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books for cooks-aisha cutting chicken copy

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.

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greg malouf dinner-rabbit copy

Last time I was at Petersham Nurseries, it was sunny and warm and Skye Gyngell was cooking. Last night was wet and miserable and there was a new chef at the stoves, Greg Malouf of Momo’s fame in Melbourne. Greg has moved to London, and he will be offering his wonderful modern take on Middle Eastern food at Petersham Nurseries. Dinner last night was quite delicious, particularly the rabbit in the picture above and the lamb and frikeh which he served afterwards. And before that, the best tomatoes (from southern Italy) I have had this year in London, served them with a soft curd cheese sprinkled with a little chilli and dried herbs. A marvellous start to the meal. And to finish, luscious meringue topped with cream and berries alongside a refreshing sorbet topped with the most adorable camel biscuits.

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Only two weeks in London and already my travels seem very far away, with the only vivid memory being a big hole in my leg where I banged my shin against one of those posts designed not only to stop cars from parking, but also to make  pedestrians trip over! Still, I had many wonderful and memorable moments during my months in the Middle East including one on the way to Apamea, in Syria when I spotted a group of farmers burning frikeh (green wheat).

frikeh-just burned copy

The last time I had seen frikeh being burned in the fields was back in 1982 in Qalb Lozeh, one of the dead Byzantine cities near Aleppo. The only difference between then and now, was the setting: totally magical and ancient in Qalb Lozeh, and rather modern and charmless in Qal’at al Mudiq where we had stopped. The building where the farmers lived was modern and unfinished like many of the buildings in the Syrian countryside, and their farm equipment was scattered everywhere, bulky and rusty. The farmers were great though, dressed in a funny mix of traditional garb with modern accessories like the women’s hats, and very jolly and welcoming.

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