Long before the wonderful Alan Davidson died, I embarked, together with Helen Saberi and Esteban Pombo Villar, on the most marvellous adventure under Alan’s aegis, trying to elucidate the mysteries of natef, a white soft meringue-like dip made with an unlikely ingredient (dessicated roots that look like dead wood) which is served with karabij Halab (semolina cookies filled with either pistachios in Lebanon or walnuts in Aleppo).
I was writing Lebanese Cuisine then and I had brought some of the root with me from Beirut to test the recipe but I had two conflicting bits of information regarding the root which is known as shirsh el-halaweh in Arabic. Some people refer to it as ‘erq al-halaweh. Claudia Roden describes it as bois de Panama in her Middle Eastern cookbook and the late Ibrahim Mouzannar, one of my favourite authors on Lebanese food, has it as soapwort in his Lebanese cookbook. You can actually read the full investigation of our Interspi (spi for spices) in the Wilder Shores of Gastronomy or in PPC. I will not repeat the information here but I will show you in pictures how natef is made, just in case you can get some and want to experiment. I, for one, am hoping that Australian customs will let me bring in my 1 ½ kilograms of shirsh el-halaweh for my demonstration of natef & karabij during the World Chef Showcase programme in Sydney on 10 October. Read more >