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mastic copy copy

Anissa: It has been quite some time since the great Charles Perry wrote a guest post and I was delighted when he suggested mastic, one of my favourite ingredients, except that he is writing about it in the context of savoury cooking which is fascinating.

Charles: With its heady resinous aroma, mastic seems a natural flavoring for sweets. The Greeks  and Turks drink mastic syrup with coffee; they put it in ice cream and Turkish  delight. The Moroccans can’t seem to grind almonds without throwing in a  little mastic.

And yet medieval Arab cooks scarcely ever flavor sweets  with mastic – it was more likely to contribute its aroma to meat dishes. The  greatest mastic fan on record is Muhammad b. al-Hasan al-Baghdadi, because  mastic appears in more than half of the 96 red meat recipes in his 1226 book  Kitab al-Tabikh.

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Yesterday I posted a recipe for a beetroot dip but it wasn’t the only one I had made for today’s lunch. I often make three, each with a different texture and colour and, of course, a different flavour. My favourite in the trio is baba ghannuge, where the secret is to get the aubergines as close to the grill as you can so that the skins burn a little and you get the smoky flavour that is so typical of this dip. Also, once you have peeled off the charred skin, you need to let the flesh drain for about half an hour to get rid of the excess liquid — you would be surprised at how much liquid drains out. Oh, and never use a blender with aubergines otherwise your dip will have no texture. It needs to be chunky even if it is very soft.  I used to mash the aubergines with a fork but I now use a potato masher (much quicker) but I make sure not to pulverize the flesh too much.

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beetroot 5 copy 2

I love beetroot. I can’t remember which author it was who taught me to bake instead of boil it. It was many years ago and I don’t think I ever boiled beetroot since. The great thing about baking beetroot is that you avoid any wateriness which makes a difference when you are using them to make a dip like the one below which I learned a few years ago in Aleppo, at Maria’s, the lady chef who does the cookery demonstrations on my culinary tours — not happening this spring because of the revolution!

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A fried catfish restaurant in Memphis where I was taken by Paul and Angela Knipple and their son Patric

As you know, I travel a lot but it is not often that I go to places I haven’t been before except for this month when I visited  two new countries (Thailand and Australia — posts about both to come) and one new region (the American south). I loved them all. Thailand because of my wonderful friend, Vippy and her fabulous hospitality and because everything there is so exotic. Australia because it reminded me both of Lebanon and England and because it was great being part of the World Chef Showcase, seeing old friends and making new ones. And the American south because of the landscape, the architecture (I dream of owning a house with a wrap around porch) and the incredible warmth of its people, as well as the lovely Lebanese/Americans emigrés who were interviewed by Amy Street Evans for her wonderful oral history project.

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