Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
7 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
William Meppem

Most people go somewhere romantic for their honeymoon: Fiji, Venice or Paris all fit the bill nicely. We, on the other hand, went to Beirut, with its chequered reputation for kidnapping, bullets and bombs. But so much for preconceived notions and worries. Beirut, and indeed the rest of Lebanon, proved to be a constant delight and endless fascination during that two-week stay, and indeed on subsequent later visits.

Despite the ravages of seventeen years of civil war, one thing which seems to survive, miraculously intact, is the irrepressible and overwhelming warmth of Arabic hospitality. Every home we visited seemed to be mysteriously prepared for guests – their coffee tables were always set with little dishes of pistachio nuts, Turkish delight or other exotic sweets. Our arrival would cause a flurry of excitement, kisses and questions and, of course, instant refreshments. As if from nowhere, cardamom-scented coffee would appear, poured from exquisitely engraved brass pots into tiny cups, always accompanied by sweet nut-stuffed biscuits or elaborate sticky pastries.

Both the Arab and Ottoman empires excelled in the art of making pastries, cakes and biscuits. Their influence can be seen right across the Mediterranean in an endless variety of sweet and savoury pastries, ranging from the universally popular baklava and kataifi to savoury filo pies, such as Greek spanakopita and bisteeya, the extraordinary cinnamon-spiced pigeon pie from Morocco, to Lebanese filo ‘cigars’, Turkish boreks, and Tunisian briks à l’oeuf.

Selecting, storing and using pastry

Many of the Middle Eastern style recipes that follow both sweet and savoury, require special kinds of pastry which are virtually impossible to make at home. What a bonus for the weary home cook!

There are many different brands of commercially available filo, and a few of kataifi, many of which are frozen. However, quality is variable, and they are often not stored well, which means you can end up with a packet of torn, sticky filo sheets, with crumpled corners, or kataifi which is too crushed to unravel. If you buy your pastry frozen, do not refreeze it, but wrap and seal it carefully and store it in the refrigerator where it will keep for a few days. If you have the inclination, it is worthwhile tracking down good quality Greek or Lebanese freshly made versions.

As far as preparation goes, the same rules apply for filo and kataifi, in both savoury and sweet dishes. Only take from the packet as much pastry as you think you’ll need. Carefully wrap and seal the remainder and put it back into the refrigerator. These pastries really must be used immediately, as they dry out and harden surprisingly quickly in the air. If you are assembling individual pastries, one at a time, place one sheet of filo or a small bundle of kataifi on the work surface and cover the rest with a damp cloth. Both filo and kataifi need to be liberally brushed with butter or ghee to get the required golden crunchiness. This is no time to be worrying about cholesterol!

Savoury pastry

Savoury pastries are enormously popular throughout the Middle East. As with their sweet cousins, there is a huge and varied repertoire of different shapes, sizes and fillings found all around the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. They are believed to have been spread by the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks, and are also a specialty of the Sephardic Jewish tradition, probably learned in Spain under Moorish rule.

Each region, community and family has its own favourites. Pastries can be made from crisp, wafer-thin filo, or a flaky type of puff pastry, or a denser yeast dough. They can be deep fried or baked. Fillings can be anything from spicy minced meat, poultry or offal to lemony spinach, meltingly soft eggplant or tangy, salty cheese. Some are tried-and-tested combinations, while others are just a good way of using up left-over bits and bobs. Favourite shapes are little triangles, cigars, crescents, rectangular parcels and little round raised pies.

Smaller pastries such as Lebanese fatayer, Syrian sambusek, Tunisian briks, Turkish boreks or even Spanish empanadas, are eaten as snacks or as part of a mezze selection. Other larger pies, such as the Greek spanakopita or Moroccan bisteeya, can be more substantial dishes.

Overall, savoury pastries are an important part of the mezze culture. This idea is central to the Arabic tradition of hospitality, friendship and generosity. A mezze selection can be as simple as a dish of olives and some freshly cut up vegetables and dips, or it can be a range of elaborately made bite-sized morsels which tempt the eye far beyond the stomach’s capacity. If you are ever lucky enough to be invited to an Arabic home for a special occasion, you will almost certainly not have enough room left for the main course once you have succumbed to the temptation of tasting every mezze dish on the table.

Many of these little parcels can be fairly labour-intensive and time-consuming to prepare, especially in the large quantities which are required for special occasions and parties. There is still a tradition among some of our Egyptian friends and our Lebanese in-laws for several generations of women to get together to make big batches of little savoury pies like sambusek for a family party.

Savoury Arabic pastries make a deliciously different starter, or the perfect light lunch accompanied by a simple green salad. They make a terrific alternative to the various quiche-type of savoury tarts, and can be very easy to make. After all, the concept is pretty straightforward – crisp pastry parcels with some kind of tasty filling. The options are endless.

Sweet pastry

In the Middle East, desserts tend to revolve around fresh fruit. Sweet pastries are considered something of a luxury and are reserved for special occasions and entertaining. There are countless varieties of these honeyed golden pastries with all sorts of suggestive shapes and names – ladies’ fingers, sweethearts’ lips, lovers’ navels, to name a few. Many of these appear all around the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean sporting different names and slightly different fillings, depending on the region.

Sweet pastries are part of the Arabic tradition of hospitality and friendship. A beautifully wrapped box of these sweetmeats is quite the correct gift to take when visiting and, in turn, no self-respecting Arab housewife would be without a selection of goodies in her pantry to offer guests. However, most Middle Eastern housewives no longer have the time to spend making their own pastries – except, maybe, for a family celebration or party. These days, they are more likely to buy their selection from a specialist pastry shop which bakes its own, where the variety can be mind-boggling, and where they can be assured of excellent quality.

Of the huge range of Middle Eastern pastries, baklava are probably the best known to us in the West, as they are served in just about every Greek and Lebanese restaurant around the world. These are the small lozenge-shaped pastries made from layers of filo pastry, which sandwich a filling of ground pistachio nuts, walnuts or almonds, perhaps flavoured with a touch of cinnamon, and are drenched in an orange-blossom syrup.

Kataifi (or konafi) are the pastries made from the special dough which looks remarkably like shredded wheat. They too are made with a range of different fillings, such as walnuts, pistachios or even soft cream cheese. Then there are the long cigar-shaped pastries, or the snail-like spirals, or the ones which look like little bird’s nests – the list goes on and on!

The recipes included are decidedly non-traditional. For authentic Middle Eastern pastries we suggest you do what most Middle Eastern housewives would do, and seek out a really good Middle Eastern pastry shop. This will allow you to sample many more pastries than you could ever make at home.

Recipes in this Chapter

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