A com­mon bond

The Mid­dle East­ern culi­nary trails that forged an en­dur­ing friend­ship

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue Pleasantly Pie-eyed In Hathaway Cou - LUCY MALOUF

THE morn­ing be­gins early with my favourite kind of Per­sian break­fast. Note­books and pens at the ready, we plan our itin­er­ary for the day ahead while down­ing end­less glasses of strong, black tea. There are piles of over­sized flat­bread, warm from the nearby baker’s oven, which I swear is the best I’ve tasted. We eat it smeared with home-made saf­fron jam and great, greedy dol­lops of clot­ted cream. And just when I think I can’t man­age an­other morsel, out comes a dish of soft-boiled eggs with su­mac for sprin­kling, a mound of fresh, white cheese and ir­re­sistible soft, fudgy dates.

Sated, we plunge into the maze of nar­row al­ley­ways that sur­rounds the Grand Bazaar. All around us the world of com­merce is spring­ing to life: shut­ters are rat­tling up, traders heave crates of pro­duce into po­si­tion and the soup stalls are do­ing a roar­ing trade. The lanes are fill­ing fast with shop­pers, their eyes gleam­ing with pur­pose, in­tent on the busi­ness of the day. Af­ter a cou­ple of wrong turns (all too easy in this me­dieval rab­bit war­ren) we emerge, slightly pan­icky and pant­ing, into the Maidan, the great city square in Is­fa­han, Iran.

Greg and I pause to catch our breath and to re­flect that this is one of the rea­sons we love the bazaars and souks of the Mid­dle East: with a few tourist-cen­tric ex­cep­tions, they are nearly all proper work­ing mar­kets where lo­cals come to shop. For all the sti­fling heat, the jostling crowds, the ca­coph­ony of noise and the some­times chal­leng­ing sights and smells, these mar­kets are real.

We cross the square and en­ter the Imam Mosque, one of the grand­est mon­u­ments of Per­sia’s glo­ri­ous Safavid era. In con­trast to the heav­ing mass of shop­pers in the bazaar, within the walls of the mosque the world slows and qui­etens. We fol­low a se­ries of in­ter­linked, shady ar­cades that seem to flow one into the other. We pass be­neath soar­ing arch­ways, through lofty cham­bers and out into the vast cen­tral court­yard. Here all is eye-hurt­ing bright­ness and space. Golden sun­light washes the ground. It flashes over the rip­pling sur­face of the wide ablu­tion pool and smooths the ex­quis­ite mo­saic tile­work of the sur­round­ing fa­cades into a gleam­ing, molten shim­mer.

There’s some­thing about this ex­tra­or­di­nary place that in­vites con­tem­pla­tion. Greg sits on the edge of the stone pool and I wan­der into the airy prayer hall, with its great dome that seems to float mag­i­cally over­head, draw­ing my gaze up into a vor­tex of light. A group of school­boys gath­ers around me be­neath the dome and their teacher, puff­ing up his chest some­what self-im­por­tantly, be­gins to sing out the prayer call to demon­strate the fa­mous acous­tics. The boys and I stand trans­fixed as the plan­gent notes spin around us. Higher and higher they soar, up and away, reach­ing into ev­ery dis­tant cor­ner and out into the court­yard be­yond. IT is nearly 20 years since Greg and I made our first trip to the Mid­dle East for our hon­ey­moon. My new chef-hus­band was long­ing to ex­plore his Le­banese an­ces­try, and so we spent a month eat­ing our way around Le­banon and Syria, lum­ber­ing con­tent­edly from lunch to din­ner at var­i­ous rel­a­tives’ houses. For Greg, it was about forg­ing con­nec­tions with his her­itage and, more im­por­tant, delv­ing more deeply into the food of his child­hood. For me, as well as mak­ing ex­cit­ing food dis­cov­er­ies, it was about feel­ing my way into a new fam­ily and a new cul­ture, as well as a new mar­ried life.

We’ve re­turned to Le­banon and Syria sev­eral times over the years, and we’ve ex­tended our scope to North Africa, Moor­ish Spain, the Ara­bian Penin­sula, Jor­dan, Turkey and Iran. No longer mar­ried but with a con­tin­u­ing suc­cess­ful food-writ­ing part­ner­ship, our trav­els now, as on that first ad­ven­ture, are still mainly all about the food and our des­ti­na­tions are de­ter­mined by the palate rather than any guide­book. We don’t go to places to visit mu­se­ums and art gal­leries or to en­joy the beau­ti­ful coun­try­side but, rather, to see the saf­fron har­vest in Spain, or to seek out the rice that grows by the Caspian Sea, or to de­ter­mine whether baklava in Gaziantep is the same as it is in Beirut or Da­m­as­cus or Yazd.

We have slightly dif­fer­ent, yet con­verg­ing, in­ter­ests. Greg’s fo­cus is on dis­cov­er­ing ingredients and dishes to in­spire our books and his restau­rant menus back home in Mel­bourne. For me, it’s about dis­en­tan­gling the con­nect­ing culi­nary threads that weave this com­plex re­gion to­gether. Trac­ing the ori­gins of a fruit-and-nut-laden Moroc­can tagine back to the Per­sian khore­sht, for in­stance. Or learn­ing how the an­cient method of mak­ing yo­ghurt — a sta­ple through­out the Mid­dle East — leads back to the no­madic horse­men of the Cen­tral Asian steppes.

For both of us, the real thrill is in the truly lo­cal dishes we find lurk­ing in the back streets. And one thing we’ve dis­cov­ered time and again is that the sim­plest meals are of­ten the best: from a gar­licky chick­pea soup, eaten on a cold night in the Syr­ian desert, to the cumin-scented ke­babs we de­voured at one mem­o­rable break­fast in the south­east of Turkey, or the in­tense ap­ple-lime cake we en­joyed in Mar­rakech.

It oc­curs to me some­times that it might seem in­dul­gent, this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the stom­ach and with what is, es­sen­tially, do­mes­tic­ity and the small things of life. But over the years our food­fo­cused jour­neys have re­vealed a few truths, the most im­por­tant of which is that food — shop­ping for it, pre­par­ing and cook­ing it, eat­ing it — pro­vides a nat­u­ral way of in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple, even when you don’t speak the same lan­guage. Food re­ally can open a door into the lives of oth­ers.

And surely this is what it’s all about? For all the his­tory books and mu­se­ums and all the po­lit­i­cal anal­y­sis, it’s peo­ple who mat­ter, be­cause if you don’t get to know the peo­ple, how can you hope to get to know the place in which they live? Mon­u­ments are one thing, but I’d much rather have an in­vi­ta­tion to some­one’s home for lunch. For me, it’s the peo­ple we meet along the way that make the jour­ney worth­while. They open our eyes and our minds and, if we’re lucky, per­haps our hearts. THEschool­boys and their teacher move into an­other prayer hall and I put away my cam­era, know­ing I’ll never be able to cap­ture the true beauty of this light-filled space, awash with colour and pat­tern and move­ment. I look up and see Greg walk­ing slowly to­wards me through se­quins of sun­light that pool on the floor. He is clutch­ing his mo­bile phone and his face looks drawn and tired.

I know at once that he’s had the news he’s been dread­ing. ‘‘Mum’s just died,’’ he mum­bles. He col­lapses against me and I hug him as tightly as I can, be­cause there are no words to be said.

Fi­nally he pulls away. ‘‘I’m glad you’re here,’’ he says. And we both know that, af­ter nearly 20 years, af­ter the thou­sands of kilo­me­tres we’ve trav­elled to­gether, af­ter all the joy and all the laugh­ter, af­ter all the fights, all the fail­ings and fail­ures, the most im­por­tant jour­ney of all has been the one that’s taken us through and be­yond a mar­riage and into a friend­ship. Greg and Lucy Malouf’s lat­est book, Malouf: New Mid­dle East­ern Food, (Hardie Grant Books $69.95, HB) is out this month.

ALAMY IM­AGES

A spice mer­chant in the Ira­nian city of Is­fa­han’s Grand Bazaar, which at­tracts large crowds of lo­cal shop­pers

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