From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

tagine bil khodar — or discovering the arab world a little late

DSC_0682I was born in the Arab world, but I knew almost nothing of it as I was growing up.  Aside from Beirut and the Bekaa valley, I hardly knew anything of my own tiny sliver of that world in Lebanon.  As I’ve mentioned before, I had the misfortune and privilege of living right smack in the middle of history.  My vantage point was from our sixth floor apartment in Ras Beirut, looking down one way towards the sea and the other towards the Green Line — the unhealed scar that ran through Lebanon’s civil war and my childhood and adolescence.  First, there were the Palestinians fighting the Christians, then the Israelis invading us — after that we began to hear about Hezbollah as it emerged from other Shia militias.  The tracer bullets would cross overhead at night, the suicide bomb that drove the US Marines out shook our house years later.  That was after weeks of US shells firing above us into the mountain from a warship anchored out at sea.  So, I wasn’t short of hands-on experience if I had wanted to become some sort of an expert on my region and its endless troubles.  But instead I blocked it all out.  I actually find it hard to remember much of my own life at that time so completely did I do so.  So, when I left Beirut, eloping to Cyprus without telling my father, I was abandoning a country that I had barely had a chance to get to know.  DSC04498Other Arab countries were a closed book to me.  Since then, I have been able to travel to a number of places in the Arab world — Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Oman.  There’s still a lot of places I’ve never been — and each year it’s becoming harder to visit more and more of these countries like Iraq or Libya.  But I have been back to Lebanon many times and discovered  much of what I had missed or scarcely remembered – the south, Tripoli, the high mountains. DSC04531 A different Lebanon has been revealed to me — more beautiful, less dark, mostly safe.  But even that may now be changing for the worse.  And although it is lovely and fascinating in its dynamic contrasts, it’s not the most exceptional place in the world as I was taught to believe.  In Oman, for instance, I’ve seen a more spectacular landscape and a more authentic sense of Arab culture and history than has been allowed to survive in Beirut and Lebanon where money and business run roughshod over conserving the past.  The past in Lebanon simply doesn’t pay as well as the future. DSC04569 In Morocco, the kasbahs in the Atlas presiding over dry wadis and overgrown palm oases remain a waking dream of how we still imagine Arabia, even if it’s thousands of miles away from the real Arab heartland where the oldest relics you are likely to see are the burnt-out remains of super cars on highways that stretch from nowhere to nowhere.  I feel as much a stranger in Morocco or Oman — even Egypt — as any non-Arab.  I can’t even do haggling properly — paying full price in a souk in Fez or hiring a camel by the Pyramids.  I am trying not to become a stranger in or to my own country.  But I  feel less a part of it every time I go home.  I think I miss the restrictions and dangers that defined Beirut when I was growing up there.  It almost feels wrong that it is so free and easy to go wherever you want.  But I’m not selfish — I fervently hope that no other generation there will have to watch the floor fall in slow motion away from them and descend into the darkness my generation experienced.  The one thing I suppose I do have to hold on to both from there and from the Arab countries I have since visited are the tastes and recipes.  For this, I owe Morocco a great deal in particular.  It took me time both to appreciate the country and its cuisine, but now I revel in its richness — so different from what we have in Lebanon.  Tagines have become a staple of mine both when I am entertaining at home and when I am catering professionally — sometimes for hundreds of people.  One of the pleasures of my business is not just to see people enjoying what I have made, but also to rescue some of it at the end of the event and wolf it down gleefully in the coming days as the sweet and savoury sauces and other ingredients sink more deeply into each other.  That’s something I wish we had been able to experience when we were stuck year after year in our own shut off and highly dramatic, but minuscule world — within the immensity of the Middle East but barely part of it.  This is the recipe for a vegetarian tagine — don’t be put off but there are a lot of ingredients…



1 large spoon of vegetable oil

1 large onion peeled and chopped roughly

8 cloves of garlic peeled and diced

1 small spoon diced red chilli 

2 carrots peeled and chopped

1 Large potato peeled and chopped

200g of pumpkin peeled and chopped

2 parsnips peeled and chopped

2 medium size tomatoes peeled and diced

1 tea spoon of ground cinnamon

1/2 tea spoon of turmeric

1 tea spoon of salt

1/2 tea spoon of black pepperMoroccan dinners

1 pinch of saffron

1 small spoon of dry mint

1/2 tea spoon of paprika

1 tea spoon of dry coriander

1/2 bunch of fresh coriander chopped

1 large spoon of dry parsley

1 large spoon of fresh parsley chopped

2 large spoons of clear honey

1 vegetable stock 

100g of cooked chickpeas 

50g of dried apricot

50g of blanched almonds

50g of large green olives

50g of seedless raisins

50g of dates stones out

3 glasses of waterMixed Nuts.JPG

In a large cooking pot, heat the vegetable oil and fry the onion, garlic and chili until tender

Then add the carrots and fry for couple of minutes followed by the potatoes, pumpkin, parsnips

Stir well and cook for 4 minutes then add the rest of the ingredients, including the water

Mix well and cover the pan with the lid and leave to cook on high temperature

Once the sauce starts to boil, reduce the temperature to minimum, and leave to simmer for 1/2 hour or until the pumpkin and carrots are soft

Make sure the sauce is always covering the vegetables, if not please add hot water if necessary.

Serve hot on bed of Vermicelli Rice or CouscousVegetarian Couscous.JPG

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