In the waiting

‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.’
T.S. Eliot, East Coker.

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An oven-ready Tsoureki 

Our kitchen table has become a battle ground between woman and bread. This Saturday, the Holy Saturday before Orthodox Easter, my mother was in the front line, trying to gather up an uncooperative, sticky mass of traditional Greek Easter sweet bread, known as Tsoureki. Rewind one week, and there was I, on ‘Western’ Good Friday eve. ‘You look stressed’, my father had remarked as he found me fighting with my first  sour dough.

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An oven-ready stubborn and sourdough

It was not how I had imagined my foray into sourdough artistry. Rather I had thought I would tune into some kind of magic ancient rhythm, connect with an inner divine baker soul. But life is not like that, and neither, it seems, is art. My mum couldn’t figure out why the Tsoureki dough was behaving unusually. I couldn’t figure out why my sourdough was breaking up instead of developing the resilient membrane demonstrated in the youtube video. The disobedient doughs somehow summoning up all the unspoken tensions in our hearts as we daily stare into mundane and terrifying new realities and hovering unknowns.

‘How long will you leave it?’ I asked my mum as she finally wrestled the dough into a bowl. ‘It depends if it rises’, she replied. Another unknown, reflecting my own anxiety a week before as I awoke early on Holy Saturday anxious that my dough would have resisted natural processes and remained a small stubborn ball.

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The rising obscured

There seems an obvious connection between leavened bread and Easter. While Jews eat unleavened bread during Passover to commemorate a hurried flight from Egypt without time for their bread to rise, now we sit in wait by a pale form hidden under white cloth, yearning for a rising, a marker of the restored order of things. And since my church normally celebrates Easter, like any East London community worth their salt, with sourdough, my bread making was far from the contemplative process I had imagined. It had taken on universal significance, since it would be also be standing in (non-theological term) for the Body of Christ at our zoom Easter Sunday service. Now, more than ever, I needed to count on the rising.

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The doughs did rise. More crucially, He is Risen. But perhaps I need to stop imputing metaphysical significance or read a story into everything I do and see. The difficult task may now be to dwell in the ordinary, amidst the extraordinary.

On some mornings, the view of the peninsula on the other side of Dublin bay is obscured by fog. It reminds me that rather than trying to get a view of the uncharted country ahead, I need to sit in the ‘waiting without’. Or, between the dying and the rising again.

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Having now tried a few recipes for sourdough, I can recommend this one.

 

Here

‘Wherever you are is called Here,                                                                                                   And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.’

These words from the poem ‘Lost’ ring particularly true at this time: reminding me that however normal life can sometimes feel on a given day in lockdown, however much I reach for familiarity through work or trying my hand at being a home masterchef, an unfamiliar, mostly unwelcome, new world is emerging.

Our vicar’s zoom sermon last Palm Sunday touched on the theme of encountering the strange. The reading from Matthew 21:1-11 will be known to many: Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey and the crowds gather to welcome him as the long-awaited King of Israel. The sermon focussed in on the penultimate verse, describing a city unsettled by this strange new arrival and asking ‘Who is this?’. Our vicar suggested that we, too, hold back the desire to fast-forward to the resurrection, and take time to ask the same question this Holy Week.

Sometime around then I also watched a heart-warming Miranda Facebook video-cast where she reflected on normality and asked what kind of ‘normal’ we actually want to return. Do we, that is, want to return to our frenetic ultra-consumerist carbon-gulping lifestyles? Most of us would say of course not, while at the same time dreaming up post-lockdown holidays, and, if you’re me, looking forward to the time when you can once again get a take-away single-origin feather design-topped cappuccino without standing at a two-metre distance with gloves on and holding your breath. As much as I know, somewhere in my heart, that we must face into this world that seems to have turned upside down and try to learn some real lessons from it in the turning, a massive part of me deeply yearns for it all to go back to how it was.

IMG_1445I wrote a poetic reflection on it:

This is the normal I long for
A day when I turn my gaze to the expanse of glimmering sea
And it speaks to me
of the way things are
rather than how they should be
For the day when I do not awake
from anxiety-laced dreams
to a tense body
and a furrowed brow
to small, tired eyes
to dread at the news of
death tolls
and those seriously sick, close and distant, high and low.
To a discordant symphony of soft, serene sea
and terror inside.
I do not know where to look for you
Are you in the soft, serene sea
or in the terror?
Are you in both?
Who is he?
This king, making a triumphal entry
to end in a distressed plea in a garden
and death.
In that week, you preached, you confronted, you lamented,
You knew what lay ahead, yet you ate and drank, laughed with friends
You angered, grew sad and fearful,
took our punishment and felt our pain.
You laid down your life.

For every one of us.
For me?
Forgive me that I shrink from it
Something so big
The enormity of it, I cannot contemplate
Let’s start with today:
here you are
It is not yet clear, who you are
Help me to know you
Then
And now
Between the soft sea and the terror.

Meanwhile, the Palm Sunday Body of Christ was another flatbread. Simple to make and without yeast, which seems appropriate before proclaming He is Risen.

Recipe here (omit za’atar and butter if using for communion bread).

Easter post coming soon.

 

 

Body and Blood

I just read this highly-recommended article by the Guardian’s restaurant critic, who usually writes snort-provoking and occasionally scathing but fair reviews of aspirational new eateries, with price points that often made your eyes pop. Now that circumstances have, from one day to the next, turned upside-down the luxury food obsessions and consumption habits we took so casually, she has turned her hand to (even better, in my opinion) social commentary.  In her article she observes how many people’s hidden food preferences (c.f. tinned sardines in tomato sauce) have been forced into the light, and how formerly farmer-market-organic-only shoppers who scoffed at the likes of Aldi are now packing its car parks with their Audis and their Audi boots with supernoodles (‘it’s as if River Cottage never happened’).

As someone whose shopping habits and lists are famous – amongst those who know me- for being aspirational and recherché, this article hits home (see earlier reference to sending my flatmate on a forage around a Waitrose in south London for barberries).

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Store cupboard staples: biscuits, sugar, asafoetida

Before, stockpiling consisted of filling my spice drawers with every possible obscure ingredient from any recipe ever written by Ottolenghi, now leaving my poor -& amazing- flatmate with the dilemma of what to do with, inter alia, asafoetida, as she prepares to move us into a new London flat mid-quarantine. While I still take comfort in reading Guardian Feast, I feel rising scorn and anger, first towards the writers and the privilege they assume we have (Ha! Can you buy wild garlic in Aldi?? I don’t think so!), and then towards myself for previously taking all of this privilege for granted. That said, my quarantine shopping lists have not lost their aspiration entirely, tahini still being considered a basic food item.

But this online life has thrown up a new and unexpected shopping conundrum. As our weekly church service has now moved into cyberspace, communion, while still collectively celebrated, has become a D.I.Y., or better B.Y.O., affair. Last week, unprepared, I scrambled for a mediterranean cracker for the Body of Christ five minutes before the service. A somewhat unconvential substitute, but also unusually fitting, transporting me momentarily a little geographically closer to the Last Supper scene. A friend of mine reported using beetroot juice for the Blood, and my vicar’s daughter asked at the end whether the communion felt ‘magicked enough’. Some conversations on transubstantiation and consubstantiation have ensued, and I am still unsure where we are theologically with all of that.

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Balls of dough – with a promising reflection

This week, faced with the grimmer prospect of sliced pan (talking of food secrets, I hereby disclose that, to my continued dismay, my parents still consider this a type of bread), I received a timely revelation of some frozen naan bread dough in the freezer (which turned out to be true, as I had put it there last week). Hopefully I am not about to slip into blasphemy as I say this, but there is something perhaps even more ‘communing’ about being involved in the process of making the Body of Christ; investing your emotional and physical hunger and energy into kneading until the raising agents and gluten are activated, leaving it be for the ‘magic’ to occur, watching it come to life and turn golden in the fiery furnace, before feeding on it, body and soul, with thanksgiving.

That all seemed sorted then, until I found, to my horror, only white wine in our stockpile. Last week the B.Y.O. Blood of Christ had worked in my favour, being apportioned (by myself) a larger than usual sip. Racking my brains came up with only one result: water + prayer for miracle. That is until my ever-thoughtful father came running in with a jar of red liquid: some spiced and sugared red wine that had been used to poach pears for their ‘last supper’ with friends before lockdown descended. Another unconventional but fitting development. So there you have it: today’s communion is naan bread and sweet spicy red wine. May it be to us His Body and His Blood.

Communion

 

The naan bread recipe can be found here. Spiced red wine, a family secret for now.

Stretchy

image1 (5)Ice cream makes me happy. So says a postcard bought for me by a dear friend, who knew this to be as gospel true as the other phrase that frequently escapes my lips: I love nuts. But ice cream holds a special place in my nostalgic heart that nuts, a more recent love affair, don’t. It transports me to a place of childlike joy best represented by a photo of me, aged four, grinning, naked but for a floppy hat, brown as a berry and drenched in Greek sunshine. I have similarly happy memories from my university Erasmus semester abroad in Salerno, southern Italy. Gelateria-Nettuno-SalernoBarely darkening the entrance to a campus, my abiding recollections are of sun and food: lazing on sandy beaches, the ritual 4am post-clubbing pitstops at bakeries to gorge on fresh cornetti (or croissants) filled with nutella, and the Saturday afternoon passegiata visit to Bar Nettuno gelateria, on the Lungomare. There, not only were you proferred gelato and sorbetto of all colours and flavours, but to top it all off it was delivered to you in soft, freshly-baked brioche, a southern Italian specialty. 

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A plantster – half hipster half plant

Now, many years since, I dream of opening up a gelateria in these chillier northern European climes. I see gaps in the market everywhere I go. My current fantasies involve starting a pop-up from our flat window, conveniently (luxuriously) situated on the trail towards East London’s Columbia road flower market, well trodden by creatures with hipster legs and palm trees from the waist up. I have yet to work out the ins and outs of such an endeavour, and in the meantime, damp problems in our flat may cause it to cave in around us and our cooking utensils.

My inspiration has also suffered some dampening as I have contemplated how to continue this blog over the last few months, or year, to be more precise. There has been a proliferation of good food writing and food initiatives related to Palestine, and I have also felt a sense of futility at my feeble attempts to intertwine food and political issues in the face of the deterioriating situation there, including continued Israeli state violence against Gazan protestors, the expulsion from Hebron of the international observer mission set up during the Oslo peace process, and the increasing belligerence of the Israeli government. Also futile-seeming was the prospect of intertwining my love of ice cream and something Palestinian.

But a muse of sorts did surely arrive, via a friend who alerted me to a fascinating BBC article on qizha, a black paste of roasted nigella seeds produced in Ramallah. I had never seen or tried such a thing, often apparently assumed to be tahini gone bad, but I sure as hell plan to. Quickly, however, another article caught my eye, entitled ‘Palestine’s secret stretchy ice cream’.

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Rukab’s ice-cream, Ramallah. Photo: VICE

My curiosity piqued, I watched the short documentary promising to reveal the ancient secret to the stretchiness of the ice cream in maybe Ramallah’s oldest ice cream cafe. It was none other than mastic, a gum made from the resin of a tree found only on the Greek island of Chios.

I happened to be on a short break in Athens when I watched this documentary, which consequently led to my re-discovering of Greece’s own mastic ice-cream, Kaimaki, a vintage delicacy dating back, well a long time, and surely to Ottoman rule, given the Turkish origins of the ice cream’s name and the stretchiness of its geography. Some local  research – i.e. to the spice shop around the corner from my Mum’s flat – enabled me to lay my hands on the ice cream’s speciality – or in Nigella’s words, recherché – ingredients, which were not just Chios mastic gum but also Salepi (Sahlab in Arabic, Salep in Turkish), otherwise known (or unknown) as ground orchid root powder, the cost of which comes in at an eye-watering 100 euro a kilo. The owner of the local spice shop told me I would next need to source some buffalo milk in order to make the real Kaimaki, but having already exhausted my euro funds and not being convinced I would be allowed back into the UK with Greek buffalo milk, I settled for the more pedestrian British cow’s milk and cream, which most recipes I came across propose. Ultimately Kaimaki ice cream should not only be stretchy but also luxuriously creamy, fit for a Sultan, but in this post-Sultan world, the people must make do.

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Class A Salepi

Aside from the cost and rarity of the ingredients, the rest of the Kaimaki-making process is pretty accessible. The salepi acts as a -rather expensive- thickener, which apparently, somewhat disappointingly, can be substituted with cornflour. Unlike cornflour however,  salepi was believed in Ottoman times to increase virility. This fact I learned from one of my UK-based Greek testers, my cousin’s friend, and it immediately gave me a marketing idea for my proposed windowsill pop-up, one which dismayed my cousin. Otherwise, the Kaimaki ice cream got the seal of approval from the ‘Orthodox’. Subsequent British testers have warmed to its unique taste, likening it, unusually, to silver. It is definitely a difficult taste to describe, but other comparisons of its flavour to ‘pine trees’ seem to make some kind of weird sense.

This recipe below infuses the ice cream mixture with orange rind, which adds a lovely flavour.

Kaimaki ice cream

Ingredients

1 tsp salepi (sahlab) or 1tbsp corn starch
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4-1/2 tsp mastic powder
Slice of orange rind

Method

1. Dilute salepi in 1 tbsp cold milk (use a whisk or immersion blender if you want to thoroughly dilute it).
2. Bring the milk, cream and sugar to boil, add the salep . Stir in mastic and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Add the slice of orange rind and remove from heat. Let it cool and place in the fridge. Churn in an ice cream machine.
4. Keep in the freezer until needed.

Enjoy with oriental desserts or just a scattering of nuts.

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A stew for the soul

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A stall in Hebron’s old souk. Lots of lovely wares, but few shoppers.

For the three months I was in Al Khalil -or Hebron- in a team of five Ecumenical Accompaniers, our daily walk through the old souk or new market was the bright side of our morning ritual, as we accompanied children to school in safety or stood at military checkpoints through which people had to pass to go to the mosque. The juice-sellers between the mosque checkpoint and the old souk greeted us with a mixture of resignation and hope. To say that footfall was light there would be an understatement; the once-thriving stalls of this 13/14th-century souk are almost ornamental; years of Israeli occupation and an upsurge in violence in 2015 have turned away many outside visitors to the mosque, who fear harsh treatment – or worse – at checkpoints. The juice-seller there would squeeze fresh pomegranate and orange juice using a metal juicer like the one I remember my granny using. I can still see her standing on its long handle to get the last drops out of oranges or apples, and I’m sorry we didn’t hang on to this precious heirloom so that for today’s recipe I could, without the souk juice-sellers nearby, draw the delicious sweet-sour juice from pomegranates myself.

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Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market

In contrast to the old souk, the new fruit and vegetable market situated in Palestinian Authority-controlled Al Khalil is a more bustling affair, and the stalls upon stalls piled-high with orange persimmons, yellow, red and green peppers, and ruby pomegranates are a sight for the weary eye. One of our regular stops was at the shop in which we bought our labneh, where the owner often stood outside in a less-than-white apron, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. As I remember, it was there that I learnt the Arabic word for walnut – jawz. It is similar to the words for husband – jawaz – and wife – jawza, because of the intimate union of two halves, I imagine, flourishing under the protection of a hard outer shell. In the right conditions, the walnut is a consummate nut. It took a while for it to woo me because it can be too bitter, but those sold in Al Khalil convinced me how good a walnut can be when its sweetness wins out over its bitter undertones.

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Shades of walnut

All of this is by way of introduction to a recipe that is not Palestinian but Persian, in which the bitter sweetness of the walnut and the sweet tartness of the pomegranate lure the meat and vegetables into their complex depths. It is a stew called Fesenjan or Fesenjoon, which Iranians usually eat on the winter solstice, a tradition that dates back to Zoroastrian times. The pomegranate in the stew is said to herald the coming dawn.

Claudia Roden has remarked on the similarity between opposing tastes in Persian cooking and the Zoroastrian belief system, in which creation ex nihilo spawned a force of resistance, locking the cosmos into a struggle of good against evil until final judgement. Pomegranate molasses becomes the battleground, where sweet and sour sharpen their swords. The fruit has other life and death connotations too: while widely considered a symbol of fertility and new beginnings, in Greece its seeds are often added to a kind of porridge served at funerals, thus closing the circle.

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The pomegranate strikes back

It seems fitting to prepare this dish, with its contrasting tastes and simultaneous life and death drives, on the last night of the year. As we eat, we reflect on the highs and lows the year has served us with, and look forward in trepidation and hope.

Recipe
This recipe was yet again a shot in the dark for me. After giving myself a headache researching lots of recipes for Fesenjan, I decided to go with something between this Thomasina Miers’ one and Greg and Lucy Malouf’s because they were essentially the same, although one is with vegetables and the other with duck. Many recipes suggest sweetening according to taste, and if you are using unsweetened pomegranate molasses, you may need to add more sweetener than indicated, which in most cases is sugar. I opted for Miers’ version of honey rather than sugar, but ended up adding more than the recipe called for, and a little orange juice (a tip gleaned from a recipe commenter) especially after I added the meat, to achieve what in my mind was the perfect sweet-sour balance. No doubt you will have your own idea of what that is, and perhaps a better one than mine if you are well acquainted with Fesenjan.

A note too on the walnuts: a lot of recipes boil the walnuts on their own in water before adding other ingredients. I couldn’t get to the bottom of why this is the case, and with the method below they still cooked and released their trademark oil after the designated time.

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Light and shadow: stew for the soul.

Ingredients
500g chicken thighs, ideally skinless and boneless
200g shelled walnuts
4 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground turmeric or 1/4 tsp of saffron threads diluted in 2 tbsp water
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1-2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (preferably unsweetened)
300 ml pomegranate juice (freshly squeezed if available)
2 tbsp honey, or more to taste.
1 bay leaf
400ml oz good-quality chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp salt, or to taste.
Juice of lemon
Juice of half an orange (optional)

Preheat the oven to 190C. Roast the walnuts on a baking tray for 5-15 minutes until a deep golden-brown (check and mix every 5 minutes or so to ensure they don’t burn). Tip the nuts into a tea towel and rub well to remove as much skin as possible, then set aside to cool. Pulse the cooled nuts in a food processor, either until they are coarsely ground, or finer, if you prefer less texture.

Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and fry gently until soft and translucent. Stir in the spices and tomato paste and fry for another couple of minutes. Add the walnuts to the pan with the pomegranate molasses and juice, the honey, bay leaf and stock. Bring to a boil, then add the salt, lower the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring regularly, until rich, thick and a little oily. Add a little more stock if it is too thick.

Meanwhile, sear the chicken in 2 tbsp oil until it is lightly golden brown on each side, but not cooked through. Add it to the sauce above and simmer in the sauce for another half an hour to one hour.

At the end, add the lemon juice and adjust seasoning as you see fit. You can add some fresh orange juice to taste if more sweetness is required.

If you want to make this vegetarian, omit the chicken step and roast some vegetables in thyme and oil while the sauce is cooking. Serve on top of the thick sauce, as Miers suggests.

Serve with naan bread, such as this delicious recipe, and basmati rice. I intend to attempt the perfect tah-dig. Watch this space.

 

 

How do you du-kka?

In his account of the early years of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation, F. Robert Hunter reports how people in Gaza, under siege at that time, were surviving on bread and something called dukka. They wryly referred to it as ‘eating dust’, because of its finely ground consistency. I would rather think of it as gunpowder, since dukka is no ordinary spice mix: it is fortified with protein-rich ingredients and, in the case of the Gazan version, has a hot pepper kick.

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Better known as an Egyptian recipe, dukka is usually a mix of roasted nuts (hazelnuts being the most common), sesame, coriander and cumin seeds. There are many variations, some of which may replace hazelnut with another nut, or add other seeds or spices. The ingredients are pounded down (dukka derives from the Arabic for ‘to pound’) to varying levels of fineness, according to preference – I prefer mine coarse enough so you can still taste the individual elements. Dukka is traditionally eaten with olive oil and bread, as a meze or for breakfast. But as many culinary adventurers have already discovered, it is also delicious on anything from avocado to egg to beetroot and burrata salad.

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The Gazan version of dukka is made with roasted wheat berries, and often dried lentils or chickpeas, instead of nuts. It is flavoured with additional spices such as sumac, hot chilli and dill seed, these latter two giving it its characteristically Gazan edge. The present-day Gaza strip is said to have a unique spice repertoire because the former Gaza region was once a prominent stop on the spice route. Then a symbol of movement and exchange, it is now referred to as “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The now 10-year-old Israeli military land, sea and air blockade, and the closure of borders with Egypt, mean that what enters and exits the Gaza strip is strictly controlled, and 80% of Gazans are dependent on food aid. In spite of the lack of access to most of their traditional ingredients, they take pride in their cuisine, if this informative feature is anything to go by. I hope to try out some more dishes from there in the future.

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Gazan dukka, with a Tabbouleh twist

Below are three recipes for dukka, including the Gazan version. After making it, I discovered that I don’t yet have a firm grip on the contents of my spice cabinet: I had added in juniper berries masquerading as dill seeds (yes, the two do look and taste totally different). They were in a box of Scandinavian appearance clearly marked dill seed, and boasting that dill seed was good for much more than sauerkraut. I observed the unusual colour and shape, inhaled the fruity aroma, and thought perhaps that dill seed was completely unrelated to the lovely fresh herb I am used to. I was wrong. This accidental Tabbouleh Diaries innovation deprives the dukka of aniseed-y undertones but replaces them with an added fruitiness that goes well with the sumac. If you want to give that a try, just substitute juniper berries for the dill seed in the recipe below – some lucky people have already received the Tabbouleh Diaries version for Christmas.

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Unsuspecting gift receivers will be surprised by a new kind of dill seed.

Otherwise, feel free to do your own dukka with whatever is known or unknown to you in your own spice cabinet. The roasting of the nuts and spices –if in seed form- is key. Store in sterilised jars or airtight containers.

Hazelnut dukka, from Palestine on a Plate

Sweet crunchy nuts, warm and fruity spices, with mild bitter-sweet fennel undertones.

50g hazelnuts, skins off

3 tbsp coriander seed

2 tbsp cumin seed

1 tbsp fennel seed

2 tbsp hulled sesame seed

1 tsp paprika

1 tsp dried marjoram

1 tsp sea salt

Roast the hazelnuts in a 180 degree oven until lightly golden (5-10 minutes, but check and stir hazelnuts in the baking tray once or twice). Fry the coriander, cumin and fennel seed together in a medium-hot dry frying pan until aromatic (about 2 minutes), stirring regularly. Fry the sesame seeds, separately, in the same pan over a medium-low heat, until golden brown, stirring often so they roast as evenly as possible.

Either pound the coriander, cumin and fennel in a mortar, or blend them in food processor, to a coarse powder. Mix with the paprika, marjoram and salt, followed by the roasted sesame seeds. Pound or chop the hazelnuts into small pieces and add to the mix.

Gazan dukka, from the Palestinian Table

This adds wheat berries (whole wheat kernels) instead of nuts, and is ground more finely (important because otherwise you would break your teeth on wheat berries). Other Gazan recipes, such as this this one, also include lentils for a protein punch. The sumac adds a citrus note, and the chilli some spicy heat.

1 ½ cups (180g) unhulled sesame seeds

1 cup (160g) whole wheat berries

2 tbsp coriander seeds

2 tbsp cumin seeds

2 tbsp dill seeds

2 tbsp sumac

2 tsp salt

1 tsp (or less or more, to taste) hot chilli powder

Dry roast the sesame seeds in a frying pan over a medium-low heat, for 7-10 minutes, or until dark golden. Set aside, and place the whole wheat berries in the same pan. Roast for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring regularly. Remove and set aside, then place the cumin, coriander and dill seeds in the same pan and roast until fragrant (about 3 minutes), again stirring regularly. Add to the roasted wheat and leave to cool.

Once cooled, mix 1/3 of the sesame seeds with the wheat and spices, and add the sumac, chilli and salt. Grind in a nut or spice grinder to a powder. Add the remaining sesame seeds and mix well.

Egyptian dukka, from A Book of Middle Eastern Food

This is apparently the first dukka recipe to have been published outside Egypt, in Claudia Roden’s 1968 classic credited with introducing the UK to middle eastern cuisine. This version is simple and heavy on sesame seeds. A good base from which to innovate.

500g sesame seeds

250g coriander seeds

120g hazelnuts

120g ground cumin

Salt and pepper

Put the seeds and nuts on separate trays and roast them in a preheated 250C gas 8 oven for 5 – 10 minutes or until they begin to colour and release an aroma. Put them together in the food processor with salt and pepper and grind them until they are finely crushed but not pulverised. Be careful not to over blend or the oil from the too finely ground seeds and nuts will form a paste. Dukkah should be a dry crushed mixture, not a paste.

Days of rage and reckoning

The theme running through the last week is a type of descent into chaos. The shy and retiring president of that obscure North American country seems intent on stoking the fires of Armageddon wherever he can. He challenged Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby on his knowledge of biblical truths when the latter published a letter from heads of churches in Jerusalem denouncing the potty Potus’ unilateral move to declare the city the capital of Israel. Seems the orange superhero does not consider the ones about ‘loving your neighbour’ and ‘welcoming the stranger’ that significant. The move sparked global outrage and ‘Days of Rage’ in protest, already resulting in the needless deaths of at least two Palestinians, and sending the region spiralling further downward.

Protesters are seen near the U.S. embassy in Awkar, in Beirut

Protesters outside the US embassy in Beirut. Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azaki

We are living in an age of rage, according to Indian writer Panjak Mishra. Inequality, unfairness and unmet expectations have created a breeding ground of resentment and anger that is manifesting in protest of all kinds, including, sadly, the kind that got yer man over there elected. And the future does not look peachy..

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Example of small, thoughtful acts.

What can we do when the reality in front of us is not the one we want? Psychologists highlight the importance of taking some action, no matter how small, rather than repeatedly asking yourself ‘How the f*&# has this happened?’ and plotting assassination attempts. Personally, I decided to delve into chaos and confusion on a minor scale, by tackling a favourite family dish of my cherished half-Lebanese flatmate, for her birthday celebration, with her siblings present and ready to judge. Maybe not the kind of political protest that will satisfy a dyed-in-the-wool activist, but as my friend the craftivist says, small and thoughtful acts matter.

The dish in question is called Molokhiya, and it is popular also in Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Morocco, but each place has its own particular way of cooking it. Hopefully it is not casually racist to say that the name Molokhiya, if you don’t speak Arabic, does evoke a sense of murkiness and mystery, not unlike the feeling of cooking it for the first time, nor its appearance once cooked. Yes, the whole experience resembled being lost in a swamp, but don’t let that put you off: you are going to end up craving this thing.

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Molokhiya is a leaf also known as Jew’s or Jute Mallow that grows and is eaten across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Not long ago it was heralded as the next superfood, since it packs a stronger protein and iron punch than kale. Suspiciously, that news didn’t go viral. It dates back, in culinary history, to the ancient Egyptians, and apparently also has the name Jew’s Mallow because it was once central to Jewish cuisine. Apart from the fact that I was cooking Molokhiya for the first time for people who grew up eating it, I was apprehensive – or terrified- because it is also known as ‘bush okra’ due to its gooey texture. As the English name suggests, it is a member of the mallow family, a distant ancestor of present-day marshmallows. When, during my ‘sabbatical’, I spent a weekend with a couple near Sgarta in North Lebanon to learn their cooking ways, the only thing I noted about Molokhiya was the addition of plenty of lemon juice to reduce the slime factor.

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To the right, fresh molokhia leaves on sale on Bethnal Green road.

I carry my own baggage that heightens my fear of goo: I remember my father taking hours to carefully prepare okra (or bamies, in Greek), cutting the tips in such a way as to not let the goo escape. So when it came to this Molokhiya dish, I took several precautions that would make my father proud. I avoided the fresh molokhiya leaves, which I had been excited to find at my local street market on Bethnal Green road, because I was advised that this would be gooeyer. I instead opted for the dried leaves, procured all the way from Phoenicia. I then decided to religiously follow aunty Amal’s steps for slime reduction: first soaking the leaves in hot water for 10 minutes, then soaking them again in hot water and lemon juice, and diligently squeezing the liquid out.  The resulting dish was entirely goo-free, but to the point of being a little too dry. It survived the Lebanese family reckoning unscathed, but when I decided to experiment a couple of days later with fresh leaves, just adding lemon juice to them while cooking, the texture was more coherent and it tasted better, in my opinion. The lesson: don’t let fear rule.

It follows that what I have written below is a loose recipe, adaptable to taste. The addition of oven-toasted flatbread, layered under rice, chicken, molokhiya and topped with chopped onions in vinegar is a particularly yummy Lebanese version. In the Palestinian Table, tomato paste is used instead of lemon juice to reduce the slime. Some recipes add no slime-reducer, but if nothing else, I think lemon enhances the flavour. The herbs and spices also vary, depending on where this is being cooked, but fresh or dried coriander seems to be a constant. Expect a wild herby leaf taste and a simultaneous soupy and chewy texture that you will grow to obsess over. I have made so much of the stuff now that we have a twice-daily fortifying dose. Watch out, Trumpster, your freedom fries and KFC-based-diet is no match for ours.

Lebanese-style Molokhiya (serves 6-8)

Ingredients

For the chicken and stock

1 whole chicken (at least 1.5 kilos)

1 stick of cinnamon

3 small onions or 1 large onion halved

3 bay leaves

For the Molokhiya*

400g dried or 600g fresh molokhiya leaves

3-4 lemons

2 heads of garlic (or less or more to taste)

2 bunches of fresh coriander, stalks removed, leaves finely chopped

3 (or more, to taste) teaspoons of Lebanese seven spice or Palestinian nice spice (Baharat)

3 teaspoons of cinnamon

Salt, to taste

Olive oil, for frying

Chicken stock, homemade, and extra cubes if extra water is needed

To serve

A few flatbreads (Lebanese or Palestininan khobz)

1-2 red onions

1 cup red wine vinegar

Rice (you can try vermicelli rice, which is more traditional, but I just made basmati)

Method

IMG_3036Begin by making the stock. Wash the chicken and place in a large pot with water covering it by at least two inches. Bring to the boil and skim the scum off the surface with a spoon. Add the onions, cinnamon and bay leaves, and simmer for around 1 hr 15 minutes. Once ready remove the chicken, reserving the stock, and allow to rest. Once rested, remove the chicken meat from the bones and keep covered so it doesn’t dry out.

 

 

IMG_3037Wash the molokhiya leaves. If using dried, soak in warm water for 10 minutes and squeeze out. If using fresh, wash as normal.

When your stock is ready, you can begin cooking the molokhiya. Finely chop half the garlic and fry in a large casserole pot/saucepan with a couple of tbsp of olive oil, until fragrant but not burnt. Add the dry spices and fry for another couple of minutes, followed by half the fresh coriander for a couple minutes more. Add the molokhiya leaves, and stir well so they mix with the garlic and spices. Fry for 5-10 minutes (until the leaves wilt if using fresh leaves).

Sieve the home-made chicken stock into the molokhiya. If the liquid is not enough (think a liquid stew or dense soup), add more ready-made stock. Add the juice of 2 lemons and salt to taste.

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Delicious chicken-strewn swamp. I added the chicken to the stew at the end, as many recipes do, before knowing the Lebanese rules.

Bring to an gentle but energetic simmer and cook for about 30 minutes, until the leaves are dark and tender (though they may still retain a slight toughness -especially in the case of dried leaves- that softens after a day or two’s resting) . About 10 minutes before the end, add the other head of garlic, cloves crushed, and the rest of the coriander. Add the juice of 1-2 lemons depending on how lemony you want it.

 

 

 

 

The accompaniments:

Toasted flatbread: prepare the bread by cutting/tearing flatbreads into rough 2x2cm pieces. Before frying the molokhyia, preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Once the molokhiya has started to boil, put the bread on a baking tray and mix with about 1-2 tbsp oil, and mix to coat. Place in the oven until golden and crisp. This will take around 15-20 but check regularly and mix the bread around in the tray so it is evenly toasted.

Onions in vinegar: These really seal the deal, my friends, adding a sharp acidic element that, combined with the toasted bread below, significantly ups the yum factor. Finely dice the onions and put in a bowl with the vinegar.

Serving:

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Plate up in layers, starting with the toasted bread, followed by rice, chicken, molokhia (with a decent amount of liquid from the stew), and a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar-y onions. Enjoy, and repeat, for several days running.

 

 

 

*You can make this vegetarian by simply omitting the chicken and chicken stock, and using vegetable stock instead.

In the dark

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This blog is not about hummus, nor about bread. It is about another kind of bread and butter: being able to live in security. Without that, all of life’s other needs, rights, desires, and joys can never be fully realised.

In the occupied West Bank in Palestine, most people I met live under a shadow of fear and insecurity, unsure what awaits them at the checkpoints they must pass through to get to work, health centres or places of worship, whether their children will come home from school safe and well, or whether their homes will be standing the next day. This last fear is especially true for herder or nomadic communities, such as the Bedouin.

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Bedouin community of Dkaika, South Hebron Hills. Photo taken from eyewitness blogs

Many Bedouin communities were first displaced from the Negev desert in Israel during the 1948-49 war, and have faced repeated threats of displacement ever since. This is the case of Khan Al Ahmar, a community situated east of Jerusalem that I wrote about on an earlier blog post. The Israeli state has announced it is going to expel the community from their current location within months. More imminently, another Bedouin community of Jabal Al Baba is facing eviction, and a herder community in the South Hebron Hills, known as Susiya, whose members were evicted from their original village in 1986, are threatened with the destruction of one fifth of their property. The cruelty of these threats is even starker considering that they are due to be carried out in the middle of winter. Scores more villages are at risk of what amounts to forcible transfer of their populations, according to the United Nations.

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Photo of Susiya taken in 2016, with Israeli settlement in the background. Photo taken from eyewitness blogs.

The argument for these destructions and evictions is that the villages or properties are ‘unauthorised’ or do not have permits. This is despite repeated unsuccessful attempts by the community members or leadership to apply for construction permits, or submit village master plans for approval. The truth is that these villages sit on strategic land, near Israeli settlements that Israel wants to protect or expand. It is the steady creep of annexation, which has been increasing in pace and stealth as an ever more indifferent and/or impotent international community stands by.  Forcible transfer and the destruction of private property by an occupying power constitute war crimes according to international humanitarian law.

What can be done? Well, something, even if that is to start by shouting into the night sky. You can read more here about Susiya, and join a letter-writing campaign. And if you live in the U.K. you can urge your MP to attend this debate next Wednesday. You can also ask your MP, TD, or MEP what they can do about it. Or you can share this blog post or any of the contained links on Facebook so more people know about it.

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Twice demolished community centre in bedouin community of Um al-Khair. Photo taken from eyewitness blogs

 

More information:

https://www.ochaopt.org/content/demolition-and-seizure-service-infrastructure-palestinian-communities-area-c-exacerbates

The quiet violence of uncertainty and fear

“Susiya, it’s finished!”

https://theintercept.com/2017/11/29/in-unprecedented-move-ten-democratic-senators-write-to-israeli-leader-netanyahu-and-demand-he-halt-demolition-of-palestinian-village/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/29/palestine-evictions-human-rights-susiya-bedouin-un-security-council

 

Hummus part 1: origins

Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic.  I like to think hummus also derives from humus, the Latin word for soil, which, rumour has it, is where the word human comes from.  Even if that might be fake news, it would reinforce how essential this little pulse is, its derivative dip constituting the heartbeat of many Middle Eastern national cuisines and identities.

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In their cookbook Jerusalem, the one that first set my own heart alight for all things Middle Eastern, Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi include a page dedicated to Hummus wars. It describes the continuing, often painful, debate about the origins of hummus. But ‘when push comes to shove’, they say, ‘nobody seriously challenges the Palestinian hegemony in making hummus, even though both they and the Jews are calling it their own’.  I wonder if there was any disagreement between Tamimi and Ottolenghi, Palestinian and Jewish Israeli, when it came to penning that sentence.

But allow me a moment’s facetiousness. When considering hummus and Israel and Palestine, the first thing that pops into my head is Borat’s (Sacha Baron Cohen aka Ali G’s gay alias) attempt at Middle East conflict mediation. Highly sensitive and politically incorrect, but pretty funny, and surely just as effective as Tony Blair’s. ‘Why are you so anti-Hamas?’ Borat asks the Israeli representative at the table (apparently a former Mossad chief), ‘isn’t pita bread the real enemy?’. Both Israeli and Palestinian representatives agree that hummus is no enemy; it is a healthy, delicious dish they both love.

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The national origins of hummus is not the only fierce debate this humble little dip fuels. Even between best friends divisive passions can flair over who makes and what constitutes the best hummus, according to Tamimi and Ottolenghi. I have experienced that on a minor scale both in Palestine and here in London. When we were starting out as a new team of ecumenical accompaniers in Hebron, our handover from the previous team included an instruction on where the best hummus could be found. We were not disappointed by the smooth, creamy hummus awaiting us at the simple, small hummus bar at the end of a side street in Hebron’s old market.

The range of samples people brought to our London-based tasting test on this year’s international hummus day showed just how varied people’s taste in hummus can be, from the coarsely blended, tahini-free versions, to the zingy, lemony numbers, to the full-tahini-bodied and almost putty-like. I tried the recipes of a couple of authoritative chefs for the occasion, experimented with tinned and dried chickpeas, but still didn’t achieve, in my opinion, hummus perfection. In the end, the unconventional beetroot hummus stole the show.

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As a result, I do not yet feel myself to be an authoritative-enough voice on hummus to write the recipe people have been clamouring for. And, to be frank, there are many other chickpea dishes I have encountered that are more exciting than hummus. The one that follows is for one of the best falafels I have tasted, its generous use of fresh herbs giving the little balls a vibrant green colour and a freshness absent from a lot of their stodgy counterparts. The tarator (tahini, lemon, garlic and yoghurt) dip that accompanies it also trumps the usual garlic yoghurt with its zingy, tangy creaminess.

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Auntie Dunia’s Falafel with Tarator Sauce, from Palestine on a Plate

Ingredients

For the falafel

400g dried chickpeas

2 heaped tsp baking powder

bunch of fresh, flat-leaf, parsley

bunch of fresh coriander

1/2 onion

1 tbsp sea salt

pinch of black pepper

4 garlic cloves, smashed

900ml sunflower or vegetable oil, for frying

2 tbsp sesame seeds

olive oil, for binding

For the tarator sauce:

8 tbsp tahini

3 tbsp Greek yoghurt

juice of 3 lemons

1 tbsp sea salt

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Method:

Soak the chickpeas with half the baking powder for up to 8 hours. When ready, drain the water and tip the chickpeas into a food processor or blender with the remaining baking powder.

Add the rest of the ingredients, except the sunflower oil and sesame seeds, to the food processor or blender with enough olive oil to bind the mixture together. The olive oil helps to make the mixture workable. Start with 50mls and add more as needed – you don’t want the mixture to be too wet. Blitz until you have a paste.

Begin by shaping your falafel into balls, leaving the bottoms flat so they can stand up. Sprinkle them with sesame seeds and press them gently to help them stick.

Heat the sunflower or vegetable oil in a pan over a high heat until very hot. Fry the falafel in batches of 4-5 at a time in the hot oil for 6-8 minutes, until cooked all the way through. Turn the falafel occasionally as they are cooking so that they turn an even chocolate-brown all over.

To make the tahini sauce, mix all the ingredients together and add a little water if necessary, until it is the consistency of liquid honey.

Eat while still warm, drizzle with tarator sauce and accompanied with deep fried aubergine slices and cauliflower florets, and fresh tomato slices.

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Feeling kneady

‘As I wrote Exit West, I found the language changing as the chapters progressed. The sentences grew longer, became more incantatory, like a magic spell. Like a prayer. Which seemed fitting to me. We write what we most need.’ Mohsin Hamid.

These words are compelling, but I wonder about their simplicity, in the doubtless uber-mediated world of modern-day publishing. Mix in the worlds of ‘blogging’ and then ‘food blogging’ and things get trickier. Since I am the sole mediator of this platform, I can write anything. Do I write what I need? Or what you need? Or what I think you need to know? Are you here because you like me? Or are you high-tailing it to the recipe at the end?

Still, Hamid captures something of the mystical element of creating: the creator bringing its object into being, the object taking on a life of its own in response to the creator’s yearning, a yearning that resides both within and beyond the person of the creator, who struggles with and then concedes to the mystery.

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I tap into this mystery when I am making bread. I knead, bearing my body weight down on the dough; it fights back, growing stronger and more agile in response. It demands solitude, hibernating in darkness and warmth; and comes back doubly alive. I knead more; it seems pliant, then springs and bounces under my palm. It rests, and returns a more robust entity: both elastic enough to take shape, and integrated enough to hold itself together. It goes through the fiery furnace and comes out hot, shiny and golden…

Ah, perhaps I am getting carried away. Seriously though, the bad press bread has gotten of late saddens me. Once upon a time we were all happily eating panini; now we are spitting on sandwiches unless they are sourdough. But bread is a fundamental element of most cuisines, the cornerstone of a meal shared in community.

At a friend’s wedding two weeks ago, the vicar gave a lovely eulogy about real love, citing the passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin about tree roots becoming entwined, and talking about the idea of companionship. Companion, he reminded us as we greedily guzzled prosecco, comes from the words ‘con pane’, or with bread. Someone we share bread with, that is. We set our prosecco glasses to one side for a moment to break off a bit of the fresh bread he passed around, celebrating our participation in our friends’ vows of enduring companionship.

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I was happy on hearing his words that I had opted for a slightly unusual present for this friend’s wedding: a special matrimony edition of a ‘Jerusalem sesame bagel’ (or kaak). Jerusalem bagels are so-called, according to Reem Kassis, author of the newly published and wonderful cookbook The Palestinian Table, because they taste better in Jerusalem than anywhere else. They are not bagels as you might know them, those round, chewy, dense numbers. These ones are oval and covered in sesame seeds, ideally baked in wood-fire ovens until they are golden and crisp to the bite, but light and fluffy inside. In this article Reem Kassis talks about how they have been dubbed Israeli abroad, despite them being a historic and quintessential  element of  the Palestinian (and Levantine) culinary tradition. Even if unintentional, it still demonstrates the pernicious side-effects of ongoing Palestinian ‘statelessness’.

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My newly married friend and I were both ‘accompaniers’ in Hebron, Palestine, at different times last year, walking alongside and sharing bread with people living under occupation. I don’t know if my friend, like me and my team, often stopped by the breadsellers at the market in the morning, after accompanying children to school. There we hungrily bought fresh bagels, often offered with boiled eggs, za’atar and sumac. A simple but royal breakfast.

I hope, in any case, that my friend and her new husband enjoyed their wedding breakfast bagels, a yeasted homage to enduring love.

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Jerusalem Sesame Bagels 

This is Reem Kassis’ recipe for Jerusalem sesame bagels. Some of the other recipes I’ve seen use sugar rather than grape molasses, so maybe the latter is the secret Jerusalem ingredient.

For the pastry

500 grams of all purpose flour

2 tbsp sugar

2 tsp salt

350 ml whole milk, warm

1 tbsp dry, fast-action yeast

1 tsp baking powder

Olive oil

For the sesame coating

150g hulled sesame seeds

1-2 tbsp grape molasses

Method

Put all the dough ingredients except the olive oil in a bowl and knead until smooth and pliable. If the mixture appears stiff, add more milk. Rub with oil, cover the bowl with a damp dish towel or clingfilm and put in a dark, warm area until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

To prepare the sesame coating combine the sesame seeds and grape molasses with 1 tbsp of water in a wide, shallow dish or bowl. Add more water as necessary until you have a wet mixture that is neither too sticky and thick that it clumps up, nor too thin. Basically you want to something that will stick when you coat the uncooked dough.

Once the dough has risen, gently punch down to release the air bubbles. Divide into 6 equal-sized portions and place on a lightly floured work surface. Roll and stretch each piece into a log about 20-30cm long, then attach the ends together to form a circle. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F/230 degrees C/Gas mark 8. Take each dough ring, dip into the sesame mixture until coated all over in sesame seeds, and gently roll and stretch the ring until you have a long oval shape like a stretchy ‘O’. Set aside on a baking sheet to rest a final time, about 10 minutes.

Place the baking sheet(s) into the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a deep golden colour and cooked through. Set on a wire rack to cool.

Most delicious eaten warm with za’atar, labneh, or just about anything you fancy.

Your author, she writes what she kneads.

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