It is nearly two years since I have been back in Lebanon and the first thing that struck me when I got home to my mother was how much better all the fruit tasted from that I buy in the Lebanese shops in London. I had asked my mother to buy me all that was in season and being the wonderful mother she is, she stocked up on custard apples, jujube, fresh dates and pistachios, khaki, pomegranates and peaches, all of which I adore and all of which I buy in London when they come into season. However, none taste as good there as they do here. Perhaps it is because of the long absence. Or more to the point, perhaps it is because of the time the fruit spend in transit. It could also be the quality. What is exported is possibly not as good as what is sold locally. All I can say is that I will make sure from now on that I go to Lebanon when my favourite fruit is in season. I missed the figs this year. My mother said something very interesting when I asked why she hadn’t bought any. Apparently, they turn sour as soon as it rains. The word in Arabic is ‘bi hammdo’. I never knew that and next year, I’ll be there before any rain spoils the figs!
Every now and then I have a perfect lunch and this is what happened today thanks to my friend Jerome and my brand new meat grinder. Jerome (who is head chef at Mosimann’s) gave me some fabulous lamb (from the top of the leg, which he calls single muscle) for me to make kibbeh nayeh. As for the meat grinder, I wouldn’t have bought one if I hadn’t lost Ramiz, my brilliant Lebanese butcher at Zeina who decided to return to the home country. This said, I am pleased to have it because I now have total control over my kibbeh which is not to say that I would not have left this control with Ramiz if he had not abandoned me and many other faithful clients! Anyhow, I thought I would share with you the way to the ultimate kibbeh nayeh.
Very soon I will be going to California for WOF which theme this year is Arc of Flavors. I am looking forward to the conference of course but I also can’t wait to see my newly-engaged nephew and his fiancee and my niece and all my friends including lovely Amy, who as some of you may know, helped me cook my birthday party. I love cooking with Amy. Not only is she a marvellous chef (at Chez Panisse) but she is also a fabulous partner in the kitchen with the sweetest character and no ego in play; and she is very silent as she works — I am totally paranoid about noise. And to make things even better, Amy loves my Lebanese food as much as I love hers. So, when we saw the fresh borlotti beans at la Fromagerie, I told her about my mother’s fassulia (beans in arabic) bil-lahmeh (meat), and how she used to prepare it with pork skin in a tomato sauce. As luck would have it, I had received that morning wonderful pork belly from Packington Free Range farm. So, we decided to buy the beans to cook with the pork.
There are between 7 and 10 million Lebanese and Syrians in Brazil. And about 4 million of them are in Sao Paolo alone. As a result, Lebanese food is very familiar to Brazilians and specialities like sfiha (a term that covers both manaqish and fatayer) and kibbe have become part of the national culinary repertoire. And of course there are Lebanese restaurants galore. Some are good and some not so. I have now tried three and each is good in its own way even if they serve a different cuisine from the one I was brought up with. I guess it is because they have been in Brazil for several generations; and despite having preserved their culinary repertoire, serving unusual dishes like shish barak which is not normally found on restaurant menus, they have adapted and changed them slightly. A few days ago, I was taken by adorable Luiz Henrique Ligabue to Casa Garabed which loved, particularly the fact that it is in the garage and one bedroom of the owner’s home giving the restaurant a rather unusual feel: part bistrot and part home dining.