All spice

FOOD The taste of Beirut
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Civil war made a love of Lebanese food a long-distance affair in the Eighties. But now that the country is rebuilding itself, a personal acquaintance at last seems possible. And a long-held desire to visit Beirut has recently been rekindled by a new book called Fragrance of the Earth (Saqui Books, pounds 18.95).

Actually, make that a trip to the Shouf mountains to the south east of Beirut. This is where Nada Saleh, the author, was born and brought up. A London resident for 20 years, she began writing four years ago. "I didn't care whether the book sold or not. I wanted to express my childhood, and these were the dishes I grew up with."

The book's authenticity is refreshing, especially when so many cookery books are tailored for the British supermarket and a "fast" way of life. It is beautifully produced; the dishes are photographed in deep, lustrous tones that entice the reader.

Nada Saleh talks about food with the passion of an Italian on the subject of pasta. It is the mountain dishes she has included in her book that are most fascinating. Basic, parsimonious recipes, ruled by "what the garden has to offer", are easy and nutritious, and accommodate the modest income of rural workers.

Makhlouta is a stew of grains and beans: a lovely combination of textures, flavoured with cumin. My own inclination is to smother this with olive oil and parsley.

Sfouf is a cake traditionally made at home, coloured bright yellow with turmeric; there are no eggs, olive oil replaces butter, and semolina gives a grainy texture.

The book reflects Saleh's training as a nutritionist; she disapproves of the unhealthier aspects of traditional Lebanese cooking: "They believe the only way to give flavour to a dish is butter, a whole packet of butter; they fry the onions, they fry the meat, they fry the chicken." She argues that the food has so much flavour that this just isn't necessary. Ironically, in the Seventies, when we were discovering extra-virgin olive oil, Lebanese housewives were getting excited about Mazola and turning their noses up at their native produce.

My lasting memory of the Lebanese food I have eaten is of allspice, cinnamon bark and ground caraway, which scent a wide range of dishes including salads. Sumac, the ground, unripe berries of the sumac bush, is brick red. It replaces lemon juice in mountain regions where this is unavailable, but is much more tart.

Zaatar, a blend of dried thyme, toasted sesame seeds, sea salt and sumac, flavours pastries filled with spinach. I eat it sprinkled over hot pitta bread with olive oil. The home-made, gourmet version uses the tips of thyme sprigs; commercial blends use the whole plant.

Of other dishes in the book, a fish stew was beautifully clean, sharp with sumac and lemon juice and scented with cinnamon, cardamom and cumin. And moghrabiyeh, or Lebanese couscous, is one of the most delicious chicken dishes I have eaten in a long time. Unlike Moroccan couscous, this is like pea-sized gnocchi. In Lebanon it is sold fresh from copper trays.

First a chicken stock is brewed, using a whole chicken. The couscous is fried with cinnamon and caraway, and braised with the stock. The crowning glory is a chunky sauce of tender pearl onions and chickpeas.

The good news is that you can buy the ingredients for these recipes from Turkish and Middle Eastern shops. The problem is bypassing the baklava counter without succumbing.

Mixed grains and beans (makhlouta), serves 4

This peasant stew is not unlike a risotto in consistency. Try to grind your own cumin. It is significantly different from ready-ground and keeps for several weeks.

I serve this with olive oil poured over, and chopped parsley: the vegetarian version. You can also saute 225g/8oz lean ground meat, preferably lamb, until nicely browned, and add it to the bean mixture when adding the bulgur, to make a variation on chilli con carne.

110g/4oz kidney beans, 110g/4oz haricot beans and 75g/3oz chickpeas, all soaked overnight, drained and rinsed

1.75-2l/3-312 pt water

110g/4oz green or brown lentils, picked over

12 tblsp extra-virgin olive oil

275g/10oz onion, peeled and finely chopped

110g/4oz coarse bulgur wheat, rinsed and drained

112 tsp salt

14 tsp freshly ground black pepper

14 tsp freshly ground white pepper

112 tsp ground cumin

Place beans, chickpeas and water in a large saucepan, bring quickly to the boil, skim, then cover, turn heat down and simmer for an hour, until beans are tender. Add lentils, oil and onion, bring back to the boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add bulgur, seasoning and cumin, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. It should by now have a stew-like consistency. Adjust seasoning.

Turmeric cake (sfouf)

This fragrant cake is deep yellow, with a lovely, grainy texture. There is no creaming, and no need for a mixer.

112 tblsp light tahini

285g/612oz plain flour

2 tsp baking powder

112 tblsp turmeric

250g/9oz fine semolina or cornmeal

75ml/3fl oz olive oil

25g/1oz melted unsalted butter

325ml/12fl oz milk

3 tblsp water

240g/812oz caster sugar

40g/112oz pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 170C (fan oven)/180C (electric oven)/Gas 4/350F. Spread the tahini over the base and sides of a rectangular pan 25.5cm x 20.5cm x 5cm/10" x 8" x 2". Sieve the flour, baking powder and turmeric into a bowl; mix in semolina, oil and butter.

In another bowl or a jug combine milk, water and sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Gradually combine with the dry ingredients; mix thoroughly until the batter is smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and sprinkle over the pine nuts. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Remove and leave to cool in the tin, then cut into squares, or diagonally into diamonds. These dry out quickly, so keep them in an airtight container