The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine
A Lebanese feast
Lip-smacking dishes from Beirut and beyond
WHEN I ASK the food writer John Gregory-smith to conjure up the dominant taste of his travels through Lebanon, the answer comes immediately: ‘tang’. Whether it comes via lemon, pomegranate or sumac (the fragrant red spice used in Middle Eastern cuisines for its citrussy flavour), that sharpness is a characteristic of so many Lebanese dishes, and the country’s cooks, he explains, are not afraid to ‘really amp it up’.
Gregory-smith first visited Lebanon nine years ago, working as a chef at a Beirut restaurant that gathered regional recipes from women – home cooks – and put them on the menu. At the time, it wasn’t safe to leave the city, but he was already ‘hooked’ on the food. It was those sour and fresh flavours, delivered more often than not with a kick of spice and a fistful of fresh herbs, that drew him back almost a decade later for a trip that took him further afield, from Tripoli in the far north to Beqaa Valley in the east and across to Mount Lebanon. In kitchens and at street-food stalls, he discovered dishes beyond hummus and tabbouleh, and fell in love with yakhni, a filling stew of meat, vegetables or pulses; a Druze version of mansaf (lamb simmered in yogurt) with saffron; and ‘the best chicken shawarma in the world’, which he found at a tiny kebab shop in Beirut.
Returning to the UK, Gregory-smith
turned those meals into recipes for his latest cookbook, Saffron in the Souks – some of them recorded verbatim from the people who shared the methods for their speciality meze dishes and breads, others tweaked for Western kitchens. One of his favourites is the malezeye made at Akra in Tripoli, an enormous hummus restaurant. ‘Not quite fully blended, textured, and more lemony than normal hummus, it was finished with chilli butter and nuts,’ he recalls. ‘The sort of food that makes you flap your hands it’s so good!’
The book, he explains, ‘is not the definitive guide to Lebanese cuisine in the traditional sense. It’s a snapshot of what’s going on in the country today.’ And a delicious one at that. — Amy Bryant Saffron in the Souks: Vibrant Recipes from the Heart of Lebanon, is published by Kyle Books (£25). To order your copy for £20, visit books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844-871 1514