A common bond
The Middle Eastern culinary trails that forged an enduring friendship
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.
A spice merchant in the Iranian city of Isfahan’s Grand Bazaar, which attracts large crowds of local shoppers