Comfort food is needed in uncomfortable times. Being confined to my house during the pandemic returned me to the teenager I once was when war made stepping outside too dangerous. Now – just as then – I took refuge in sweet, simple food – recipes that puzzled me even as the best way to enjoy them was just to go to the shops and buy them readymade. I am talking about basics – bread, hummus, za’atar, syrupy sweets and even Turkish delight. These are all the very essence of Beirut – its scents, its sounds, its true identity. But with untold hours on my hands here in London, I set about trying to deconstruct and then create my versions of these everyday treats that you would normally buy at a market or a patisserie – even in the worst times in Beirut. That’s how I first began to cook anyway – experimenting without a second thought. Then my guinea pig was my younger sister, now it’s my husband. So it was hardly a voyage of discovery, more a rummaging around in the attic of memory and tradition, trying on random leftovers from another time and place. And you can’t get any more basic in Beirut than Ka’ak – sold from bicycles and stands on the Corniche for those who don’t have the patience to make it to the next cafe. My husband was surprised at how soft the version I made was – I told him that’s because it goes stale as it’s left all day in bunches before it’s sold. But when you have it fresh from the bakery in the morning, it is something else – far more inviting.
The obvious next step was to make Lebanese flat bread. This was harder than I thought. I struggled to get it to lift and to have the right consistency inside. But I persevered – and finally cracked it.
After a few days, I had to stop as I just couldn’t resist eating my home made bread with everything. But not before I had finally been persuaded by my husband to make hummus the proper way – by taking the skin off the chickpeas first. I let him do it as a punishment – in any case hummus has never been one of my favourites. But the smoother, creamier consistency was an instant success with my daughter, who is an aficionado and will eat if from pretty much anywhere.
All of this I was concentrating on as the world appeared to be falling down around us – but with such unreality that it was hard to comprehend. Making simple food in a complicated way provided solace and clarity in a blurred and tilted world. The gorgeous weather made every day the perfect time to have a late breakfast in the garden – gathering what I had just been working on in the kitchen. One day it would be shakshoukeh – which we Lebanese really need to reclaim – the next a bowl of za’atar in which to dip my heavenly home made bread.
And the indulgence didn’t stop there. I’ve always had a sweet tooth, but I’ve never been particularly adept at making cakes or puddings. So I switched my attention to some of the most luscious concoctions that ooze syrup and indulgence in equal quantities. First up I tried my hand at kneifeh – but my first attempts veered towards creme brulee before I got the consistency right. Once again, my greatest talent as a cook is that I keep going through failure after failure, blindly following my instinct rather than measurements or science, until I get there. That’s actually the biggest pleasure I get from cooking – it’s a million miles from fine dining or tv chef territory, but it’s the only way that rings true for me.
Then I went for what has always seemed to me the somewhat disconsolate orphan of the selection of baklawa that you get from shops – the round hard pastry called bormah, which usually is left till last like the toffee in a box of chocolates. Again – thanks to the long featureless days – I spent hours on this. Sometimes the taste was right, but the consistency was wrong or vice versa. But what I ended up with was truly delicious – helped I think by the fact that it was softer and less crunchy than the kind you get in shops.
With the warm early summer days and the elderflower still on the trees where I live, I decided to make a refreshing drink combining east and west – by mixing elderflower and pomegranates into a cordial. It wasn’t my greatest success, but it looked beautiful – and when you’re sitting in the sun at 11 in the morning with nothing but the sky and the nearby river to direct the rest of your day, who really cares.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the little challenges I set myself to recreate a menu of utterly everyday tastes and dishes from Lebanon. But I’ll end with two of the most quixotic and oddly successful. Like bormah, another traditional sweet that I find you usually leave until there’s nothing left in the house – and then briefly it’s the best taste in the world – is halwa. Crazy really to make it at home when it’s the kind of thing you get given whether you like it or not. But weeks of unhurried seclusion somehow put me in the mood. Again, I think I must have spent a whole day swearing at my efforts in the kitchen until I got somewhere close to it. I can’t say that it was the most authentic seeming halwa I’d ever seen, but sometimes it’s the imperfections that make a thing more interesting – and in this case the texture and taste ended up better than I had anticipated in the two versions I finally came up with.
And so we come to Turkish delight – or raha as we call it in Lebanon – not that it’s a particular favourite of mine, but it struck me as perhaps the most pointless and therefore most perfect thing to make in such a time of disorientation. And it contains some of my favourite flavours – pistachio, rosewater and pomegranate. My first efforts were more like jelly and I never quite achieved that trick of making it both solid and yielding at the same time. But I think I made a decent go of it – especially once it was sprinkled with sugar and flowers.
And I surprised my husband with the way we eat it in Lebanon – between two biscuits. He said I’d just reinvented the jammy dodger. Well, there are worse ways to spend lockdown, I guess…
Turkish Delight – or Raha – recipe (my way)
400g of granulated sugar
300ml of fresh water
2 teaspoons of lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon of citric acid or lemon crystals
170g of cornstarch
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
200ml of fresh water
2 teaspoons of rosewater
4 tablespoons of pomegranate syrup
Ground or coarsely chopped unsalted pistachio nuts
200g of icing sugar for dusting
50g of cornstarch for dusting
1/2 teaspoon of vegetable oil for your chosen plastic box
Put the granulated sugar and fresh water in a large non-stick pan and stir well until the sugar dissolves. Put on the hob at medium heat and stir well, once the syrup starts to boil, add the lemon juice and citric acid and mix, reduce temperature to the minimum and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes or until the mixture starts to thicken. This will take around 25 to 30 minutes. You can use a candy thermometer and when the temperature reaches 240 degrees you remove the pan from the hob. The syrup needs to be hot when it is mixed slowly with the cornstarch.
In another large non-stick pot, sift the cornstarch, cream of tartar – then add water and stir well. Put the pot on medium heat and keep stirring in one direction the whole time. Once you see the colour of the starch starting to change, reduce temperature to minimum and keep stirring. This will take around 5 minutes and you should get a thick paste.
Now here it gets a bit tricky – you need to be careful handling the hot syrup. You need to pour the syrup little by little into the cornstarch mixture while you are stirring quickly and constantly. Get someone to help you here if possible. Keep adding the syrup to the cornstarch slowly, stirring constantly until you finish the entire amount. Now reduce temperature to the minimum – to just a very faint flame and keep stirring the turkish delight or raha. This will take around one hour. The original recipe is three hours. Make sure the paste doesn’t burn. You can leave it simmering and stir every five minutes or so.
Prepare you plastic box to pour the hot mixture into and use it as a mould to determine the thickness of the raha or turkish delight. I use a plastic box – 20 cm x 13 cm. Put a little vegetable oil into it and cover the entire inside of the box.
After an hour or maybe two if you prefer, remove the pot from the heat and add the rosewater and any flavour you like. I add pomegranate syrup and some pistachio nuts. Stir well and pour in the already prepared plastic box. Smooth the surface of the raha and leave to chill for four hours.
Dust the top with icing sugar and remove the raha or turkish delight from the box. Cut into pieces and dust again with a mixture of icing sugar and cornstarch.
Best eaten – if you’re Lebanese at least – between plain biscuits and with Turkish coffee.