Compared to twenty years ago when I started writing about food when ingredients like frikeh (or freekeh) and argan oil were known to only a few westerners, there are now less and less secret ingredients, or indeed cuisines. You would think that with diners’ enthusiasm for global dishes and ingredients there isn’t much left for chefs or keen cooks to discover. But there is. And this is what we did last month at Books for Cooks, when I and Nadya Saleh from the National Museum of Qatar‘s Food Forum together with the delightful and very talented Aisha al-Tamimi introduced a keen audience to Qatari dishes they were totally unfamiliar with. The two cooking demonstrations were led by Aisha and were part of Nour Festival and Qatar UK, the latter being a collaboration between Qatar and the UK to exchange cultural and art events while the former is an initiative by the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to showcase Middle Eastern art and culture.
Yesterday, one of my readers asked about the Lebanese 7-spice mixture asking what it was made of and if I had a recipe. I remembered making it one year at WOF but for some reason I couldn’t find the recipe. So, I looked in some of my Lebanese books but I drew a blank. Then, I went online but most recipes included fenugreek which is a definite no no, so, I resorted to calling my mother in Lebanon. I knew she wouldn’t have a recipe – she would have given it to me otherwise for my Lebanese book where I only have a description of the mixture which varies from family to family and from one region to the other; the classic mix is made of ground black and white pepper, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and coriander. However, I also knew that she bought her spices at a great mat’haneh (a place where they grind spices as well as coffee and where they also sell pulses, and cheap drugs, grains and rice) near my uncle’s home in Achrafiyeh and I asked her to call them for the recipe. And being the best and most beautiful mother, she did. And for you Sam, here is the recipe which is slightly different from the one I describe in my book in that it has ginger!
I don’t know if I am the first ever chef-in-residence in a museum but I sure am glad I proposed to do it and was accepted as I am loving my time at Leighton House. There is something wonderful about feeling at home in a museum, and talking about or preparing food in such a beautiful place. Also, the people who attend my sessions are all very charming, and some like the group of Moroccan ladies who came this last Thursday also unexpected. Luckily, Alan Kirwan who runs Nour, had arranged to have the most charming young photographer, Kit Oates, take pictures of my session on spice mixtures and I thought I would share them here. All the photographs are © Kit Oates.
Tomorrow is my second chef-in-residence session at Leighton House and it is all about spice mixtures including as ras el-hanout, a mixture of nearly 30 different spices including various chillies, dried roses, the aphrodisiac Spanish fly (for which use the marquis de Sade ended up in prison; the sad thing is I did have some given to me by Lulu Grimes but I don’t remember where I stashed them), cardamom, cloves, turmeric, cinnamon and ginger. Oddly enough ras el-hanout is not used that often, being added to some sweet-spicy tagines, game dishes and kefta. In winter people use it to make an infusion to cure colds because it has warming properties. Ras el-hanout means ‘head of the shop’ which reflects the value of its elaborate preparation. Its quality and composition vary from one spice merchant to another and from one family to the other. It is sold both in ground form or with the spices left whole as in the picture about, although you need to know your spices well to use the latter as you have to grind the right amount of each. You can find it in the West already ground and packed in small sealed jars or in plastic sachets but often the mixture you buy here is less complex relying heavily on more common spices.