My Lebanese adventures, which I crammed into an incredibly short time, continue with another fabulous meal, this time centred around one of my favourite delicacies. Some of you will decry this post but as much as I would like to be caring for the environment, there are a few things I find hard to resist. Foie gras is one and the other is ‘assafir (tiny little birds called bec-figue in French because they feed on figs). The season is August/September when the figs are ripening and there is one particular restaurant in B’hamdun outside Beirut, Halim, that specialises in them to the point that it closes when the season is over (at least this is what my sister says). I have written about Halim before but this time the ‘assafir were truly superior, and this because I was lamenting the fact that no one served them with their heads on like they did in the past.
For those of you who have read my last post on natef, here is the promised recipe for the pistachio cookies — in Aleppo, the filling is walnuts and the cookies are served warm with a sprinkling of cinnamon on the natef — which I will be demonstrating this Sunday at the World Chef Showcase in Star City, Sydney. I have to say that the semolina we pinched from the kitchens at Sean’s (one of the hotel’s restaurant) was the best I have worked with. I must check the label on the canvas bag to see who milled it. In any case, here is how you make the cookies as demonstrated by my mother in Ballouneh in Lebanon. And please don’t mind her black fingernails. They are not dirty but stained from peeling too many fresh walnuts!
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 >