By Christine Salins.
In Lebanon, people say “sahtain” before or after a meal. It means “double health” but what it really translates to is the shared bond of enjoying food.
Saffron in the Souks author, John Gregory-Smith, loves the concept. “It’s like saying to someone, ‘Love every mouthful of what you’re about to eat.’ All too often we forget that food is a pleasure and should always be savoured,” he says.
Food is definitely savoured in Lebanon, where fragrant za’atar is widely popular, kibbeh is a national obsession, and sumac, pomegranate molasses and lemon add a sour freshness that the Lebanese adore.
Gregory-Smith, a food and travel writer who specialises in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, first went to Beirut in 2010. He worked as a chef in a restaurant called Souk El Tayeb, where the owner, Kamal Mouzawak, invited women from different regions of Lebanon to come and share their home-cooked recipes.
It was there that Gregory-Smith developed his love for Lebanese food and got to understand how unique the cuisine is.
He has returned since to explore the country more fully, and it is from those wanderings that Saffron in the Souks (Hachette, $39.99) was born. The book is something of a cook’s tour of Lebanon, from the vibrant souks of Tripoli and Beirut to the quiet calm of the Chouf Mountains and Qadisha Valley.
There’s everything from classic street food, succulent roasts and a rock star roasted cauliflower to wonderful seafood dishes, delicate pastries and little-known Druze recipes, all bursting with flavour. How good does Rose Water & Pistachio Cheesecake sound?
The book has fabulous location photography too, further inspiring me to broaden my horizons in the Middle East. The recipe here comes from a wonderful family-run seafood restaurant on a picturesque beach in Batroun, between Beirut and Tripoli.
The author says Chez Maguy restaurant has the best location: “to one side the ancient Phoenician port wall still stands and to the other, crystal clear waters gently lap the dining terrace”. A well-positioned ladder leads straight into the sea for the ultimate after-dinner dip. Count me in.
MAGUY’S CHILLI & MINT PRAWNS
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as part of a meal
5 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 spring onions, finely chopped
½ red chilli, finely chopped
350g raw giant king prawns, heads and tails on
a handful of finely chopped mint leaves
¼ teaspoon allspice
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a high heat. Add the garlic, spring onions and chilli and stir-fry for 1 minute until fragrant. Chuck in the prawns and a good pinch of salt. Cook the prawns for 1 to 1½ minutes a side, shaking the pan so that the other ingredients don’t burn, until the prawns are coral pink and cooked through.
Scatter the mint and allspice into the pan and mix well. Tip the prawns and all the lovely juices onto a serving dish and serve immediately.
Recipe and images from Saffron in the Souks by John Gregory-Smith, published by Hachette Australia, Hardback RRP $39.99.