From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

aish al saraya – or the bread of the palace

DSC_0389Much of what I cook comes out with a twist simply because of my impatience.  Some people cook like musicians following every note on the page.  For me, it’s always been about playing by ear.  If something catches my fancy, I want to make it immediately without getting caught up in detail about measurements and traditions.  I just want to get it on a plate and see what happens.  I first started doing this when I was a child in our tiny kitchen, copying puddings that I would have as a treat when my father and I went downtown in Beirut.  IMG_8648When I moved to England, I carried on cooking in the same way.  At first, English was only my third language after Arabic and French so it could be frustrating trying to express myself to new people.  But I always remained fluent in cooking, able to whip up a meal in a few minutes just before guests were about to arrive.  That fluency and ease gave me confidence with the new language and culture I had to get to grips with.  And it was a way of expressing myself to these new people, who always seemed ready to be impressed by the dishes I came up with.  They weren’t to know that they weren’t exactly as they should be.  For years, I felt myself moving away from my origins — the language, the music, the way of seeing the world.  It’s only been in the past few years that I have reconnected with all those things.  And now I come back to some of the dishes from my childhood as if they are foreign to me.  Friends of mine from other Arab countries — Syria, Iraq, Libya — show me things that ring a distant bell, but are not immediately recognisable.  As I think about the puddings that I loved as a child, I see them in a different way.  For example, this dish — aish al saraya.  I recognised it when I saw it, but the name was new to me and I didn’t quite understand it.  DSC_0362That I think is because it is a legacy of the Ottoman Empire in the Arab world– and the language is Turkish, not Arabic.  My friends told me that it means ” bread of the castle”.  But now I’ve looked into it, I think that is not quite the whole story.  The word “saraya ” is more often presented in English as seraglio.  It conjures images that go far beyond what we imagine when we think of a castle.  We have plenty of those in Lebanon — like in Byblos for example.  That is what’s left to us of the Crusaders — just one part of the endless, turbulent history that has marked my absurdly over-dramatic little country.  But seraglio is something different — the palace complex where the Ottoman rulers lived, with all their panoply of eunuchs, harems and that alien, adamantine world.  The greatest example is of course the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.  IMG_4784But we have remnants of the Ottomans in Lebanon, too — although very little is left.  We have lost so much of the past in Beirut — Ottoman houses have been allowed to collapse or been torn down.    But on a hill dominating the chaotic, ugly-beautiful city is the Grand Serail, built in the nineteenth century in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire before it was destroyed in the First World War.  Serail is the French for Seraglio — for palace.  It’s where the prime minister now has his headquarters — on those rare occasions when we actually have a prime minister in Lebanon.  Like so much of Beirut, the name and the place feel to me more as if they come out of a fable rather than the mundane reality of the city where I was born and lived for twenty-five years.  That, again, is because of the war, which for people of my generation separated us from almost all our  country for many years, even as we nominally continued to live there.  Through cooking, I have tried to bridge the gap between my background in Lebanon and my life in England — to create a new identity for myself.  But I am often discovering things about my country and my culture that I knew nothing of when I was still living in Lebanon.  This dish, aish al saraya, is a small example of this.  I knew what it looked like, but not how to make it or even what it was called.  Just like the Grand Serail itself, it was something that I was vaguely aware of, that I would recognise, but that I had never had any contact with.   The only prime minister I ever knew or cared about in Lebanon was Rafic Hariri.  Politics was so far removed and alien to me that it might as well still have been the Ottomans in power, governing from their seraglio on the hill.  So, it’s a small pleasure now to see a link between this unassuming little pudding and that unreachable, incomprehensible world.  And thanks to my impatience, I’ve even managed to make it a little more my own.  Instead of using whole chunks of bread and making a kind of bread and butter pudding, I’ve turned it into a cake — with the bread making a thick base.  It’s still absolutely delicious — its lightness and simplicity the exact opposite of the long lost palace intrigues memorialised in its name.

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Ingredients

10 slices of white bread
100g white sugar
30ml of water

Ater
100ml ready cooked (See recipe page)

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Topping

200g Creme fraiche
300ml of double cream
20g of sugar
1 tea spoon of rose water
1 tea spoon of orange blossom water
120g of unsalted pistachio nuts coarsely chopped

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First toast the bread until golden brown

When the bread slices cool down, put them all in a blender and blend until they have turned to crumbs

Put the sugar in a non stick pan at medium heat

Keep stirring until slowly the sugar caramelizes and becomes golden brown in colour

Add 30ml of water and keep stirring until all is mixed

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Remove from hob and pour on top of the bread crumbs and blend again for 1 minute

Add 2 spoons of ater and mix well

In a serving dish put the dough and smooth evenly to make a thin base

Leave in the fridge to cool down

For the topping put the creme fraiche, double cream, sugar, rose water and orange blossom in a bowl

Use an electric blender to mix the cream until fluffy and it forms a stiff peak

Add to the bread base and smooth evenly

Decorate with pistachio nuts, drizzle with ater and serve chilled.DSC_0383

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2 comments

  1. Kathleen

    Your story is gorgeous. Your words are painted in gold; they are beautiful and painful and nostalgic…magical. I find myself wishing that I had seen all those extraordinary things firsthand. Simply amazing. Your dessert looks incredibly beautiful and timeless. I love your blog. Thank you for making the world a magnificent place to live.

    Liked by 1 person

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