There’s this great place I know where the food is just right; it’s called Syria and right now, the skies are blue and the ground is a happy 28˚. The last couple of weeks there and in neighbouring Lebanon have been just as much about climbing in and out of cars and minibuses for several hour stretches on treacherous journeys as they have been spent at the table tearing wafer thin bread from a plastic bag and mopping up plates of salads, smoky, grilled meats and walnutty kishkeh.
When we emerged in the middle of somewhere from the car of an unknown lunatic and possible gangster, who swerved at 140km/hr across every lane of a very busy motorway, all the while playing children’s Chinese techno, smoking heavily and showing off a violent ticking motion in his neck that caused him to jerk away from the wheel, and at one point slump over it, we headed to a table to recoup. And when I was ill, we found a high end Aleppo restaurant and tucked into an alarmingly good lamb tartar (not at all what the doctor ordered, but I found it strangely hard to resist) that had been blended with spices and peppers and turned out of a flower-shaped jelly mould. Though never adventurous enough (nor tempted) to’ve bought up the lamb’s feet and camel heads on display in the souqs, I felt I’d done myself proud by this small bravery. It’s unlikely I’ll be serving it at home any time soon, but I’m glad to have tried its clean, spicy flavour.
In every town and city, the street’s edge provided light felafel and chicken schawarma, rapidly wrapped in bread with pickles and herbs tucked within. Finding sit-down restaurants proved a challenge, though the rewards of little bowls of unusual condiments on the table more than made up for the hunt. Bunches of mint, washed radishes and fresh almonds on ice often arrived with trays of olives, smooth hummus or moutabal and sumac-dressed rocket. In one of Beirut’s smarter cocktail bars, every drink was served with a tumbler of carrot and cucumber sticks in lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, pepper and tabasco, the perfect aperitif to a cherry lamb kabob, with its purple juices staining the plate. Elsewhere, we were refreshed by sharp and minted lemonades, freshly-squeezed pomegranates and bitter, Turkish coffees and were given free reign to pinch nuts, dates and fruits from passing carts in the markets.
The colours, textures and fresh produce of Middle Eastern food boast all of the aesthetic appeal celebrated by Salad Club, and include the impressive reinvention and reuse of ingredients from a fairly limited selection, most commonly chick peas and sesame seeds. The joys of ordering continuous streams of coloured plates to mop up with fine, unleavened bread continues to influence my cooking heavily. Now that I’m back, all I can do is buy up fruits and vegetables from the markets of Brixton and think upon some recipes to remember a stunning trip by. I’ll be back with one soon!