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It is not every day that I travel far to meet people I have never met before (except by email, that is) but, with some apprehension, that is exactly what I did when I went to Karachi on business last week. The most dangerous city in the world, a friend warned, another pronounced me mad even to contemplate the trip. I didn’t listen. And I am glad I didn’t. Karachi was definitely not frightening, nor is it beautiful though its people are and so are its buses and trucks. And the food is utterly delicious.

The driver was very amused by my compulsion to snap every single colourful bus and truck we passed. Some photographs, I took through the window because I wasn’t quick enough to lower it. Also it was very hot and dusty and I needed to stay cool inside with the air-conditioned car. I took too many to post here but here are a couple of my favourites. Apparently each bus belongs to its driver; and he alone decides on the decoration. I guess economics come into play as well. The richer the driver, the more elaborate the decorations. I should have really snapped buses with people sitting on top; also those with their lights twinkling at night. Perhaps when I return.



As for the food, I knew a little about it from eating at the Lahore Kebab House and Salloo’s, the first cheap, the second expensive but both excellent although the Lahore has gone down since they expanded. In any case, a Pakistani friend had told me to try Bbq Tonight <>, saying it was the best restaurant in town. Luckily, it was where my hosts took me to dinner the first night. It was indeed very good, but even more interesting was the scene. The restaurant is over four huge floors, and it was heaving with people: groups of religious men, families with hundreds of children, even an engagement party with the most ravishing bride. She agreed to be photographed although she wouldn’t lift her eyes. Gorgeous either way.


Outside, the scene was just as frantic with long charcoal grills manned by dozens of chefs. I don’t think I have ever been to such a busy restaurant, neither in Lebanon nor in Syria where the 6014-seat restaurant in Damascus is certified as the largest  in the world <>. Mind you when I went to Damascus Gate, it was the middle of the afternoon so not exactly mealtime. Must return one weekend evening to check the scene there.


The next evening, I was taken to another great fun restaurant called Village, right by the sea and serving typical rural dishes buffet style. I had fried quails, a first for me; brains in a lovely spicy sauce; delicious biriani and fabulous steamed mutton with a sweet rice. But the discovery of the evening was betel leaf. There was a small cart inside the entrance called pan wala where one man spent the whole evening making little betel leaf parcels. He first smeared the leaf with a sweet tamarind sauce, then he piled up all kinds of funny looking sweet mixtures before adding two more sauces. He folded the leaf over the filling and gave it to whoever wanted one to pop in their mouth and chew on it. I was reluctant at first, having read about red stains and betel but that’s the nut. Then I thought I was silly to pass up the chance to taste it, so, I asked for a child portion — he made tiny parcels for the children. But he ignored my request and gave me a regular size. It was surprisingly good although I can’t say it would be the first thing I would rush to have when I go back there. The steamed mutton and sweet rice perhaps.


I needed to check on the price of raw ingredients before leaving, and lovely Nasir, who showed me around, said he would take me to a wholesale market, Well, it wasn’t only produce they had in profusion there, but also flies. I don’t think I have ever seen so many flies in my whole life. I was scared to speak, lest one or more slipped into my open mouth. Still, I found the whole experience more mesmerizing than horrifying. Can’t wait to go back there to take more pictures.




Oh, and I forgot about my exciting breakfast, paya, which is calves feet (although I am almost sure that what I was served was sheep’s feet; they seemed too small for calves feet) cooked in a spicy sauce and eaten with paratha, a fried flat bread. Totally yummy even first thing in the morning.


I hope I haven’t spoiled your appetite, what with calves feet for breakfast and flies galore to go with the weekly shopping!


The day started badly. I couldn’t find my moulds for the Easter cookies. I was teaching a class that evening showing how to make Lebanese Easter cookies. I searched everywhere, except of course where they were. I did the class. Had to, improvising with a tea strainer and a crinkly cookie cutter. The pastries were OK as you can see from the pic below and the class went well. They all had a go at making the cookies and they were scrumptious, even if my mother would have frowned at how they looked.

easter cookies without moulds
The next morning, I was putting some order in the hidden corner of my kitchen where I stash stuff that I don’t use that often, and, of course, the moulds were there. Too annoying. Never mind. I had pastry and filling left over from the class & lovely Nuria, my assistant, was coming back to clear up & help me make more cookies. When she arrived, I produced my moulds not knowing whether I should feel triumphant or stupid.


Didn’t matter. I had the moulds and now we could make the remaining cookies using them. I hadn’t used these in years and wondered if the pastry was going to stick to the grooves. Luckily not. Here is the first date cookie pre baking.


Not bad. So, I continued. The only thing I could have done better was to divide the pieces of pastry equally, weighing each so that the cookies turned out all the same size and more importantly, fitted the mould without spilling over or being too small. Here’s the recipe for the walnut cookies, which I should have sprinkled with icing sugar but I decided they had enough calories as is.


By the way, the pastry for the date cookies is the same as the one in the recipe below. All you have to do is mix 350 g date paste with ½ tsp ground cinnamon and 30 g melted butter. Knead to mix well, then shape small disks that are the size of the grooved circle inside the mould; then flatten the pastry into a circle that is about 1 ½ cm larger than the date disk. Put the date disk in the middle of the pastry, and flap the pastry over the date. Then gently shape into a circle that is slightly smaller than the mould. Put the filled pastry, seam side on the outside, into the mould and gently press to fit the mould and get the impression. Then tap out against your work surface, with your hand underneath the mould to catch the cookie. Slide on the baking tray. Bake, let cool on a wire rack and enjoy.



Walnut Cookies
Ma’mul bil-Joz

Makes about 30

For the pastry
350 g semolina
40 g plain flour
40 g golden caster sugar
¼ teaspoon easy bake yeast
150 g unsalted butter, softened
2 ½ to 3 tablespoons orange blossom water
2 ½ to 3 tablespoons rose water
for the filling
175 g walnuts, ground medium fine
50 g golden caster sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ tablespoon rose water
½ tablespoon orange blossom water
to finish
icing sugar

1. Mix the semolina, flour, sugar and yeast in a mixing bowl. Add the softened butter and, with the tips of your fingers, work it in until fully incorporated.  Add the orange blossom and rose water and knead until the pastry is smooth and elastic. Roll into a ball and cover with cling film. Let rest for one and a half hours in a cool place.

2. Mix the ground walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Add the rose and orange blossom water and mix well. Set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 200ºC.

4. Pinch off a small piece of pastry and roll into a ball the size of a walnut. Place it in the cup of your hand and with your index finger, burrow into it to shape it into a hollow cone — be careful not to pierce the bottom. The cone walls should be about 5 mm thick. Fill the pastry cone with 1 teaspoon walnut filling and pinch the dough together to close it over the filling. Carefully shape the filled pastry into a ball and lightly press into the tabe’ (ma’mul mould), leaving the pinched side on the outside so that when you invert the pastry, it is on the bottom. Invert the mould over the tips of the fingers of your other hand and tap it lightly against your work surface to release it onto your hand. Slide the moulded pastry onto a non-stick baking sheet. Fill and shape the remaining pastry in the same way. You may have to scrape the inside of the mould every now and then, in case some pastry has stuck to it. You can also shape these inside a small tea strainer if you don’t have a mould or by hand. You should end up with about 30 pastries.

5. Bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes or until cooked but not coloured. Remove onto a rack. Let sit for a few minutes then sprinkle with icing sugar. Serve or store in hermetically sealed containers to serve later. These cookies will last for a couple of weeks.

©Anissa Helou; recipe from Anissa’s Lebanese Cuisine (Grub Street in UK & St Martin’s Press in US)

Lebanese Cuisine is available from (UK)

Lebanese Cuisine is available from (US)