wheat, aubergines, apricots, nuts. An expert Lebanese cook can transform these ordinary ingredients in magical ways. Michael Betman on the most sophisticated of Arabic cuisines

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The Independent Culture
THE INTERNATIONAL guests in Anissa Helou's kitchen in south-west London have one thing in common. An unabashed, unbridled, un-British passion for cooking.

Donald Munson, for example, is a bustling American oil dealer living in London. But he lives for cooking (Richard Olney, his compatriot and editor of a Time-Life series of books about foods of the world, is the cookery writer he most admires). 'Cooking is a way of escaping the stress of trading oil,' he explains. 'I buy a cargo of oil for say dollars 15m. Maybe I've bought 10 cargoes. The bank has to lend me the money, so I'm paying interest. The markets are going up and down and I'm figuring out what to do. Take the loss? Make a bit of money? So I cook. It's therapeutic.'

Today, however, he is complaining of a food-over. 'It is like a hangover but worse. I bought pounds 60 worth of wild mushrooms from Harvey Nichols and cooked them for friends. They were wonderful but I woke up feeling as if I'd drunk about 10 bottles of wine.'

Another lunchtime guest is passionate cook Simi Bedford, the Nigerian novelist (author of Yoruba Girl Dancing) who is mystified by the English attitude to eating. At boarding school in England she found the food indescribable: 'I couldn't eat it, so I used to smuggle it out of the dining-room in my knicker legs.'

In Nigeria, she says, the food is very beautiful to look at. 'I soon realised that cooking was not central to the culture of England. My mother calls Britain the Northern Punishment Area. There's a puritan attitude towards anything that gives you pleasure, a hair-shirt mentality.'

Anissa Helou is an international art consultant (formerly for Sotheby's and later for the Kuwaiti ruling family). Her kitchen resembles an overcrowded antiques shop. In fact she did once have an antiques shop in Paris, selling British Victoriana.

Jars of strange spices, pulses and foodstuffs are wedged beside ornaments and paintings, every space between filled with flowers. Each item is a talking point. So the conversation starts with talk of strange foods the guests have eaten. Of caterpillars and locusts, of birds' nests and sea slugs, of Anissa's favourite tiny songbirds grilled, or her mother's stew of lamb's intestines cooked with lamb's head and feet. 'I would beg her and torture her to make it,' she says.

They look to Charles Gray, the actor and the most English of Anissa's guests. No one, they suspect, has eaten anything as abhorrent as the mouthful he consumes in Kazuo Ishiguro's ghoulish film, The Gourmet. In the the semi-darkness of a crypt lit by a single moonbeam, Charles scoops up something slippery from a pan and shovels it into his mouth. It is supposed to be the soul of one who has at that moment departed this world and therefore some challenge for the film props department. 'What exactly were you eating, Charles?' they ask him. Charles Gray expresses distaste: 'Lychees.'

There are no lychees in the kit-chen, though a jar of lichen stands on the sideboard, a typical gift from a friend who knows Anissa's passion for the bizarre. But lichen? Isn't that the stuff that grows on country stone walls and cottage roof tiles? Surely it has no appeal, except to starving animals, rodents, birds and insects.

'It's prized in Japan,' says Anissa. 'It's very expensive because it's so dangerous to gather, scraped off rocks high in the mountains.' How do you eat it? 'Soak it in water to reconstitute it.' The Japanese use it in soups. It has a slippery texture and a dry taste. As well it might.

Anissa Helou has prepared lunch from ingredients which are by no means bizarre: chicken, wheat, turnips, cucumber, aubergine, apricots, blackberries, nuts. However, they have been transformed in extraordinary ways. Anissa is Lebanese and lunch has been cooked to traditional recipes passed on to her by her mother. Lebanese cooking, she would claim, is the most sophisticated in the Middle East.

There are delicious 'nibbles', preserved baby aubergines which are stuffed with walnuts and garlic paste and pickled in oil; crunchy pink pieces of turnip pickled with vinegar and coloured with beetroot juice; tasty wild pickled cucumbers.

There's an emerald-green salad of tabbouleh, mostly chopped parsley and tomato with a little softened burghul grain (it is not seeds but boiled wheat, laid out to dry in thin sheets and milled into grain-sized pieces). This is followed by chicken basted with pomegranate syrup, a uniquely local ingredient made from boiling down the juice of the unripe fruit. It gives the sweet-sour effect of balsamic vinegar.

Nothing is quite what it seems. A dish resembling risotto turns out to be made with Lebanese green wheat; this is, curiously, wheat picked before it is fully ripe, and dried over wood smoke. As for Anissa's ice- creams, they are like none known in Britain. But neither are some of the ingredients, like salep and mastic.

Another of Anissa's guests is the publisher Anne Dolamore (also a keen cook and author of A Buyer's Guide to Olive Oil). Inspired by eating in a Lebanese restaurant in Frankfurt when she visits the book fair, she has persuaded Anissa to make a first foray into writing on food. So Lebanese Cuisine by Anissa Helou is published by Grub Street this month at pounds 16.99. Lebanese food is highly regarded, and Lebanese restaurants in capital cities are for the most part upmarket. Yet although there are many books on Middle Eastern food, this is the first to single out Lebanese cuisine.

Anissa collected recipes from her family and friends. She has also tried to put Lebanese food in its historical context. And what a history. This area has been rich pickings since 3000BC when the Canaanites, better known as the Phoenicians, moved in to become the world's first international traders. Since then, a succession of invaders have left their cultural stamp: Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders. For many years it was part of the Ottoman empire until, in 1920, France ruled it as a mandate, and perhaps gave the cuisine a gastronomic tweak. Independence, in 1946, gave way to a bitter civil in war in 1975 from which it is only now emerging.

The lunch has been a masterpiece of planning and preparation (the Chateau Musar, Lebanon's claret-style wine, making it to the front door with about two minutes to spare) but there isn't a hostess in the world who doesn't have at least one drama to deal with. We are ready to eat, but is the green wheat done? It simmers away in a bath of chicken stock in a saucepan with a glass lid.

Donald Munson tastes a few grains. Chewy but perfect, he pronounces. It is done. 'Oh,' declaims Anissa theatrically: 'Then I am undone. There shouldn't be any liquid left by now.'

With a calm born of a thousand international oil crises, Donald Munson puts the lid to one side. 'Turn the heat full on. Boil it quickly

for five minutes and the liquid

will evaporate.' And so it does. A triumph of co-operation.

TURNIP PICKLE

Lefet

Enough for a 1-litre/36fl oz jar

approx 500g/1lb small turnips

1 small beetroot, washed, unpeeled

and cut in quarters

1 fresh hot chilli pepper (optional)

For the pickling solution:

150ml/1/4 pint red wine vinegar

300ml/1/2 pint water

2 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Wash and dry the turnips and peel. Cut into sticks 5-7cm/2-3in long. Then trim the stalk and root ends and pull out any thin roots on the skin. Pack into a sterilised jar, interspersing with beetroot pieces (this gives the white turnip a lovely pink colour). Place the chilli in the jar.

Prepare the pickling solution by diluting the vinegar with the water and adding the salt and sugar, stirring until dissolved. Pour it over the turnips to cover them. Store in a cool, dark place. Eat after two weeks.

CUCUMBER PICKLE

Khyar

Enough for a 1-litre/36fl oz jar

approx 500g/1lb small cucumbers

(about 10cm/4in long)

1 fresh red chilli pepper (optional)

4 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)

pickling solution as above

Wash and drain cucumbers; prick with a toothpick or small fork in several places. Stand them upright quite tightly together in a sterilised jar, interspersing garlic and chilli between the layers if you are using them.

Prepare the pickling solution (as above) and pour it over the cucumbers to cover them. Store in a cool dark place. Eat after two weeks.

AUBERGINES WITH

WALNUTS AND GARLIC

Makdoos

This recipe is made with small, round aubergines, no more than 10cm/4in long. They are available from specialist shops early in the season.

Enough for a 1-litre/36fl oz jar

750g/1lb 10oz small aubergines

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

90g/3oz walnuts

8 cloves of garlic

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

or 1 fresh green chilli pepper, topped and seeded

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

extra virgin olive oil

Cover aubergines in salted water and boil for 5 minutes. Drain and cool.

Put the peeled garlic cloves in a blender with 1 teaspoon salt and process until nearly smooth. Add the walnuts and cayenne pepper (or fresh chilli pepper) and blend until the walnuts are ground medium-fine. The filling should have a fine crunch.

Take one aubergine and make a slit down the middle, lengthways, cutting halfway into the flesh (make sure you do not cut through the other side). Prise the flesh open to create a pocket for the filling and press a teaspoon of walnut and garlic mixture into the aubergines. Smooth the filling with your finger or a spoon to level it with the aubergine skin, put on a plate and finish the rest of the aubergines in the same way.

Pack the aubergines in layers with the filled side up, in a sterilised glass jar, fitting them quite snugly together but without crushing them. Cover with extra virgin olive oil, close the jar and store in a cool, dark place. Eat after one month or more.

TABBOULEH

Serves 4

30g/1ozfine burghul

600g/1lb 5oz firm ripe tomatoes,

diced into small cubes, 5mm/1/4in square

1/2 bunch spring onions (about 50g/2oz)

trimmed and very thinly sliced

2 bunches flat-leafed parsley

(400g/14oz on the stalk), very finely chopped

1/3 bunch mint (70g/21/2 oz),

leaves only, very finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper

salt to taste

juice of 1 lemon

150ml/5fl oz extra virgin olive oil

4 gem lettuces, washed and quartered

Rinse the burghul in several changes of cold water, drain well and put in a salad bowl that is large enough to mix the tabbouleh in.

The most efficient way to dice the tomatoes into small cubes is to cut them in thin slices, about 5mm/1/4in thick, place these - in a pile of two or three - on your chopping board and cut them in strips of the same thickness, then cut across the strips to produce cubes about 5mm/1/4in square. Spread the diced tomatoes and their juice over the burghul, then add the sliced onions.

Wash and dry the parsley and chop finely. Put the chopped parsley over the spring onions, looking out for big pieces; if there are any, take them out and chop them finely. After you finish the parsley, prepare the mint, chop as thinly as the parsley. Add the chopped mint to the parsley, cover with a clean kitchen towel and leave for about half an hour for the burghul to absorb the tomato juices and soften.

Season the tabbouleh with cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt to taste, pour in the lemon juice and olive oil and mix well together.

CHICKEN WITH BURGHUL

Anissa made this with freekeh, a rarely used but wonderful ingredient available from specialist shops. Lebanese farmers harvest this type of wheat while it is still green and roast it immediately in the fields. It has a delicate, smoky flavour and cooks quite differently from burghul, retaining a distinctive fine crunch. The fact that it is not commonly used does not mean it is difficult to obtain in Britain. It is available from Lebanese shops, either loose or pre-packed, and at reasonable prices. There are two different types. The smokier one is coarsely cracked and brownish-green in colour, whereas the less roasted one is more bland, with the grains whole and brown in colour. This recipe uses the more common burghul, or cracked wheat.

Serves 4

1 medium free-range chicken (about 1.4kg/3lb)

1.5 litres/54fl oz water

1 medium onion, peeled

3 cinnamon sticks

1 tablespoon coarse sea salt

25g/1oz unsalted butter

200g/7oz burghul

600ml/22fl oz chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon finely ground black pepper

450g/1lb plain yoghurt (optional)

Rinse the chicken under cold water and put it in a saucepan. Add the water, place over a high heat and bring to the boil. When the water is about to boil, skim the surface clean, then add the onion, cinnamon sticks and salt. Reduce heat to medium, cover pan and boil gently for 1 hour.

Half an hour before the chicken is ready, remove 600ml/22fl oz of the chicken stock for cooking the burghul (the chicken will go on cooking with the stock left in the pan). Or you can roast the chicken, basting it with pomegranate syrup.

Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat, add the burghul and stir until it is well coated with the butter. Pour in the chicken stock, season with cinnamon, allspice, and pepper and bring to the boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer for 25 minutes or more until the burg-hul is cooked exactly to your liking and the stock is absorbed.

Take the burghul off the heat, wrap the lid with a clean kitchen towel, put it back over the pan and leave to sit while you prepare the chicken. Transfer the chicken on to a chopping board and cut into slices or pieces as you prefer. Spoon the burghul into a shallow serving bowl, arrange the chicken pieces on top of it and serve immediately and preferably with a bowl of yoghurt.

PISTACHIO NUT ICE-CREAM

Booza ala Festu Halabi

This ice-cream can be varied by replacing the pistachios with pine nuts, almonds or any other nut. The mastic referred to here is a flavouring collected from a resin, available from Lebanese food stores. It can be omitted, as can salep - a thickening agent which is bought as a powder.

Serves 4

600ml/22fl oz organic milk

200g/7oz raw pistachio nuts

(or pine nuts or blanched almonds, pre-soaked

in boiling water and drained)

1/4 teaspoon ground mastic

1/2 tablespoon salep

150g/5oz golden caster sugar

300ml/11fl oz creme fraiche

2 tablespoons rose water

Pour the milk into a saucepan, place over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Watch carefully to make sure that the milk does not boil over. Take off the heat and leave until tepid. (You can cool it quickly by putting the pan in iced water.)

In the meantime put the pistachio nuts in a blender (or the drained pine nuts or almonds, if you are using either. The idea behind soaking them in boiling water is to soften them and freshen their taste).

Dilute the ground mastic in a little tepid milk and leave until later. Strain the rest of the milk into a clean saucepan and place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, while stirring constantly, then gradually add the salep. Do this in very small quantities or else the powder will clot in the milk. Keep stirring over the heat for about 5-8 minutes, then add the sugar and stir for 3 minutes.

Pour the thickened milk into a freezer-proof mixing bowl (if the salep has not diluted properly, pour the milk through a sieve) and stir in the diluted mastic. Add cream, nuts and rose water and blend until the cream is fully incorporated.

If you have an ice-cream maker, follow the manufacturer's instructions to ice the mixture; if not, put the mixture in the freezer and whisk every hour or so, for about 6-8 hours, or until the ice-cream has reached the desired consistency.

BLACKBERRY ICE-CREAM

You can use other fruits, such as figs, mulberries, mango, strawberries

Serves4

300ml/11fl oz organic milk

500g/1lb blackberries

300ml/11fl ozcreme fraiche

175g/6oz golden caster sugar

Pour the milk into a saucepan, place over a medium heat and bring to the boil. Make sure you keep an eye on it to make sure it does not boil over, then remove it from the heat and leave to cool (you can cool it more quickly by putting the pan in a bowl of iced water).

Put the peeled fruit in a blender and process, making sure that you do not liquidise them too much as there should be small chunks of fruit detectable in the finished ice-cream.

Transfer the pureed fruit into a mixing bowl, strain the cooled milk over them and carefully add the cream and the sugar. Stir until the sugar has melted and the cream is fully incorporated. Then put the bowl in the freezer and whisk every hour or so, for between 6 and 8 hours or until the ice-cream has reached the desired consistency: or, if using an ice-cream maker, follow the manufacturer's instructions.

CANDIED APRICOT ICE-CREAM

Booza ala Amar el-Deen

'Moon of the religion' is the literal translation of Amar el-Deen, the name of the candied apricot sheets that are the main flavouring for this ice-cream. It has a beautiful, pale salmon colour that combines perfectly with the speckled green of the pistachio ice-cream and the blackberry ice-cream if you make all three. If you can't get hold of it, you can experiment with 250g/8oz dried apricots and sugar to taste mixed in a blender with a little water.

Serves 4 to 6

100g/31/2oz pine nuts

500ml/18fl oz organic milk

300g/101/2 oz 'moon of the religion'

300ml/11fl oz creme fraiche

75g/21/2oz golden caster sugar

4 tablespoons orange blossom water (optional)

Place the pine nuts in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Put them aside and leave to soak while you are preparing the remainder of the ingredients. The idea behind soaking them in boiling water is to soften them and freshen their taste.

Put the milk in a saucepan, place over a medium heat and bring to the boil. In the meantime cut the 'moon of the religion' sheet in medium pieces and put in a large freezer-proof mixing bowl. Watch the milk as it is about to boil, so that it does not boil over and, when it has boiled, take off the heat.

Wait for a few minutes, then strain it over the candied apricot pieces. Make sure you do not pour the boiling milk over the candied apricot, as it will curdle. Stir until the candied apricot has melted in the milk; this will take some time, about 5 minutes, and I suggest you use a whisk towards the end to quicken the disintegration process.

When the ''moon of the religion' is melted, add the cream and stir until well blended. Taste before adding the sugar, in case you find the mixture sweet enough; remember, though, that the iced taste will be less sweet. Add the sugar to taste, pour in the orange blossom water (if you are using it) and stir until the sugar is diluted.

Drain the pine nuts, rinse them under cold water and add to the apricot mixture, reserving a few nuts for garnishing the ice-cream. Blend well and put the bowl in the freezer. Whisk the mixture every hour or so, for about 6-8 hours, or until the ice-cream has reached the desired consistency. If you are using an ice-cream maker, follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Anissa knows of six Lebanese shops in England. Five of them are in London: Zen, 27 Moscow Road, W2; Archie, Dhoot Bros, 14 Moscow Road, W2; Crackers Delicatessen, 272 Kensington High Street, W8; The Green Valley, 36 Upper Berkeley Street, W1; The Haddad Food Centre, 121 Chiswick High Road, W4. One is in Newcastle: Al-Fardous Mediterranean Food Store, The Green Market, Eldon Square. Many of these ingredients are also obtainable from Cypriot and Asian stores.

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