dried persimmons 1 copy

So, my trip to the US has come to an end. I am happy to be home although I am already missing the sunshine of the Bay Area and LA and the bustling streets of NYC. It has been a great trip. The World of Flavors conference was wonderful, my road trip to LA divine and my innumerable meals in restaurants and at friends totally delicious, except for one or two disappointments, including a dinner at Saison which I was looking forward to but it failed to live up to expectations. Still, one or two indifferent meals out of more than 30 (the other was at Tacubaya) is a low percentage. And to cap a very successful trip, I discovered a new foodstuff.

Shortly after WOF, I went back up to Napa to hang out with my wonderful friend Toni Sagakuchi who teaches at the CIA and as I sat in her drawing room, I became fascinated by what I thought was a decorative installation. Lots of funny, dark wrinkly objects hanging indvidually next to each other on a rack — the picture below is of another installation made by her charming husband, Chad, at the Hess winery where he is the chef.

dried persimmons-hanging 3 copy

Toni is originally Japanese and the installation had a Japanesy feel to it although it didn’t quite look inanimate, not that the objects were moving but they didn’t look plastic either. I kept looking at them wondering what they were until it hit me that they were edible, hung there to dry. And as I looked more closely, I realised they were persimmons or khaki as they are known both in Japan and in Lebanon. We were in full khaki season and I had also been eating them both in Lebanon and Syria (where they serve them in restaurants with clotted cream at the end of the meal).

Here is a shot of a friend’s harvest in Ain Zhalta in the Lebanese mountains and even though the khakis in the pictures go mushy, they are not the ones that are dried.

fresh persimmons 6

Only the Hachiya persimmons (with a pointed end) in the picture below, taken at the farmers market in Oakland, are dried.

hachiya persimmons copy

By then, I was very intrigued. I had never seen dried persimmons before, nor had tasted them. So, I asked Toni to tell me about them and she said that she had learned how to dry them from her Japanese parents — drying persimmons is a typical Japanese tradition and the process is delicate and long; each fruit has to be tied and hung individually, and then gently massaged every day. And all the fruit she had hanging in her drawing room had come from a tree in her garden.

At a subsequent dinner with Harold McGee, he told me more about them and sent me this useful link explaining all about the method http://ceplacer.ucdavis.edu/Eat_Local,_Start_Now/Hoshigaki.htm

Toni then gave me some to taste (and some to take away), and it is incredible how flavourful the dried fruit is, and what a lovely texture it has. I am now waiting for the fruit to be covered by a white sugary powder which is the last stage.

Later in my trip, I was served this exquisite khaki at the end of my meal at Urasawa. Sadly, I was not able to discuss drying them with Hiro, the fabulous chef/owner. The counter was full and it was getting late. It didn’t matter really. What mattered was that the fruit was served at its most perfect stage of ripeness. Not too mushy for it to start losing its flavour, nor under ripe which would have made it dry on the tongue. In fact, my whole dinner at Urasawa was perfect except for the deeply embarassing moment when my card was declined, and not because of lack of funds, just because my banker had decided in all his wisdom to switch these to a fixed deposit account!!

persimmon-urasawa copy


musa & his zirkh copy

Well, I was going to post about chef Musa’s Adana kebab as a follow up to my previous post on street kebabs in Aleppo but then he brought out his special kebab knife, known as zirh in Turkish, which looks more like a sabre than a knife. It is used to chop meat for kebabs, or tripe for iskembe çorbasi (tripe soup) or the herbs and peppers that are mixed with the meat. Everyone in Turkey will tell you that there is no other way to chop these ingredients — the chopping has to be done by hand to get the right texture, and despite the zirh looking enormous and unwieldy, it is surprisingly easy to use, and as you can imagine, very efficient. So, I thought I’d post a few of the photos I had taken on various trips to Turkey showing the zirh in action .

Here is a black & white one of a tripe soup maker chopping an impressive amount of tripe.

chopping tripe copy

And here are a few which I shot in Gaziantep in the kitchens of Imam Cagdas, with each cook using his zirh to chop meat, herbs or peppers I think. Quite a sight.

zirhk in gaziantep copy

zirhk in gaziantep 2 copy

And here is a short, and I’m afraid not very good clip of all of the chefs at Imam Cagdas chopping away.

And finally, here is one of chef Musa, chef Burak and me in action at WOF which Zeynep, chef Musa’s wife snapped.

musa mincing meat with his zirhk

And here are two recipes, chef Musa’s Adana kebab and my tripe soup. As for my own zirh, I will post a picture of me using it in London. I can see it becoming an integral part of my demonstrations!

Chef Musa’s Adana Kebab

Yields 4

15 oz (450 g) lamb, shoulder and flank

1/3 oz (10 g) tail fat (from a male lamb)

1 red pepper, finely minced

1 shallot, finely minced

1 tbsp Maras chili pepper

  1. Using a knife or mezzaluna, mince the lamb and tail fat.
  2. Put the meat in a bowl. Add finely minced shallots.
  3. Discard the excess juice of minced red pepper and add in the bowl.
  4. Add Maras pepper. Mix all the ingredients well.
  5. Divide this mixture into 4 balls.
  6. Using wide metal skewers, put the meat onto skewers.
  7. Grill on oak charcoal.
  8. Serve on lavash bread.

©Musa Dagdiveren

Tripe Soup

Iskembe Çorbasi

Tripe, both sheep and ox, is a prized meat in most Mediterranean countries. In Italy, Spain and France, it is sold already cleaned and cooked. All you have left to do is dress it at home with your choice of sauce or garnish. However, in Middle Eastern countries, tripe is sold uncooked although, most of the time, already cleaned. You will still need to clean it further at home by washing it in several changes of soap and water. The following recipe comes from Turkey where there are many restaurants and cafés that specialize in tripe soup. A similar version of this soup is also popular in Greece (patsas) and, again, it is consumed early in the morning, after a night’s drinking. However, if you are horrified at the idea of eating offal or variety meats as it is known in the US, you can easily replace the tripe with lamb or chicken. Serves 6

10 ounce (300 g) piece of uncooked sheep’s tripe

sea salt

5 tablespoons (75 g) unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 egg yolks

juice of half a lemon, or to taste

1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 cup white wine or champagne vinegar

1 – Wash the tripe in several changes of soap and water and rinse well. Put in a large saucepan and add 1 1/2 quarts (1 1/2 litres) water. Place over a medium-high heat, add salt to taste and bring to the boil. As the water comes to the boil, skim the surface clean then cover the pan, lower the heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours or until tender.

2 – When the tripe is done, remove and slice into thin strips. Strain the stock and set aside.

3 – Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a clean saucepan and stir in the flour. Slowly add the strained tripe stock while continuing to stir. Add the tripe and simmer for another 5 minutes.

4 – Beat the eggs with the lemon juice.

5 – Melt the rest of the butter in a frying pan. Stir in the Aleppo pepper. Add a little of the hot soup liquid to the egg mixture then pour the egg mixture into the soup stirring all the time. Remove from the heat and stir in the garlic and vinegar. Usually the garlic-vinegar mixture is served on the side for people to help themselves but I prefer to mix it all in.

6 – Taste and adjust the seasoning of the soup then pour into a pre-heated tureen and drizzle the flavored butter all over. Serve very hot with good bread.

©anissa helou, from Mediterranean Street Food


little birdies 4 copy

It’s been two years now that I happen to be in Lebanon and Syria during fig season. I didn’t plan it. It just happened but this meant that I could eat kilos and kilos of the most amazing figs; and more importantly, I could also feast on dozens of the tiny little creatures that feed on them.

Now, many of you will be horrified at the thought of eating little birds but I have to confess that I’ve been eating them from when I was a tiny tot, albeit a chubby one — always loved eating. The birds I ate then were shot by my uncles. I often accompanied them on their shooting expeditions, up in the mountains where the fig orchards were. And while they did the killing, I  would go round looking for ripe figs to eat straight off the trees — the main reason why I went with them. Once my uncles shot several dozen birds, we’d drive back home and I’d help my mother, grandmother and aunt pluck and gut the tiny bodies, still warm from having just been alive while my uncles lit a charcoal fire. We kept the birds’ heads on but snipped the beaks off. Then we washed and seasoned the birds before threading them onto metal skewers to grill them over the charcoal fire. Every now and then we took the birds off the heat and pressed their bodies against pita bread to soak up the fatty juices. Then came the moment of ecstasy — a little exaggeration here although not far off — when I popped one whole little bird after the other into my mouth and crunched on the heads first to release the juicy brain.

eating birds at the club d'Alep -- photo taken by Anna Sussman

At the club d’Alep: holding a little bird for Anna Sussman to snap

There has been talk for quite some time now of the birds becoming endangered, and of course, shooting them is illegal in Europe (although I did once eat ortolans in France) but this doesn’t stop them from being on the menu year after year, both in Lebanon and Syria. Here are a few photographs I shot in the last month. The best birds were not at Halim in B’hamdum, the temple for these creatures, but at a rather disappointing new Lebanese restaurant in downtown Beirut called Lebnaniyet (ex La Posta) where the birds were just perfect despite the fact they had been sautéed (I prefer them grilled). Everything about them was right: the size (not too big and not too small), the amount of fat (enough to make them really moist without them being too greasy), and the chef had kept the heads on — they take them off now at Halim.

little birds-different sizes copy

The different sizes you can order at Halim’s

little birds-grilling copy

a little out of focus but it gives you an idea of how many birds get served night after night at Halim’s

little birdies copy

When they are grilled, the birds are served on marquq (handkerchief) bread

little birds-in pomegranate sauce copy

Or you can have them sautéed in pomegranate syrup

mamma copy

The simple mezze at Halim’s, with my beautiful mother looking a tad out of place in the modest café.

I guess I should really feel guilty and not eat these tiny creatures but they are one of the most heavenly foods ever, and to use a cliché, you only live once!


Everyone knows and loves halva. Well, perhaps not everyone loves halva but most people know it, the tahini one that is. Still, despite halva being fairly common now, few people know how it’s made. And I have to admit that I didn’t except for the one time, many many years ago, when I made  it following a recipe from Leslie Kenton’s  Raw Energy, and after I nearly broke my food processor trying to grind the sesame seeds, I ended up with a halva that bore no resemblance to any  I ever had — there are other types of halva but more on that in future posts. In any case, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally saw halva being made, and what a revelation that was. I was being taken round the old souks of Aleppo by a wonderful character and a friend now, Hassan Khoja who is the burly man in the first video below, when we stopped at the shop of a friend of his, Omar Akesh, who sells tahini and halva which he produces in a sprawling and rather medieval space behind and above his shop. The only thing I knew then was that shirsh al-halaweh (meaning the root or vein of sweetness in Arabic, or plain soapwort root in English) was used in the making of halva (it is listed as one of the ingredients) although I wasn’t quite sure how. So here is what I found out.

First you need tahini, and to make tahini, sesame seeds have to be roasted, soaked, hulled and pressed, all of which are done by Omar’s men in the upstairs room. Then the soapwort roots have to be boiled to produce a brown liquid which when beaten miraculously turns into a brilliant white foam (because of the saponin). This foam is then mixed with sugar syrup to produce a meringue-like dip called natef, which is also served with karabij halab, a crumbly  ‘cookie’ filled with pistachio nuts. In fact, the natef that goes with the karabij is slighly different from the natef that is used in halva but I can’t remember the proportions now — somewhere I have notes telling me the ratios. The natef is made in a kind of tin machine/beater (sadly the only part of the process which I didn’t manage to photograph or film) and once it’s ready, it is mixed with the tahini. The mixture is then processed in three different stages. First it is churned as you can see in the video above. Once the halva maker judges it ready to be beaten, he attaches a huge wooden pestle to an automated arm which will drop it into and lift it from the mixture at a regular pace, while he goes on scraping the halva from the sides and pestle to ensure perfect blending.

And now comes the final stage, which is the kneading of the halva. The mixture is transferred into a beautiful large metal bowl with a round bottom so that it can be rocked back and forth, and the halva maker kneads the mixture until it is smooth before portioning it out and packing it in plastic boxes.

At Omar Akesh, and elsewhere, you can buy halva plain, or you can choose the more expensive version with pistachio nuts. The nuts are usually pressed on the outside of the halva cake but there is a more luxurious version with more pistachio nuts that are kneaded into the mixture. Here is a close-up of  soapwort as well as a few shots of the sequence of events in the making of halva.

shirsh el-halaweh 3 copy

halva 1 copy halva 2 copy halva 4 copy halva 7 copy halva - kneading 1 copy halva - kneading 2 copy halva - kneading 3 copy halva - kneading 4 copy

halva - weighing & packing copy