From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

Mughrabieh – or anamona

5702So.  I’ve been living in England for what is half my life now.  But I wouldn’t call myself British.  I am not going to start putting up recipes for Sunday roasts or a full English here.  When the latest horrors happened in Paris, at least one of my friends seemed to get the wrong end of the stick and started posting on Facebook: Je Suis Lebanese.  I don’t think that made sense in any way.  But I guess it felt as if somehow some part of her identity was also under attack and she wanted to re-assert it.  Not sure it was the appropriate time.  But it got me to thinking about identity and trying to work out mine.  As a Lebanese woman, I hate to say this but part of my identity is precisely the fact that this is something that I very rarely do.  Know thyself is not a commandment followed too closely in Beirut.  We look outside ourselves, not inside.  And when we don’t like what we see, we have a trick of just not seeing it. mona I don’t know if I saw anything too clearly until I was a teenager and about to be married to someone I decided I couldn’t be married to.  Most of what came before is fuzzy.  But I remember vividly returning the jewels I was given as my dowry.  That was an expression of my personal identity — that I didn’t take anything from anyone that I didn’t want nor keep anything that wasn’t mine.  Was that something that came from my family or my surroundings or did I simply come up with it by myself?  Looking back now I try to unpick the pieces.  There was my family — a famous and respected name in Lebanon.  One of my ancestors was one of the founding fathers of Lebanese independence — celebrated for dying for the cause.  Parks and buildings had the family name in Beirut.  Cousins of mine were government ministers, professors, writers and actors.  DSC_0300But we lived in a tiny apartment just above the Corniche, far from all that prestige and moneyed ease.  The war was our most persistent neighbour, knocking on our door night after night for years — the Christian side, East Beirut just a ten minute walk away, but unfathomably far and unreachable across the Green Line.  We were Sunni — the group that dipped a toe in the mayhem but quickly withdrew as the Christians, Palestinians, Druze and Shia battled each other all around us.  Like most families, mine was its own battlefield, too.  But religion wasn’t a part of my identity when I was a child.  I went to  school with the nuns, who didn’t know what to do with my sister and me — two quiet little Muslim girls, who didn’t even realise it.  Later, I discovered Islam for myself and found it a comfort.  But I didn’t have anyone telling me how to be a good Muslim or defining me through it.  mona_0001I still followed the main Beirut religion of putting on a show — in short, tight skirts, big 80s hair and plenty of eyeliner.  I posed like everyone else on what was known as the Green Field at the American University.  Even Muslim boys I knew then thought I must be Christian, that I had a rich father.  It wouldn’t have occurred to them that I walked the kilometre back down the hill to my apartment and draped myself in a white sheet and methodically prayed five times a day. I would have been hard pressed to explain exactly what god I was praying to.  It certainly wasn’t the god that the men I knew were praying to.  That was a god I had no interest in.  Not that many were doing it all that much back then anyway.  It wasn’t us cosmopolitan and on the make Sunnis anyway — more the Shia rediscovering their religion in conjunction with the rise of Hezbollah.  The Sunnis didn’t feel the need to make a big deal of shuffling off to the mosque.  I still see religion as something private.  Maybe it’s a legacy of my time with the nuns or perhaps it’s self-protection and a visceral distaste for the way it always seemed to be about men and what they wanted and what they thought and what suited them to believe in.  I am not sure, then, that being Muslim is a central part of my identity — certainly not in the way that it’s become such a heated, divisive, dangerous topic in any case.  I am not going to defend anyone who does anything evil or wrong in Islam’s name, but nor am I going to defend myself against the inference that I am somehow complicit. That to me is small town thinking — what I would have been if I had been raised in a tiny village in the Bekaa like some of my cousins.  But I come from a big city and I moved to an even bigger one, London, when I left.  I think that is more of an identity for me — the pride of being part of something chaotic and fast-moving and never having the time to look back or think too much.  My family name, Tabbara, is a talisman of that — a big Beiruti name, stamped across the city.  But where did it come from?  Because all of us in Beirut came there from somewhere else, just as so many of us later headed off to somewhere very different.  Once I thought it was from deep in Arabia.  That was the story I was told.  And I once saw on a map a town called Tabbara in some lost corner of Saudi Arabia, which seemed to prove it.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if we had once been bedouin or merchants down there and had somehow washed up in a city and place that is — or was — just about the most removed in the Arab world from that shadow of a country blasted by the sun and the self-denying obliteration of its own humanity.  DSC_0537All the shellling and bombs I lived through in Beirut were a carnival in comparison.  But recently I’ve been told a completely different version of our roots — that we actually came from North Africa.  It had never occurred to me that that might be our original home.  When I went to Morocco, I must confess I didn’t feel as if I was coming home.  Much of it felt quite disturbingly alien to me.  It’s even taken me a long time to shake off my Beiruti conservatism and finally submit to the glory of Moroccan food.  But if it is part of my identity, I think I am ready to embrace it now, certainly more than what Saudi Arabia has to offer.  The softer version of Islam — the veneration of beautiful, peaceful places where holy men are believed to have lived or been buried is closer to what I believe in than any desire to smash or destroy the past.  And there may even be a little clue in a dish that I used to think was as Beiruti as they come.  It’s called Moghrabieh — and to me it’s one of the greatest treats there is.  IMG_9719Not that there’s anything exotic or difficult about it — it’s basically a stew with the pasta-like texture of the moghrabieh giving it a special lift.  I guess the clue was always in the name,  implying that it comes from the Maghreb — or North Africa.  It seems that moghrabieh is our Lebanese approximation of couscous, even though the texture is very different.  With my newly discovered — and still not entirely clear — North African roots, the dish makes a nice fit with what remains even now my strongest identity — that of a Beiruti girl.  So, I am not going to walk around, saying Je Suis Charlie or Je Suis Lebanese.  The only protest I ever went on was entirely quixotic, although it felt important at the time, and was for my poor kidnapped teacher, Brian Keenan.  But I will gather what is left of my privately evolved version of Islam, a few puffball dresses from the 80s, the contradictions of my family name, the view of the Mediterranean that is no longer visible from my father’s apartment and the battered old bible of Lebanese cooking that I hauled along with me when I ran away — and file it under hashtag anamona.

 

IMG_7583Ingredients

2 Chicken breasts with skin
1 large spoon of vegetable oil
10 glasses of hot water
1 cinnamon stick
5 pods of cardamom
2 slices of lemon
1 small onion peeled
2 dried bay leaves
1 tea spoon of caraway powder
1 tea spoon of cinnamon
1/2 tea spoon of black pepper
1 tea spoon of salt
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For the sauce
500g of baby onions peeled
250g cooked chickpeas
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Mughrabieh
500g fresh Mughrabieh
1 large spoon of butter

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In a large pot heat the vegetable oil and add the two chicken breasts

Fry each side for few minutes or until the skin is slightly golden

Add the hot water followed by the cinnamon stick, cardamom, lemon slices, onion, bay leaves, the caraway powder, cinnamon, black pepper and salt

Bring to the boil then reduce the temperature to minimum, cover the pot with a lid and leave to simmer for 1 hour

Add the baby onion and the chickpeas and leave to simmer for another 20 minutes

Meanwhile put a large pot of water on the hob and bring to the boil then reduce temperature to minimum

In a large metal sieve/strainer, wide enough to sit on top of the pot without touching the boiling waterIMG_7579

Put the mughrabieh and the butter in the strainer and stir from time to time, until the mughrabieh is tender

Make sure it doesn’t stick to the pan nor break in half

  This will take around 15-20 minutes

You need to be very gentle while you are stirring

  After 20 minutes of steaming the mughrabieh remove and put in a large non stick pan, on a low temperature

Then add 1 large spoon from the chicken broth and stir

It is a similar style or technique to a risotto

Keep adding the sauce to the Mughrabieh bit by bit, stirring from time to time, until the sauce is half way finished

This will take around 15 – 20 minutes

  Remove from the heat and serve hot on a large platter with shredded chicken pieces on top of the mughrabieh

Sprinkle a bit of cinnamon on top and serve it with the rest of the sauce on the side including the chickpeas and onionDSC_0312

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