Next month, I will start my stint as chef-in-residence at Leighton House as part of their Nour Festival. My first session will be about essential Middle Eastern ingredients and I can’t think of one that has gone more global than za’tar. Some of you may say pomegranate syrup, others labneh and others tahini. You may all be right up to a certain extent but I still think that za’tar is the one that is the best known and the most used by western chefs and foodies.
It’s nearly forty years since I left Lebanon. There were many things that I hated about Beirut and many that I loved. I still feel the same although much of what I loved is disappearing, like the ambulant vegetable and fruit vendors who sell their produce off wooden carts which they push through neighbourhoods while shouting out their wares. A guy like the sombrero-wearing man below would belt out “yalla ‘ala banadurah, yalla ‘ala khiyar” to let everyone know he had tomatoes and cucumbers which he may have just picked from his fields. I loved listening to their cries and always followed my mother onto the balcony to watch her bargain with the vendor to get the best possible price.
Bessbuss greeting us from the window of her top room where she chops the parsley to keep the rest of her house clean.
I recently wrote a a short piece for the markets issue of Saveur on Souk el-Tanabel (souk of the lazy people) in Damascus where well-heeled women go to buy pre-prepared vegetables. A little like our supermarkets, except that it is a proper market with street stalls, lone farmers selling seasonal produce and shops of course.
The interesting thing about souk el-Tanabel is that the preparation is done by women, working in their own homes and each with her own speciality. One cores courgettes, another peels garlic, another prepares artichoke hearts, another chops parsley and so on. The shop owners send the vegetables over to the women in the evening. They work through the night and early in the morning then the same men who delivered return to pick up the prepared vegetables to have them in the shop for opening time.
I hear the weather is rather sad in Europe. Cold and wet in Paris, the same in London and just as cold in Milan. I can’t say that I am loving Dubai but at least it is summer here, with a lot of fresh produce and herbs piled in the markets including purslane (baqleh in Arabic), one of my favourite herbs.
Despite the trend towards global ingredients, purslane remains little known in the west. Perhaps because it is fragile. The leaves bruise easily and you need to be careful handling it. I don’t normally wash it. Instead, I just wipe off any earth delicately with kitchen paper. And I have to admit that I very rarely buy it in London looking as fresh as it does in the pictures above and below. And I certainly cannot pick up as much of it as I want and just stuff it in a bag, as in the display here. Middle Eastern shops have the herb neatly bunched up and I often have to discard part of the bunch because the stalks are too tightly packed resulting in some of the leaves ending up spoiled.