The Original Spice Girl

The story of spices is a fascinating one of great voyages, exploration, conquests and colonization. The ancient trade routes by land and by sea carved up the culinary world from China and Southeast Asia to India, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, introducing cinnamon to our baking, vanilla to our puddings, and black pepper and salt to the common table. Chillies, on the other hand, came later and took a slightly different route from the New World and at a later date in history, but they have been so effectively absorbed into the cooking of many different cultures, you would think they had always been there.

My interest in spices is not solely related to food – their medicinal and cultural uses are just as important – and, for over 30 years, I have researched and written about them and how they are used in different cultures. I have been dubbed ‘the original spice girl’ by Scotland on Sunday and I regularly talk about the origins and uses of spices on Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café but, at home in my kitchen, I love bringing them to life – roasting and pounding, dreaming of journeys through India, Southeast Asia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa – the warming aromas and flavours transporting me from busy street markets to sundowners in the bush. Happy memories, wanderlust and nostalgia!

Sundowners in Samburu

  • My happy homemade harissa!

    Like a true hermit, it’s not often I come out of my shell and do some live cooking – although I have an inkling it is going to become a ‘thing’ in the future – but the persuasive powers of the charming and creative ‘froglady’ chef, Lydie Bocquillon, www.auld-alliance.com, the director of Food on Film, www.kingussiefoodonfilm.co.uk, and the urgency of the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) forced me to come out from the hills to participate in a cook-off with Chris Trotter, www.fifefoodambassador.co.uk, the legendary chef and Food Ambassador for Fife (probably Scotland too!) and, amazingly, with my extremely laidback Singapore Laksa, I won! It was all a bit of good fun and could have gone either way but the point was that the winner would contribute the fee to a local charity so I donated mine to CRY – Chris would have done the same!

    It was a great event with a superb turnout of Scottish food producers, some of whom I will revisit in the future when broadcasting, but I also managed to sell all my jars of harissa.

    To be honest, there is nothing quite like the homemade stuff – it is oily and fruity, aromatic with roasted spices and tinged with a spark of chilli heat – a little goes a long, long way, making it a versatile, economical and utterly delectable spice paste.

    So, here I am giving you the secrets to a successful harissa – please keep them to yourselves!

    approx. 12-16 finger-sized dried red chillies (eg. Horn/New Mexico)
    4–6 peeled garlic cloves, chopped
    1-2 teaspoons sea salt
    1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon coriander seeds
    olive, argan, or rapeseed oil

    Place the chillies in a bowl and pour over boiling water to cover them. Leave them to soak for at least 2 days – generally I soak for 4 days – changing the water every day.

    Drain the chillies, chop off the stalks, and squeeze out the water and most of the seeds. Discard the stalks and seeds, and coarsely chop the chillies. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the chillies with the garlic and salt to form a thick, smooth paste – this takes some time but it is well worth the effort.

    Dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds and grind them to a powder.

    Beat in the ground spices and add roughly 2 tablespoons of the oil so that the paste is thick and moist. To this base paste, you can add fresh or dried herbs, other spices, and chopped orange or lemon peel but I prefer to stick to the traditional method and add the other ingredients to each dish I use it in.

    Spoon the harissa into a sterilized jar and cover with a thin layer of oil to keep it moist. Seal the jar and store it in a cool place, or in the refrigerator, for 1-2 months. Just use a little when you need it and top up the layer of oil when you seal the jar again.

    What can you do with harissa?

    It can be used as a condiment with grilled or roasted poultry, meat or fish, or with simple things like fried or boiled eggs; it can be stirred into oil and used as a marinade or dressing; or added to yogurt, cream cheese, and pureed vegetables or chickpeas to make a tasty dip; and it can be used as the base flavouring in any type of soup, stew or grain dish. Basically, this wonderful stuff enhances almost any dish with its depth of flavour as well as its chilli kick!


  • Food Safari: Gold and Laidback Laksa
  • Gold and Laidback Laksa

    February 2017

    There are some cultural traditions that make a lot of sense. For example, if you get married in countries like Turkey, the Middle East, parts of Africa, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia, the bride and groom are given gifts of gold and silver – this can be in the form of coins, watches, mirrors and jewelry, special bowls and cups – but the idea is that the quantity and value of these gifts will signify wealth as well as serve a practical purpose – should the couple be in need of money they can sell some of these items. Depending on the location and the wealth of the family and the community, other practical gifts will be given too, such as blankets, cooking utensils, and livestock.  The newly weds can begin their lives together and survive with these simple things and, if they need to find money in the future, there is a way of obtaining some.  It certainly makes more sense than our cultural equivalent of extravagant wedding lists comprising designer tableware and household goods from a specific store.

    It was when I was thinking about the plight of the Syrian and Libyan refugees who must have given up all their wealth to pay for the perilous boat journeys–across the Mediterranean – every cow or goat and every last bit of jewelry would have been sold in the hope and belief they would kiss freedom on the beaches of Europe – that I thought that this could be the answer to my recent dilemma of how to pay for my daughter’s private operation (see ‘Circle of Life’ blog).  I have been divorced now for about 16 years but when I did get married some 28 years ago, I was given a few pieces of gold and silver jewelry by the Turkish relatives of my ex-husband.  Talk about shooting myself in the foot, though, as at the time I let it be known that I preferred wearing silver to gold – if only I had given the significance of the custom more thought – but the couple of gold items I did receive have sat in a box unworn all these years so I feel thankful that I was given them and that they have gone towards the recovery of my precious daughter and her dream.

    We all hit tough times at some point in our lives and I suppose the biggest lesson to learn is how to cope and how to turn things around if you can.  And it also important that what you regard as a tough time might not be one for someone else – we all have different degrees we can cope with.   When you think of those poor refugees, most of us have rosy lives in comparison and, if you know someone who is suffering in some way at the moment, you will realize how lucky you are.  I feel very fortunate that I have raised two great kids who I am very proud of, and who are travelling the world doing interesting things; I feel so, so lucky that I live in a place of beauty and solitude; and I feel that in spite of the strain of middle age settling itself a little too comfortably around my middle, menopause invading my equilibrium like a steam engine, and a few stiff joints that make me feel like a wooden toy in need of some lubrication around the hinges, I seem to be in passable nick so, in order to continue in that vein, I just have to drum up enough work to keep things afloat. It sounds so simple but it isn’t.

    Gone are the days of the understanding bank manager who would listen to my story of giving up work to look after my elderly mother who has dementia – with no social services to speak of there was no choice; instead I have a faceless voice on the end of the phone telling me that if I don’t pay my mortgage the bank will take legal action. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have had accounts with the same bank for 40 years and that I have been paying mortgages and insurances for a big chunk of that time. But, regrettably, in the age we live in the human story is not one to interest the people who pull the strings.

    And so I am forcing myself to do things I would normally shy away from – public appearances, public speaking, live cooking, possibly even TV  – but it doesn’t happen overnight, it all takes time to build up and it will take even longer for me to build up my confidence. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who believe in me (Pennie, Phil, Lydie, Kirsten, Tim, to name a few – a big ‘thankyou’) and who gently nudge me to do these things, the most recent being a live cook-off at the Food on Film Festival. Because I am not a natural showman (or showwoman, for that matter), I decided to perform in a similar way to my workshops, going for a bit of audience participation rather than all the focus on me.

    Laksa by Ghillie BasanAs I was cooking a big vat of Singapore Laksa, it was quite easy to do as there is a lot of pounding with a mortar and pestle and grinding of roasted spices and there is very little room for things to go wrong, other than perhaps to tip the entire Laksa over the floor which, luckily, I managed to avoid. And, as our hobs were electric, I didn’t do the other culinary trick I am famous for – burning my boobs when leaning over the gas flame! So, all in all, it was pretty relaxing and accident free as I gently stirred while members of the audience were able to pound and grind and have a whiff of the aromas as they circulated and I enjoyed some banter with my cook-off competitor, the well-known chef and food Ambasasador, Chris Trotter, who was skillfully preparing 3 dishes to my one!   So, as a number of people asked for it at the Festival, here is the recipe for my laidback Laksa.

    Singapore laksa

    I often use chunks of good Scottish salmon in my laksa but you can add any firm-fleshed fish of your choice, or shellfish like scallops and prawns. If you’re vegetarian, the laksa is delicious made with chunks of butternut squash and vegans can just substitute the ghee with coconut oil. The key to a tasty laksa is to make a strong-flavoured rempah (the base spice paste) so don’t be bashful with your quantities of ginger, chillies and lemongrass.

    Serves 6-8

    For the rempah

    4-6 dried red chillies, soaked in water for 2-4 days to soften, deseeded and roughly chopped
    4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
    a big nob of fresh ginger (like a giant thumb and forefinger), peeled and chopped
    4 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and chopped
    sea salt
    6-8 macademia nuts
    1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon coriander seeds
    1 heaped tablespoon ghee (or coconut oil)
    2 red onions, or 6-8 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
    1 tablespoon crumbled or shaved jaggery (raw palm sugar), or honey
    1-2 tablespoons ground turmeric
    3 x 400ml tins of coconut milk
    400ml chicken or vegetable stock (or 1 more tin of coconut milk)
    1-2 tablespoons fish sauce (optional)
    2 tablespoons soy sauce (optional)
    a big bunch of fresh coriander, finely chopped
    450g fresh egg or rice noodles
    4- 6 skinned fresh salmon fillets, cut into bite-size chunks.
    sea salt
    2-4 limes, cut into segments

    Using a mortar and pestle, pound the soaked chillies, garlic, ginger and lemongrass to form a coarse paste. Add some salt to act as abrasive and keep pounding, then add the macadamia nuts which help to form a thick and creamy paste. Your paste won’t be super smooth and it is nice to have some texture in the laksa so don’t worry if doesn’t seem perfect.

    In a small heavy-based pan, dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds until they darken slightly and emit a nutty aroma. Tip them into a spice grinder and grind them into a deliciously aromatic powder.

    Heat the ghee in a large wok, or a large heavy-based pot. Stir in the onions, until they begin to soften, and stir in the spice paste. Keep stirring, until the paste emits a lovely aroma, then stir in the jaggery, ground roasted spices and the turmeric. Pour in the coconut milk and stock so that the paste and spices don’t burn and bring the liquid to the boil, stirring gently from time to time. Add the fish and soy sauces – these are optional as they add a bit of salty depth to the laksa but you can just season with enough salt on its own – and stir in half the chopped coriander. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, giving it an occasional stir, for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavours to mingle.

    Taste the laksa and adjust the seasoning. If you’re a chilli fan, you can add some finely chopped fresh or dried chilli at this stage. Stir in the noodles and add the chunks of salmon, making sure they are submerged in the liquid for 1-2 minutes – the salmon barely needs to be cooked as it will continue to cook in the heat of the soup in your bowl. Spoon the laksa into bowls, scatter the rest of the chopped coriander over the top, and squeeze a segment of lime over it. Enjoy this delicious, warming bowl of soupy noodles with chop sticks if you can.


  • Blog:The Original Spice Girl

     My interest in spices is not solely related to food – their medicinal and cultural uses are just as important. For over 30 years, I have researched and written about them and how they are used in different cultures. I have been dubbed ‘the original spice girl’ in the press and I have talked regularly about the origins and uses of spices on Radio Scotland and on radio shows in the US and Europe but at home in my kitchen I love roasting and pounding them, dreaming of journeys through India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the warming aromas and flavours transporting me from busy street markets to sundowners in the bush.


    Come and join me on the spice workshops I run in my remote highland kitchen with a glorious view to the hills and cooking utensils from around the world. Here is what some people are saying:

    ‘When we arrived I was wondering how this Scottish lady would teach me about Middle Eastern and North African cooking. As we went along I could see that she has the knowledge of a native of both.’ Hassan Choucair, chef in London, Africa, Middle East

    ‘My husband made it his mission to answer my prayers and find me a cooking course that would teach me about spices. We have accomplished this today and more.’ Stacey Wooliscroft, Canada

    ‘Thanks for allowing us to feel the rhythm and sense the freedom of flavours. Excellent therapy.’ Fraser and Siobhan, Glasgow

  • Dukkah

    As I’ve just finished making a fresh batch of dukkah spice for a workshop I’m running at the weekend, I thought I would share it with you – it is such a handy little mix to have in the kitchen. When discussing a new project with Claire Macdonald over lunch the other day, I was delighted to see her sprinkle it all over her restaurant-cooked food!

    Derived from the Arabic word for ‘to pound’, dukkah (duqqa) is prepared by pounding the ingredients, using a mortar and pestle, rather than grinding so that there is texture as well as flavour in the spice mix. For a quick, traditional Middle Eastern snack, you simply bind 2 tablespoons dukkah with 2-3 tablespoons olive oil and dip chunks of warm, crusty bread into it.

    As a regular kitchen spice, it is delicious tossed through stir-fried or roasted vegetables; combined with oil or melted butter it makes a fabulous dressing or sauce to drizzle over grilled and roasted meat, poultry or fish – just add a little finely chopped preserved lemon and parsley and you have the taste of North Africa in a few seconds; or simply sprinkle the dry mix over quick snacks like fried or poached eggs and fried hallumi while they are still in the pan to get the maximum flavour

    4 tablespoons hazelnuts
    2 tablespoons sesame seeds
    1 tablespoon coriander seeds
    1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon fennel seeds
    2 teaspoons fine chilli flakes
    2 teaspoons dried mint
    1-2 teaspoons sea salt

    Dry roast the hazelnuts in a heavy based pan until they emit a nutty aroma. Tip them into a clean dishtowel and rub off any loose skins. Using a mortar and pestle, crush them lightly to break them up.

    Dry roast the coriander, cumin, fennel, and chilli flakes together, until they emit a nutty aroma, and add them to the hazelnuts. Crush them all together lightly so that they are well blended but uneven in texture – some almost ground to a powder, others in crunchy bits.

    Stir in the mint and sea salt to taste and spoon the mixture into a sterilized, airtight jar. Keep the jar in a cupboard, away from direct sunlight. The fresh roasted, nutty flavours will last for 4-6 weeks then they begin to fade.

  • Latest Food Safari blog: Circle of Life
  • The Original Spice Girl: Spice Blog
  • Food Safari: The Circle of Life

    November 2016

    I’m sitting in a private hospital in Glasgow while my daughter is in the theatre having surgery.  She has had a long frustrating haul with a ski injury, made all the more frustrating by the delays and lack of communication from the NHS so, in order to get her back on her feet and instructing in the Alps, we have had to take the private route with a well-known specialist who instills confidence and positivity but costs a pretty buck. So I’m sitting here worrying and wondering how on earth I am going to afford it.

    Being a single parent, the struggle to pay bills is familiar territory but, because my work has taken a back seat for the last couple of years while I’ve been looking after my elderly mother, my finances have been crippled. In spite of the difficulties I now face, I don’t regret giving up everything to look after my mother as I was able to bring her joy and comfort while she succumbed to dementia – such a cruel disease and so hard to witness as it transforms the person you know and love into a stranger – well, almost. Dementia crept up on my mother slowly, altering the vibrant personality of a very hospitable and social woman to one who was frightened, confused and, at times, aggressive. At first the changes in behaviour were easy to confuse with changes caused by her intake of alcohol, which had been a feature of her adult life, so I had to learn to recognize the changes caused solely by dementia and adjust to them in different ways in order to keep her calm and to protect her dignity.  In between the moments of agitation, frustration and memory loss, there have been many of moments of lucid thought, great laughter, hope and determination. For as long as possible, it was important to let her feel she was in control of her life, her finances, and her decisions, but she did need care and she did need company. In short, I had to be there for her.

    When my life became utterly consumed by the needs of my mother, even with the patience and help of live-in carers and loyal visits from friends and neighbors, a fall landed her in hospital, which led to a respite stay in a Residential Home.  When she went in, I knew she wouldn’t come out. She thought she would. It was heart wrenching to see her sadness and desperation when it dawned on her that she was there to stay and I felt so guilty about leaving her. I tried to make her room as homely as possible, found a home for her dog and visited almost every day with flowers, fruit, tasty nibbles and bottles of non-alcoholic wine but she continued to plead with me to take her home – to my home as it is the only place she thinks of as home.  I felt I had given her a life sentence, which in a sense I had.

    It has been a couple of months now and she has finally settled in. Her dementia has definitely got worse – sitting in a chair dozing for long hours will do that to you – but she is comfortable and superbly looked after. She still beams a wonderful toothless smile when I appear and she remembers my name but I think she has now forgotten who I am in relation to her. When one of the other residents commented that she had a ‘wonderful, caring daughter’, she gave a huge, appreciative smile, saying in enthusiastic agreement ‘I do indeed have a caring daughter’, but I don’t think she realized that it was her daughter who was right beside her. I should be able to relax a little now and pick up the pieces of my broken life and pitiful finances but, after six years of caring and companionship, it is not easy to let go. It is a little bit like the first day of primary school when your little one doesn’t want to let go of your hand and, although you know you should, you don’t really want to let go either. When you turn to go, you feel empty and lost and, unless you have another little one to attend to, it takes a little time to fill the void. That is how I feel right now.

    I do, however, have others to attend to – both of my children have grown up but they still need help with things, love coming home and, like most mums, I am needed in their more stressful moments, hence the hours at the hospital worrying about my daughter’s operation and her chances of being able to continue her ski career.  As a parent, you never stop worrying and you never stop being needed and then your elderly parents need you too – when you are middle-aged you are literally caught in the middle. Of course, it is the natural circle of life – you bring up your children, you look after your parents and hopefully your children will look after you – but what that life circle never tells you is how hard that is going to be and what sacrifices you have to make.

    With my mother now in a Home, everyone tells me I need to take some time for myself but the reality is that I have to get my butt into gear and work harder than before. Being self-employed, it is not easy to generate work when it has been sitting for so long on the back seat and I only have four days in a week to do it as I usually visit my mother on the other three. So, for the first time I am keeping my snug little holiday cottage open for winter in the hope that some people will be looking for adventure in the snow; I am running cookery workshops through the winter too with an emphasis on warming spices which will feature in https://originalspicegirl.wordpress.com; I am back on Radio Scotland after a long absence and hope to make regular appearances in the coming year; I am finishing a book that I have been writing for several years but have had to put down too often to take care of my mother; I’m working on a new catering idea which I hope to launch in the spring; and perhaps my biggest of challenge of all is that I have finally entered the world of social media by joining Facebook as I realize I will only get back on my feet by letting people out there know that I exist!

    tumeric-pickleSo, all you lovely followers of my blog please do encourage your family and friends to come on a workshop or to stay in my cottage, please become a friend on Facebook (my page will look a bit silly if I don’t have any ‘friends’!) and please follow the new spice blog which I will try to post monthly. I will also continue to share stories of travel, family life and food here on my Food Safari blog so, in keeping with that theme, I’m going to leave you now with one of my mother’s recipes. She loved cooking and entertaining and was a great follower of Elizabeth David, Constance Spry, and Claire Macdonald – dinner party recipes you can rely on, she would always say – but my favourite memories of her food are very specific: the picnic at Suswa Caves in Kenya where, surrounded by baboons, she produced the most succulent rabbit cooked in white wine kept hot in a thermos flask; the small soft and chewy meringues she would make for my children, who would pinch them when she wasn’t looking as they were under strict instruction to wait until pudding; her delicious pecan pie – a family legend – that she adapted from a Maryland cookery book she bought when we lived in Baltimore; and her Bread and Butter Pickles, also an American recipe, which she used to make in huge batches in Kenya and I would devour them like a salad with my supper. My son does the same when I make them at home and he makes them for himself when he is at college so here is a recipe for a batch of our Circle of Life pickles!

    Turmeric pickles

    2 cucumbers, finely sliced,
    4-5 golden or red onions, finely sliced
    4-5 bell peppers (any colour), finely sliced
    2 tablespoons salt
    1.2 litres (2 pints) cider vinegar
    450g (1lb) soft brown sugar
    1-2 tablespoons ground turmeric
    1 tablespoon mustard seeds
    2 teaspoons pickling spice

    Tip the sliced cucumber, onion, and pepper into a large bowl and toss in the salt. Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and leave for at least 6 hours, or overnight, to let the salt draw out all the juices.  Drain and rinse well, then pat dry with the clean dishtowel.

    Heat the vinegar with the sugar and spices, stirring all the time until the sugar has dissolved, and bring the liquid to the boil. Tip in the sliced cucumber, onion and pepper, bring the liquid back to boiling point, then turn off the heat, cover with a clean dishtowel and leave the vegetables to cool in the pickling liquid. Spoon the pickles into storage jars and keep in a cool place for a week before eating. Once opened, I keep mine in the fridge where they last for months – unless my son is home!

  • Alumna interview: Le Cordon Bleu London
  • The Language of Food: Turkey

    May 2016

    CNV00052I get a buzz from learning languages and make a point of it when I travel. The fact that I am even trying to pronounce words opens many doors and makes people happy.  There are a couple of languages I rely on for my work but there are others, like Japanese, in which I only know a few phrases that I learnt a long time ago but those simple words bring great merriment to every Japanese encounter. There is, however, a language we can all speak – the language of food. In all its notes of pleasure, surprise, disgust, and greed, the language is global, superbly punctuated by the splendid silence of pure appreciation. Take the food language of the French, for example, with their oohs and aahs, the pursing and smacking of the lips, the exaggerated hand-gestures emphasizing surprise and satisfaction, and the chunk of fresh baguette wiped around the plate to mop up every dribble of yummy goodness– we are not left in any doubt as to whether they are enjoying their food or not.

    But what do you know of the Turkish language with its soft and melodic notes when spoken with eloquence? What do you know about the Turkish language of food? There are the recognizable, universal hand-gestures and mannerisms and there are rituals dictated or encouraged by the Islamic faith, but there are also many unique words and phrases dedicated to the subject – expressions of welcome and greeting and enjoyment of the food; praise for the cook and blessings of health to the cook’s hands; metaphors and sayings for the ingredients; myths, legends and religious stories attached to the dish. Food is a never-ending topic of conversation, sometimes of heated debate, but like the French, it is always expressed with dramatic passion and enthusiasm. With the current spotlight on the refugee crisis and the turbulent politics of Turkey, it is easy to forget that it is a nation of warm hospitality and fabulous food and I am genuinely feeling for the country right now. There is a saying ‘greet a Turk and be sure you will eat’ as food is offered and shared wherever you go. If only politics was like food – uniting us around a table of pleasure, instead of creating vast divides.

    IMG_1448One of my favourite cities in the world is Istanbul. The atmospheric history of the spice trade and lavish Ottoman banquets oozes from the pores of the old city walls. Under one culinary roof, you can taste the spicy and hearty traditional dishes from different pockets of Anatolia alongside the more refined Ottoman classics, referred to as Saray (Palace) cooking. I used to sit on the balcony of my office high above the impatient tooting of car horns at the Tünel end of Istiklal Caddesi, marveling at the silent glide of the Russian tankers traveling from the Black Sea to the Aegean, or the old wooden boats, originally from the Clyde, ferrying people from the Golden Horn on the European side across the Bosphorus to Asia. I would look over to the Topkapı Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, perched strategically on a hill to give the Sultans a splendid view of the sea routes and listen to the Call for Prayer echo across the water. At the height of the spice trade when the Ottomans and Spaniards ruled the seas, magnificence must have been wafting in the air, not just in Süleyman’s name!

    Years later, stuffed into a backpack, my little blonde daughter, Yazzie, would sing and giggle as people reached up to touch her, calling her malek (angel) as they gave her dried apricots, a fresh fig, a pinch of the cheeks, or a kiss. When she was able to run around on her own, it was my son, Zeki, who was stuffed into the backpack and given the same treatment, although he was called aslan (lion), an affectionate term for young boys, as they ruffled his white curly locks. We were always on the hunt for good meze (Turkish spelling), steered by my old friend and food enthusiast, Hasan, who would take us to the latest, the most unique, or most traditional meyhane where we would be fed and looked after like pampered pashas.  The culinary landscape of Istanbul is like one giant moveable feast and no trip is complete without a stop at my special spice merchant, Devrim bey at Nil Baharat in Eminönü.  Perched on a stool, sipping hot tea from a tulip-shaped glass, it is difficult to exercise restraint as the sacks of potent spices tease my appetite. Before I know it, I’ve ordered 100g ground sumak, 250g ground salep (orchid root), 500g oiled kırmızı biber (ground red chilli peppers), cumin, cinnamon, dried oregano and sage, ground pistachios, saffron, boxes of sakız (mastic), several bottles of pomegranate molasses and, from a nearby stall, fine coffee and a jar of mildly hallucengenic deli bal (‘silly honey’ from the nectar of poppies).

    For over 30 years I have expressed my own private love affair with Turkey and her food through cookery workshops, numerous articles, and at least 6 books – I would happily write more as there are few places in the world with so much fascinating history on a plate. When I wrote my first book on Turkish food some 20 years ago, there were no others like it on the market and, to my surprise, it was shortlisted for two of the big food awards at the time, but now there are many books on the subject, some by people who’ve only been there for a brief touristic visit and some by people who have never been there at all!  Such is the reliance on the Internet, enabling people to write about a country and its culinary traditions without any first-hand knowledge or experience, which can lead to many linguistic and cultural misunderstandings.

    CNV00067For example, the current misuse of the word humus (hummus in Arabic), which simply means ‘chickpea’ and is also the name of the ubiquitous dish made with them when they are mashed or pureed, but fashionable foodies boldly give the label ‘hummus’ to any moosh, be it mashed feta with crushed olives or pureed butternut squash with cream cheese. And the frequent appearance of menemen and shakshuka on the metropolitan breakfast menu has led to some interesting claims of their origins.  Similar in content and popular as street and bus station food, one dish is Turkish the other is Arab.  Commonly referred to as a vegetable omelette in Turkey, menemen is prepared with sautéed peppers and tomatoes into which eggs are either cracked and left to set whole, or they can be stirred into the mixture and left to set like an omelette. Found throughout the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, shakshuka (şakşuka in Turkish) is of Arab origin and has many regional variations but the eggs are cracked into it and left to cook whole as  ‘shak’ implies that the egg is ‘cracked’ into the dish.

    But does all of this matter? Are people really bothered about the origins, or the correct use of food language? Perhaps not in the world of food fads but I think it does matter to the people of the country.  The physical language of food may be universally understood but the culinary terminology and its cultural meaning is special to each culture. So, Özlem my friend, I think it is time we write that definitive book on Turkish food that we have been talking about. We need to introduce more Laz and Güney traditions and dig deep into the culinary foundations of Kayseri and Gaziantep. Meanwhile, for authentic Turkish food cooked by a lovely Turkish lady please check out Özlem Warren’s site, follow her on Facebook and Linked in, and sign up for one of her courses. She’s the real deal and passionate about her nation’s food: ozlemsturkishtable.com

    I am going to leave you with 3 of my favourite recipes – one of ancient origin, one uniquely Anatolian, and one Ottoman delight from the palace kitchens.

    Afiyet olsun!

    Fırında Mantı

    The first Turks to inhabit the region were tribal warriors who moved westwards on horseback through Central Asia, bringing with them their traditions of preserving meat in its fat and a noodle dough reminiscent of a Chinese dumpling. Traditionally, the noodle dough is stuffed, baked in the oven until crisp, then revived with stock and served with garlic-flavoured yogurt and a drizzle of melted butter. It falls somewhere between a dumpling and Italian pasta. Modern recipes often call for a boiled ravioli-style mantı but the traditional Anatolian dish is supreme in its uniqueness. The best mantı I have ever had was in fact made by a Russian woman married to a Turk who ran a tiny mantı house in the back streets of Istanbul which was packed with appreciators of his wife’s freshly made noodle dumplings.

    Serves 4-6

    For the dough:

    450g/1lb plain flour
    ½ teaspoon salt
    1 egg + egg yolk, lightly beaten
    roughly 50ml/2fl oz lukewarm water

    For the filling:

    225g/8oz finely minced lamb or beef
    1 onion, very finely chopped
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1 teaspoon ground coriander
    1-2 teaspoons finely chopped dried red chilli
    a small bunch of parsley, very finely chopped

    600ml/1pint chicken or beef stock
    roughly 500g/9oz creamy plain yogurt (I use Yeo Valley)
    2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
    salt and freshly ground black pepper
    1-2 tablespoons ghee or butter
    1 teaspoon finely chopped dried red chilli
    2 teaspoons dried mint or oregan

    Preheat oven to 400F/Mark 6/200C

    Sift the flour and salt into bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the beaten egg. Using your fingers, draw in the flour with splashes of water until it forms a dough. Knead for 5 minutes, cover with a damp cloth, and leave to rest for 1 hour.

    Meanwhile, tip all the ingredients for the filling into a bowl, season with salt, and knead well. Beat the yogurt in a bowl with the garlic and season to taste with salt and pepper.

    Roll out the dough and cut it into 4 pieces. Roll each piece as thinly as possible and cut into squares (approx. 1”/2.5cm square). Put a little of the filling into the middle of each square then bunch together the 4 corners to form a little parcel with a slight opening at the top.

    Lightly grease an oven dish and place the mantı, side by side, in it so that they are tightly packed. Put the dish in the oven for about 20 minutes until the mantı are golden brown.

    Bring the stock to the boil. Take the mantı out of the oven and pour the stock over them. Cover with aluminium foil and pop them back in to the oven for 15 minutes, until the mantı have absorbed the liquid.

    Quickly melt the butter or ghee and stir in the chopped chilli. Serve the mantı straight from the oven with the yogurt spooned over the top, then drizzled with the butter and sprinkled with the dried mint or oregano.

    Hot humus heaven

    This is heaven in a clay dish! Sometimes things taste better in their utensil of origin – a wok, a tagine, a clay pot – so if you have an oven-proof clay dish, use it. I first had this humus 30 years ago in a tiny village near Kars in Eastern Anatolia. I had been travelling in PKK territory with a Kurdish-speaking colleague and, in order to decrease our vulnerability at road blocks, we filled the car with locals, one of whom invited us to spend the night in his tiny stone dwelling where his wife prepared this moreish, warm chickpea concoction topped with a puddle of melted ghee. As we dipped chunks of freshly baked flat breads into it, we really had a moment in heaven. Needless to say, I have been writing about it and enthusiastically devouring it ever since – even my Turkish friends were unaware of its existence.

    Serves 4-6

    2 x 400g cans of chickpeas, drained and thoroughly rinsed
    2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
    2 teaspoons cumin seeds
    roughly 4 tablespoons olive oil
    juice of 1 lemon
    2 tablespoons tahini
    6-7 tablespoons thick, creamy yogurt
    sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2-3 tablespoons pine nuts
    1-2 tablespoons butter, or ghee
    1 teaspoon finely chopped dried red chilli

    Preheat the oven to 400F/mark 6/200C

    Instead of using a mortar and pestle to pound the chickpeas to a paste in the traditional manner, make life easy and tip the chickpeas into an electric blender. Add the cumin seeds, garlic, olive oil, and lemon and whiz the mixture to a thick paste. Add the tahini and continue to whiz until the mixture is really thick and smooth. Add the yogurt and whiz until the mixture has loosened a little and the texture is creamy – the yogurt makes the humus lighter and mousse-like when cooked. Season to taste with salt and pepper and tip the mixture into a clay pot, or ovenproof dish.

    Roast the pine nuts in small pan until they begin to brown and emit a nutty aroma. Add the butter, or ghee, to the pine nuts and stir until it melts. Stir in the finely chopped chilli and spoon the mixture over the surface of the humus. Pop the dish into the oven for about 20 minutes, until the hummus has risen a little and most of the butter has been absorbed.

    Serve immediately – it is best when it is still hot – with chunks of warm crusty loaf, or strips of toasted pitta bread, and enjoy this divine chickpea puree with marinated olives and a salad.

    Tavuk göğsü kazandibi

    I love this pudding. My kids love this pudding. So did the Ottoman sultans as it is one of the delights from the Palace kitchen. Crucial to the pleasure of the pudding are the fine threads of cooked chicken, which must be thin enough to add texture but not so thick they are detectably meaty. Sounds bizarre? I assure you it is truly scrumptious! If, for no reason other than novelty, these thick, creamy puddings with a lightly burnt bottom are well worth trying and you might even be won over!

     Serves 6-8, or more

    1 chicken breast
    5 tablespoons rice flour
    850ml/1½ pints milk
    300ml/½ pint cream
    a pinch of salt
    175g/6oz sugar
    ground cinnamon for dusting

    Place the chicken breast in a pan with enough water to just cover it. Bring the water to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the breast is cooked. Drain the breast and tear it into very, very fine threads – almost as fine as thread for a needle.

    In a bowl, slake the rice flour with a little of the milk to form a smooth paste, the consistency of thick double cream. Pour the rest of the milk and the cream into a heavy-based pot. Add the salt and sugar and bring it to the boil, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved. Add a ladleful of the hot milk to the slaked rice flour, then tip it all into the pot and stir vigorously. Reduce the heat, stirring all the time, until the mixture begins to thicken. Gently beat in the threads of chicken and continue to simmer until the mixture is very thick.

    Lightly grease a wide, non-stick, heavy-based frying pan and place it over the heat. When hot, tip the mixture into it and keep it over the heat for about 2 minutes to brown, or slightly burn, the bottom of the pudding – you can check by gently levering up an edge to peep beneath. Reduce the heat and move the pan around for 2-3 minutes to make sure the bottom is evenly browned – a little bit burnt is fine, but you are not looking for a charred pudding! Turn off the heat and leave the pudding to cool in the pan.

    Using a sharp-pointed knife cut the pudding into small rectangles. Lift each rectangle out of the pan, using a spatula, and place them on a flat surface, burnt-side down. Roll each one over slightly, like rolling someone over in bed, so that the burnt side is up and the two long edges of the rectangle form a seam underneath. Place them seem-side down on a serving dish, cover them, and keep in the refrigerator. Serve chilled with a dusting of cinnamon.