I wasn’t sure at first. Luiz Camargo, the lovely editor of Paladar (food supplement of Estadao do Sao Paulo), had sent me an email asking if I could attend their yearly event in Sao Paulo. I was thrilled to be asked but the dates were very soon after my culinary trips to Syria and I wondered if I could make it. Still, the opportunity was too exciting to miss. So, I said yes. And boy, am I glad I did. The event was splendid. Our hosts (both at Paladar and their partners at the Grand Hyatt where it all happened), the presenters and the other guests were all wonderful and the city was great fun. And I added a whole new range of exotic ingredients to my culinary lore.
Paladar – Cozinha do Brazil kicked off with a tremendous cocktail party with chef stations throughout the large room offering tastings of various traditional and nouvelle Brazilian specialities: an Amazonian soup served in coconut, wonderful beef served with a corn and tomato salsa, delicate sashimi (Sao Paulo has the largest Japanese community outside of Japan), delicious dumplings in a meaty broth, and so on.
The party was followed by three days of workshops, most of which were fascinating. I attended one on new Bahian cooking where I learned how to use fresh cocoa beans, how to squeeze juice out of cashew fruit (which I also tasted in Sao Paulo’s fabulous central market — sour with a strange feel that stays in the mouth) and how to play with tart flavours by using a whole range of Brazilian lemons, all quite different from those we know in Europe, or even the Californian Meyer lemon.
In another workshop, Roberta Sudbrack told us all about chuchu, a rather boring vegetable that tastes a little like cucumber. Sudbrack specialises in researching one ingredient at a time and experimenting with it and she assured us that chuchu can be made exciting by incorporating it in various dishes. Hmm… In between, adorable Luiz Ligabue, one of Paladar’s reporters (in fact, they were all delightful), brought Jeffrey Steingarten and I a lovely pain au levain, a strong straight-from-the-farm-tasting unpasteurised fresh cheese and a smoky Italian sausage to taste. Jeffrey immediately set to work, expertly cutting the bread, cheese and sausage and we had a delightful interlude in the Paladar make-shift office.
The next day, I went with James Oseland to a workshop about bitter flavours presented by three women chefs, Mara Salles of Tordesilhas, Neide Rigo & Ana Soares. They showed us how to prepare surprisingly delicious dishes using, in some cases, very bitter ingredients. The tasting was a revelation.
But the real revelation, at least for me, was Helena Rizzo, a brilliant young chef who devoted a whole workshop (well, almost) to deconstructing Feijoada. Her method, which takes hours, is not for the faint-hearted. Still, the result is spectacular, and exquisite — a concentre of real feijoada which she drops in tiny balls into a solution that allows them to set while remaining wobbly and silky inside. She then uses these ‘artificial’ beans to make up the most beautiful plate of feijoada Ã la Mani, the name of her restaurant — I had a taste at the workshop but then, I was lucky enough to be taken to Mani by Ilan Kow, the charming executive editor of Estadao, and his gorgeous girlfriend, Rita Lobo, whose food website Panelinha, is one of the most successful in Brazil, and there I was able to savour a whole portion, albeit small, of Helena’s amazing feijoada, and several other fabulous dishes.
Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana also did a little deconstruction of his own, with Bollito Misto. It was lucky I decided to skip the following morning’s workshops to go to MASP with Massimo because that evening, he whisked me away from the gala dinner to take me to D.O.M where Alex Atala, Brazil’s pre-eminent celebrity chef, presides in the kitchen. Alex organised a sumptuous tasting menu where I ate fresh palmito for the first time ever — I used to love them when I lived in Beirut but they were always canned. In one dish, the palm hearts were very thinly sliced and laid under a scallop ‘carpaccio’ while in another, they were cut into strips, exactly like tagliatelle and served as such. Both delicious.
Once it was all over, I moved to Jardins, the Mayfair of Sao Paulo, to stay with my Martha, very kind, newly-found Helou cousin, to live the Paulista life for a few days. I went to all the local haunts with Rita (by then, we’d become firm friends): breakfast at Santo Grao and coffee at Suplicy, both essential places for coffee. We checked out the groovy rooms at Emiliano and the chic restaurant in Fasano.
And Ilan introduced me to Leila Kuczinsky, the delightful owner of Arabia, one of the best Lebanese restaurants in town (there are over 4 million Lebanese emigres in Sao Paolo). I was curious to see how Lebanese food in Sao Paulo compared to that in the home country, or London for that matter, and I was not disappointed. Leila even had shish barak (tiny dumplings cooked in yoghurt) on the menu; and her ice creams, including one flavoured with mastic and another made with tahini, were made with salep (dried powdered orchis tubers).
On my last Sunday, I ventured to the northern part of the city, into what looked like Sao Paulo’s Shoreditch to eat at Mocoto, one of the city’s hottest restaurants where gorgeous Rodrigo Oliveira cooks very tasty traditional Brazilian food and where the barman makes mean caipirinhas — I became addicted to those while there.
Still, despite all the excitement and the fabulous time I’d been having, I was about to leave Sao Paulo with one regret. I had not managed to eat at Jun Sakamoto, the best sushi in town. Until, that is, my lovely cousin Nabih came to the rescue and took me there the evening I was due to catch my flight, which luckily was very late — turned out Nabih is great friends with one of Jun’s best friends. Jun made our sushi, which is indeed the best and he gave me a signed copy of his gorgeous book, And Jun does one thing that I haven’t seen done anywhere else, and that is to brush the fish with soy sauce instead of serving the sauce on the side, which means that the sushi is never too salty. Here’s a short clip of Jun in action with his sous chef brushing the sushi pieces with soy.
Everytime I watch the clip, I wish I could be back there. Never mind the lack of planning, and the horrid traffic, the city is really exciting with seriously good food, not to mention the incredible charm of the Brazilians.
Paladar – Cozinha do Brazil — 2010
It’s not that I like gruesome foods that much. The ants I ate recently in Brazil were quite repulsive. The camel kebabs were OK although I am not rushing back to the camel butcher any time soon. As for the worms I had in South Africa, they were pretty boring. However, nothing I have seen is a patch on the penises I spotted for sale at a bovine butcher in Sao Paulo’s central market.
The butcher said he sold them to Chinese people to cook in soup for medicinal purposes. He did say what the purpose was but I am going senile (sadly not prematurely any longer) and I forgot what the purpose was, but it wasn’t aphrodisiac. Anyone who knows, please write and tell me. There was nowhere I could go in the market to taste them but for anyone wanting to eat edible penises, here is where to go.
No Facebook, and no You Tube. For two weeks! Not that I am addicted to either but it came as a real surprise. I thought Syria was opening up. Lucky I didn’t have much time for either. I had two groups, one after the other, the first with several food writers, all listed now in the Baghdad Cafés guest book — the café is a delightful stop on the way to Palmyra where you can listen to the owner play wonderful music on a funny tin string instrument.
I won’t describe all that we did during these two weeks but I thought I’d tell you about some of the highlights. The most exciting, at least for me, was our second dinner at the Club d’Alep where we watched three whirling dervishes dance.
We were lucky. We happened to be there at the same time as members of the Académie de la Gastronomie Libanaise and my friends at the Académie Syrienne de la Gastronomie had laid on the show for them. They had also ordered, as a main course, the pièce de resistance of the club: a selection of shish kebabs, served spiked into a glittering serving platter in the middle of which is a real fire. Quite spectacular.
Sadly, we missed the breakfast at Maison Poche, a fabulous European flat in a caravanserai in the heart of the old souk of Aleppo — we had to leave early for Apamée and Krak des Chevaliers and we couldn’t fit it in. But before that, we had a great day at Maria’s, a rare Syrian woman chef, who does cookery demonstrations for my groups in her house, showing how to prepare various Aleppine specialities, including cherry kababs (see recipe below), one of the city’s signature dishes.
The cherry kababs were delicious, but even more delicious was the young beauty I found in Serjilla, a fabulous dead Byzantine city south of Aleppo. We went there after Qal’at Sem’an (St Simeon) with possibly the most irritating guide ever who kept complimenting me on my newly acquired amber & gold worry beads hoping that, in good Arab fashion, I would give them to him. No such luck. In any case, as we walked around the wonderful ruins, I came across the most beautiful child I have ever seen during my travels in Syria: blond, green-eyed and just like the models you see in magazines. Totally gorgeous, and what’s more, perfectly aware of her beauty as you can see from the way she posed for the photographs.
I wanted to do a Madonna and adopt her on the spot but she said she was happy with her family. So, I gave her and her brothers money. The elder brother immediately swiped her share. I tried to return it to her but she wasn’t too worried. She assured me he would save it for her. Not so sure. I will find out when I am back there in the autumn, and perhaps I will ask her again if she wants to move to London. I am not entirely serious! Cherry Kababs Kabab bil-Karaz If there is a dish that symbolises the cooking of Aleppo, this has to be it. There are several versions. Maria grinds the cherries before cooking them while my friends Lena Toutounji, who has one of the best tables in Aleppo, and May Mamarbachi, the creator of the first boutique hotel in Damascus, the wonderful Beit Mamlouka, both leave the cherries whole. Maya very kindly gave me cherries from her frozen stock so that I could test the recipe. I am not sure if fresh sour cherries are available in the US but Jeffrey Steingarten, who was with me on a previous trip to Syria when Maria demonstrated the dish, declared that the Syrian sour cherries were the same as those you buy dried in the states. If you can’t get them fresh, simply soak dried ones as indicated below and use as with fresh ones. Serves 4 For the meatballs (kabab) 1 lb minced lamb ½ tbsp sea salt ½ teaspoon 7-spice mixture (or allspice) 1 tbsp unsalted butter For the cherry sauce 2 lb fresh sour cherries, pitted (or 1 lb dried sour cherries soaked overnight in 2 cups water) 1 tbsp sugar 1 tbsp pomegranate syrup To finish 2 tbsp unsalted butter, 2 to 3 pita breads, opened at the seams and cut into medium sized triangles ground allspice 3 tbsp finely chopped parsley 4 tbsp pine nuts 1. Mix the meat with the salt and spice mixture (or allspice) and shape into small balls, the size of large marbles. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat and sauté the meatballs until lightly browned. 2. Put the cherries, sugar and pomegranate syrup in a saucepan large enough to eventually take the meatballs and place over medium heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the meatballs and simmer for another 15 minutes. 3. Melt half the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and sauté, stirring constantly, until lightly golden. Be sure not to burn them. 4. To assemble the dish: spread the pita bread all over the serving platter, coarse side up and making sure the pointed ends are nicely arranged on the outside. Melt the remaining butter and drizzle all over the bread. Sprinkle with a little allspice. Spoon the meat and sauce all over the bread. Sprinkle the chopped parsley all over, then the sautéed pine nuts. Serve immediately.
It was a pretty gruesome, although irresistible shop sign: a camel’s head, dripping blood and hanging from a hook right on the street outside a butcher shop. And I almost knocked into it — I did stroke another less bloody head later. I had never seen anything like it before. I went in to ask why the head was hanging outside, and the butcher explained it was to show that he specialised in camel meat. I had never tasted camel meat before and here was my chance. Most popular Syrian butchers — I was in Midan, a popular food shopping area in Damascus — have a charcoal grill inside their stall/shop with a counter or a couple ofÂ tables to serve grilled meat to passing diners.
I was with my mother and if you knew her, you would understand why it was difficult for me to convince her to sit at the butcher’s table while he cooked my camel kebabs. Here is a picture of her at the end of a wonderful meal in B’charreh, Lebanon where we feasted on goat’s kibbeh nayeh (raw kibbeh). It should explain why street food is not quite her thing.
In any case, I insisted and being the good mother she is, she relented and followed me into the shop. I ordered my kebabs (also some for my mother despite her protestations) thinking he was going to cut the meat in pieces and thread them onto skewers; but when I saw the butcher starting to mince the meat, I asked him why. His answer was that this was what I had ordered –Â kebab or kabab in Syria means minced meat, either en brochettes, or shaped into balls and stewed in different sauces with either fruit or vegetables. He added that camel meat was too tough to grill in pieces. So, I let him mince the meat, shape it around the skewers and grill it for us. By then, my mother had relaxed and was happy to share my kebabs. And I must say, the meat was not that much different from lamb, a little drier perhaps and gamier.
Much later I learned from Ahmed, my wonderful driver in Aleppo, that all good Muslims must eat camel meat at least once a year. Why? Because camels, unlike most animals, are faithful. They don’t allow their camel wives to be seduced by other camels! Didn’t double check on that but I am prepared to believe him. Here are a few more pics, the one below and the last taken by Ben who was with me in Damascus on another trip and whose pictures are featured in the Food & Wine article.
The following photographs are mine, taken in the souks of Aleppo, very near Bab Antaki. The guy talking to the butcher is discussing which cut to buy and the guy in the background is manning the charcoal grill; and the photographs on the board behind him are all of camels when they were alive.
Here is a recipe for the kebabs, that is if you can get camel meat. If not, you can always use minced lamb but be sure to choose the cut and then ask your butcher to mince it for you. Ready mince tends to be too fatty. The Syrian butcherâ€™s seasoning consisted simply of salt and pepper but my recipe below is a little fancier. In fact, it is for Lebanese kefta — we call it kefta, they call it kebabs. Serves 4
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 1/4 pound ground lamb, from the shoulder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice (or 7-spice mixture)
freshly ground black pepper
4 medium pita breads
1 – Put the onion and parsley in a blender and process until finely chopped. Transfer to a mixing bowl, add the ground meat and seasonings and mix with you hands until well blended. Pinch a little off and sear in a hot pan to taste. Adjust the seasoning if necessary then divide the meat into 12 equal portions.
2 – Pre-heat the broiler to high or start a charcoal fire.
3 – Roll each portion of meat into a ball. Put one in the palm of your hand, take a long skewer, preferably a flat one as the meat will hold better onto it, and start wrapping the meat around the skewer, squeezing it upwards, then downwards to bind it around the skewer in the shape of a long sausage. Taper the ends and place on a rack ready to grill or broil. Do the rest of the meat in the same way.
4 – Cook the meat for 2-3 minutes on each side or until the meat is done to your liking. Serve hot with pita bread.