From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

Barazik — or a tea that never happened

Barazik with teaThere are meals you never had, but which you wish had happened.  I imagined when I was learning and practicing recipes in Beirut in my teens that I would serve them at various occasions that were never very likely, not just because I was a girl and had little freedom to invite anyone home but also because the war made any such gestures all but out of the question.  One thing I would like to have done, but that was absurd even to think of was to have had a little tea party for some of my friends and teachers when I was on a course at the American University of Beirut.  Going there was a very exciting thing for me, as it meant I would be able to fulfill my dream of attending university, despite the fact that my father was against it and I had been dreamy and half lost in school for much of my childhood, barely understanding where I was or why I was there in a school run by nuns, who treated my sister and me as if we were another species, only partly because we were Muslims — even though we scarcely could have told you what that meant.  IMG_0346I used to walk back home from the university to the apartment block with the slightly worrying sign at the entrance, reading Syco, every afternoon and feel very full of myself that I was now at university. At the time, the American University was in a big crisis, although I didn’t really know it.  Several professors had been kidnapped, foreigners were being targeted around Beirut.  There was no one really running the place and it ended up being closed much of the time.  There weren’t many students coming from anywhere but Lebanon, despite AUB’s unrivalled academic reputation in the Arab world.  But as if some strange alien spaceship had suddenly taken a wrong turn, a gaggle of British teachers suddenly turned up out of nowhere.  They were teaching us — to bring us up to a level of English that would allow us to study at AUB.  The programme was paid for and run by a foundation set up by Rafik Hariri.  At the time, he appeared a distant, although deeply appreciated benefactor — also out of the blue — far away from our little patch of Beirut in Saudi Arabia or Paris or London, we didn’t know where exactly.  The British teachers were a varied lot, although again I knew very little of their background or culture so I couldn’t really tell who was English or Irish or Scottish, who was posh or not so posh.  Some were old, most were in their thirties or forties, although there was one very young one, who was pretty much the same age as us.  There were women as well as men.  I had no idea why they had come and assumed they were either mad or badly informed.  I wanted to study art or archaeology or maybe interior design.  I wasn’t too sure.  I had wanted to take the option offered by the Hariri foundation of studying abroad, but my father didn’t let me so this was second best. IMG_9718I walked past some grand but decrepit buildings every day to get to the campus, which was tightly guarded.  Some of those buildings are still there and still pretty run down.  Two of the British mad people — as we thought of them for coming to Beirut — stood out for me. One was the young Englishman — but that is another story.  The other was a bushy bearded man with a strong, striking accent that I soon discovered was Irish.  He never used three words when he could use thirty.  I think I never understood more than a couple of words in each elaborate speech he unreeled, but I was fascinated and charmed by the accent and by the mixture of thoughtfulness and recklessness that he exuded.  We got on almost immediately, although he used to describe me as wild and difficult.  That was fair enough, but mostly because I really didn’t understand anything he said. On the flimsiest excuse, he’d take us out of the classroom into one of the beautiful, palm and oleander-filled groves that were dotted through the campus.  His name was Brian Keenan.  He seemed very alive with his wide, slightly unfocused eyes and his energetic, jabbing gestures as he spoke.  But he seemed a bit lost as well.  We all used to tease him — I did more than anyone else, because he seemed to like it.  We would wind him up about the danger that he faced and how insane he and his colleagues were for voluntarily coming and sticking their heads in our very own lions’ den, which we were somehow almost proud of.  I understood that he lived with the young Englishman in a villa, which he was very proud of, quite a lot further down the road after my apartment.  IMG_0342It didn’t seem a very wise choice.  I would see them walking on the street above mine as they made their way home in the afternoon — past what had been the French embassy and into an area that was not, as far as I knew, particularly safe.  There was a cinema there — still with a poster for an Alain Delon film that was the last due to be shown before the war broke out.  There was a very good patisserie, too.  But it was too far for me to go — too uncertain, dangerous. Brian didn’t seem worried.  He loved the Ottoman villa and described the ornate garden with a little fish pond. We all had our own concerns; fundamental ones that would have been the same at any time in Beirut, to do with our families and the freedom or lack of it that we had to negotiate as if we were each our own little mideast envoys — and with about as much success.  I never really understood why Brian and the others were there, but I didn’t really think about it that much, as it all seemed so far removed from my own very limited experience, anyway.  So, we joked and teased each other.  I learnt next to no English, but enjoyed the experience anyway.  We all used to sit in the canteen at AUB and laugh at anything that might be seen as serious — at ourselves and our strange lives as much as anything else.  It was a big contrast between those silly but fun gatherings when we were probably meant to be learning something — but weren’t — and the shuttered off existence up on the sixth floor that I went back to every night.  We never met outside.  It would have been nice to.  All the recipes I was making would have been worth inviting everyone round to have tea.  But that was out of the question.  What I didn’t know at the time and what I didn’t expect — as we all took everything lightly — was that the whole thing would turn tragic.  In one of our teasing sessions in class — probably in the canteen or outside as usual — I remember I told Brian that I would have him kidnapped if he was hard on us and actually expected us to start studying.  I am sure he laughed in the way he had, with his whole body caught up and a big flash of his teeth through his beard.  Not much later, I deeply regretted saying it, thinking that it would be the last thing he remembered me for if he ever thought of me, in the long, terrible years to come.  That part of the story deserves its own post.  For now, here is a recipe for biscuits with pistachio and sesame for that tea I never had.  They’re called barazik and are a Syrian speciality.

 Barazik Buscuits

Ingredients

100g of unsalted butter, room temperature
100g of caster sugar
1 egg
1/2 tea spoon of vanilla extract
1/4 tea spoon of white vinegar
1/4 glass of vegetable oil
1 tea spoon of baking powder
1 pinch of salt
1/2 tea spoon of Mahlab ( a spice made from the seeds of a cherry) – If you don’t have it don’t worry
300g of plain flour
2 large spoons of roasted sesame seeds, you can roast them in a pan
2 large spoons of clear honey
1 egg white
100g spoon of pistachios, unsalted and roughly chopped

Barazik dough

In a large bowl, whisk the butter for around 5 minutes or until light and fluffy

Then add the sugar, followed by the egg, vanilla extract, white vinegar, vegetable oil and whisk for another few minutes

Add the baking powder, salt and Mahlab to the butter mixture and whisk well

Now add the flour and knead the dough for 4-5 minutes

Cover the dough with cling film and leave in the fridge for an hour

In a small bowl mix the roasted sesame and the honey and leave aside

In another small bowl beat the egg white and leave aside

Then in a plate put the chopped pistachio

Take a big chunk of the dough and put in a clean food bag

Press the dough down and with a rolling pin flatten it until it is less than 1 mm thick

With a small round cutter, 4cm in diameter, cut the dough

Press one side of the dough into the pistachio, and put in a non-stick baking tray, the pistachio side facing down

Brush the barazik with the egg white, followed by the honey and roasted sesame

Put the tray on the lower shelf in a preheated oven, 180 degree, for 8-10 minutes or until the cookies are golden brown

Once ready remove from the oven and leave to cool down

  Serve cold

To store leave in an air tight container preferably in the fridge

This recipe makes around 20-24 biscuits

Best with mint teaBarazik with mint tea

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