When a Syrian expectant mother is writing her list of things to buy in preparation for the birth, caraway seeds features high on this list along with milk bottles, nappies and baby cloths.

After birth people visit the new mother to congratulate her on the baby arrival. Carawya is a special type of desert almost exclusively served for this occasion. The word Carawya is Arabic for caraway. No surprise the fragrant seeds are the main ingredient in the dish.

Last week end after I finished my course in France I headed with my wife to visit my brother and his wife in Germany. They have been recently blissed with a beautiful baby boy, hence the carawya post. The one in the picture is the handy work of my sister in law.

In Syria you buy a ready made Carawya mixture. If you want to make your own mixture all you need is one portion of ground caraway seeds to two portions of rice flour.

Here is the recipe for two portions:

Water 350 mls
Carawya mixture 2-3 tbsp
Sugar 2 tbsp
Pine nuts

Add the cold water, carawya mixture and sugar to a deep pot. Bring to boil on a medium heat stirring continuously. The mixture should be custard-thick. Adjust the amount of the carawya powder if you prefer a thicker or thinner consistency.

Serve warm in tea cups or desert bowls. Top with a generous layer of coconut then the rest of the nuts.

Paris, Industrial Action and Za'atar Croissant

I am Paris on a training course this week. Yesterday we received the unexpected news that civil servants are on strike and the course is off for today as the venue is a town hall and the staff refused to break the strike. So instead of working on my drilling skills I am here in my tiny hotel room watching BBC news and reading last Sunday’s Observer. It is cold, cloudy and miserable outside. Not the most inviting weather to go sight seeing. The only highlight of my day was the excellent fresh croissant I had for breakfast.

On the breakfast table I remembered a conversation I had over a year ago with my best friend Tammam and his wife Rania regarding croissants and if the best ones come from Paris or Damascus. Both of my friends are big fans of Paris and extremely biased when it comes to anything French. So the discussion was partly genuine and partly to wind up Tammam. He is great fun when you wind him up. Sorry mate!

I know you must think it is totally bizarre even to suggest that Damascus makes better croissant than Paris but let me give you some background. Few years ago a patisserie shop called Parfait opened in our street in Damascus. The place is by far the best in the city and quickly it became so popular that we now have a constant traffic jam and a dedicated traffic warden to keep cars moving in our quite residential street. One morning I was in the shop when a French woman walked in and tried a warm fresh croissant. She loved it and she told the guy in a very heavy French accent “This is better than in France”. I loved this and I was simply repeating a French person opinion.

The main discussion point apart from the quality was what you can and can not put inside a croissant. In Syria we have the habit of “Syrianising” international foods from pasta to pizza ...etc. The most heavily adapted remains French pastry. Croissants come in the traditional plain and chocolate variety but the most popular are the local versions of Za’atar, olives and Kashkaval cheese.

Tammam was of the opinion that Za’atar should be no where near a croissant. And this bastardised version only ruins the authenticity of the original. Rania on the other hand didn’t see a problem of adapting food to local taste.

I personally didn’t know what to think. I am not too keen on the cheese version but both Za’atar and olive croissants tastes amazing. It is a wonderfully successful adaptation. If bought from a good quality shop you will get a beautiful marriage between the flaky buttery dough and a distinctly Syrian flavoured filling.

On the other hand, I get really annoyed when some chef comes on TV and declares he is making Fattoush then chucks in broccoli and asparagus with some toasted Pita bread and he calls it Fattoush. I get equally frustrated when someone tries to make Hummus with tofu or Tabouleh with couscous.

The French must be equally annoyed of the sight of some Middle Eastern herb mix inside their beloved croissant!

The Italians are big advocates of defending the authenticity of their cooking. They have endless rules of what you can or can not do. “Don’t cook with both onion and garlic”, “No fish and cheese in the same dish”, “Pasta to sauce not sauce to pasta” and the list goes on. Jamie Oliver in his Italian road trip show came to the conclusion that to make Italians happy give them food exactly the way their mothers used to cook it. Is that a bit over the top? I am not sure.

I still don’t have a firm opinion on this subject but I know for a fact I love Za’atar croissant. And the olive ones, even better!

P.S. I wrote this last Thursday but I couldn't publish as my internet was not working in my hotel in Paris.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 18. Hummus with Meat

I decided to use the name Hummus with Meat for this dish rather than the name used in Levantine restaurants here in London, "Hummus Kawermah". Kawermah (or awerma or qawerma) is an almost extinct form of preserved meat while the topping of this dish is obviously not that. It is fried meat. In Syria the word hummus kawerma doesn't exist and the dish is called "Hummus bil Lahmeh" which literally translates to Hummus with Meat.

This dish was one of my favourite suppers when I was young. Possibly beaten to first place only by Shawerma. This dish was my dad specialty. He would never buy a meat ready prepared by the butcher to make hummus bil lahmeh. He would buy a nice cut of meat and clean it and chop it himself to get a perfect lean pieces of meat as we liked it.

If you want to make this dish chose a good quality cut of meat. You need something lean and tender with very little fat. I personally go for a beef fillet but a lamb neck fillet works equally as good.

Here is my recipe:

Beef Fillet 250g
Pine nuts 50g
Ghee butter 1tbsp

Start by frying the pine nuts in the ghee butter till nice and golden. Remove to the side.

Cut the fillet into small pieces (as in the picture). Fry in the ghee butter. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Spread the hummus in a plate. Top with the cooked meat and pine nuts.

Serve with Arabic flat bread.

Halal, Does it matter?

I get asked about halal meat a lot. Do I need to use halal meat for Middle Eastern cooking? Is there any difference between halal and non-halal meat? Can you tell the difference?

Halal, for those who don't know it, is meat from animals slaughtered according to the Islamic law. The word itself is an Arabic word means "permissible" or "lawful" and this could refer to anything allowed under Islamic rules. In non-Arabic-speaking countries the term is mainly used to refer to halal meat.

I am not going through the gruesome details of the slaughter but if you wish to read more check the Wikipedia page.

I would love to avoid the argument about the ethics of halal and kosher slaughtering or the never-ending debate if these methods cause animals to suffer or not. I simply don't know and I don't think anybody does. If you have strong feeling about this either way I totally respect it.

For me I don't chose halal or not for religious reasons. I base my choice on the taste. The main factor to make halal meat taste different is the drainage of all blood at the time of slaughter.

Keeping in mind I grew up eating halal meat so my opinion will be inevitably biased. Here are my meat choices:

Chicken: It doesn't make any difference if halal or not. All taste the same.

Lamb: halal for sure! It is a huge difference. I find non-halal lamb have a certain taste and smell that I find totally off-putting (remember the bias) so if I don't have halal lamb I will simply change the dish.

Beef: Non-halal this time although the difference in taste between the two is not purely due to the blood. The concept of hanging and maturing meat does not exist in Arabic/Middle Eastern/Islamic culture. You don't need me to tell you what a difference hanging beef makes. Nothing beats a Sirloin steak hanged for 21 days.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 17. Fried Cauliflower

Today's dish is simply deep fried cauliflower. Deep frying vegetables is a unique method of Levantine cuisine ... I wrote the last sentence and immediately realised that it is not that unique. I just remembered Japanese Tempora Vegetables and Indian Pakoras. I decided to stick with the word unique as we don't dip our vegetables in batter as the Japanese and the Indian variety. We simply slice them, fry them and serve them.

Fried cauliflower can be served as part of "Ma'ali" meal. Ma'ali is Arabic for "fry up". But unlike English fry up ours is totally vegetarian. Different types of different types of fried vegetables served with salads, herbs, tomatoes and Arabic bread. Ma'ali is especially popular in summer months in Syria and a must for family picnics.

In restaurants ma'ali are usually served as part of mezze spread. Although many small family run restaurants in Damascus country side would be more than happy to serve you a full meal of ma'ali with their finest salads.

I like to serve fried cauliflower with a tahini based dipping sauce. Alternatively you can serve it simply with a sprinkle of salt and a squeeze of lemon.

Here is my recipe:

Vegetable oil
Tahini 3tbsp
Half a Lemon
Cumin 1tsp
Garlic 2 cloves crushed

Cut the cauliflower into small florets. Heat the vegetable oil and fry the cauliflower till golden brown.

Mix all the sauce ingredients and wisk. The tahini wil become stiff and lighter colour. Add a little water and wisk again. keep ading water till the tahini sauce loosens again. Add enough water to get a runny consistancy.

Serve with fresh Arabic bread.