I grew up in the midst of a war in Beirut for much of my childhood and all my adolescence right through to my mid-twenties. My world was reduced to just one part of the city — in and around Hamra and Ras Beirut in the west of the city. So, even my perspective on my own country was narrow. In terms of cooking and food, it meant that I was not exposed to much outside our own Lebanese cuisine for many years. And that is what I am mostly writing about here. But there are other Arab influences that have since become part of my repertoire. The strongest of these comes from Morocco and the Maghreb. I wasn’t hugely impressed by their food — mainly through lack of knowledge — until my husband took a post there as a journalist. I then discovered with great delight the main staples of Moroccan food and have been cooking these ever since with my own twist. I think my favourite is bistilla, which pulls off the wonderful Moroccan trick of combining sweet and savoury. I discovered it at a feast given by a local politician and all-round benefactor during elections there that my husband was covering. The politics passed me by — and was hugely complicated in any case, although it was clear the King still had the final say on anything that really mattered. But the huge platters of bistilla to serve hundreds of local bigwigs and ordinary voters were so sumptuous that I couldn’t wait to get home and try my own version. The true Moroccan bistilla uses wild pigeon rather than chicken — and if you can get hold of it, then please do. But I make do with chicken. Judging by the reaction from a recent cooking class that I gave with bistilla as the main course, it works pretty well. I also make little bisitlla pies that are a wonderful addition to a mezze. Sprinkle sugar on the top to add to the sweet and savoury tang of the dish — truly delicious…
3 cooked chicken breasts
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, diced
Pinch of saffron
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger or fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 ground black pepper
1 glass of chicken stock or fresh water
1 cube of chicken stock, only use it if you are using fresh water
1 handful of fresh coriander and parsley if you wish
100g of blanched almonds
1 large egg, beaten
10 sheets phyllo pastry
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, for brushing, plus more as needed
1 large spoon of icing sugar for dusting
1 large spoon cinnamon for dusting
- Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, then add the onion and garlic and cook until soft, around 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the saffron, turmeric, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper and cook, stirring continuously for around to 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the chicken stock, stir well and leave to cook. Once it starts to boil, reduce the heat and cook until the sauce has thickened, around 1 minute or 2.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the fresh coriander, almonds, the beaten egg and the shredded chicken breasts. Mix well and leave aside to cool down.
- In a deep baking tray, the same size as the phyllo pastry, brush the surface with butter and line it with the first layer of phyllo pastry. Then brush it with butter and put the second layer of phyllo pastry. Do the same until you have 5 layers of buttered phyllo. Put in all the chicken mix and spread evenly. Cover the chicken with another 5 layers of buttered phyllo pastry.
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and bake the bistilla on the middle shelf for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and dust with cinnamon then with icing sugar and put back in the oven for another 5-10 minutes or until the sugar slightly melted.
- Eat hot.