Omnivore that I am, I like to eat everything from everywhere. Years ago, teaching myself how to cook Japanese from books, I noticed that four ingredients—soy sauce, mirin, dashi stock and miso—kept reappearing in every recipe. I conceived a pet theory that the world’s cuisines are really only different flavours applied to familiar ingredients. Take any ordinary steak or salmon, say, or aubergine or cucumber, and add one or more of the above and it would come out Japanese. This was an enticing idea (easy! no foreign techniques, no need to buy a hibachi grill or to master sushi rolling!) and I could make it work for other cuisines too. Italian: tomatoes, olive oil, basil, oregano. French: butter, white wine, chicken stock, tarragon. Thai: green curry, lemongrass, fish sauce, coriander. Indian: garam masala, curry leaves, lentils, yoghurt. Now I live in Jerusalem, a mashed up Levant culinary hotpot, and in my larder are the four pillars of the region: zatar, pomegranate molasses, tahini and harissa.
Of course it is a half baked theory, simplistic and silly and easily discarded. But useful to keep in mind when you are at home, standing with a couple of chicken breasts in front of a four burner gas stove and would like to travel a little in the frying pans of your imagination. So sear up the chicken and dust it with the dark green thyme-and-sesame zatar; the tahini gets leavened with lemon juice for a little gummy side sauce; dress a lettuce with a vinaigrette made with the sweetish tang of the pomegranate molasses and dinner is, pouf, magic carpet, transported to the Middle East.
The Yotam Ottolenghi revolution has sparked an Arab awakening in the recipe pages of magazines and on supermarket shelves, with just this kind of reassurance— take unfamiliar flavours and products and play around with them. I have lived in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo, and this is the way I have always loved to cook. My Arab friends would approach my dishes warily—this is a region of street kebabs and grandmothers’ recipes, neither encouraging much innovation—but I made a fair few converts to my all-purpose chilli slop sauce: harissa smoothed out with yogurt and then zinged up with lemon juice and garlic. Excellent with lamb chops, excellent with grilled sea bass, excellent (don’t tell anyone) on cold roast pork belly sandwiches the day after.
Needless to say my four Middle East staples have multiplied. Now I always have on hand: hummus, orange blossom water, walnuts, cumin seeds, sumac, mint, parsley, feta cheese or something local and similar and thick sour labneh yoghurt. With these, and a huge bag of lemons, I can produce a table laden for a Ramadan feast. Nothing authentic, no carefully rolled vine leaves steeped in verjus or hours spent hollowing out small aubergines to stuff with minced lamb. I cook like we all do—magpie, ideas nicked from the venerable pages of Claudia Roden or borrowed from my friend’s restaurant, or simply inspired by the juxtaposition of fresh thyme and tomatoes in the market that morning.
Mezze abundance: warm chickpeas with lemon and paprika and slow-fried sticky black onions on top, hunks of tomato drowned with yogurt and tons of cumin, fried halloumi cheese with fresh chilli, swirls of labneh poured over with olive oil, and a great bowl of parsley and mint leaves tossed with a few tablespoons of bulgur wheat swollen in boiling water and lashings of lemon juice to make a really sparkling tabbouleh. Without doubt there should be hummus, but I am a heretic and I like to spread it thick on a tray and then add stripes of different toppings: a funky purplish Armenian cured beef called basturma or fried tiny cubes of lamb mixed with ruby pomegranate seeds or scattered fresh oregano leaves. Warm pitta bread or the thinner more wrappable lavash to dunk and dip and swab through everything. Sometimes I split pitta loaves and spread them thinly with butter (travesty!) and scatter cumin or paprika or zatar or all three over the top and grill them toasty. The main dish comes on a giant platter spread with parsley and is simple: a pile of lamp chops or a roast chicken or overlapping grilled sardines.
Usually my guests and I are too full and exhausted for a serious dessert. My standby is sticky gooey baklava bought in the souk and a plate of sliced oranges dunked in whatever combination I have to hand: honey, pistachios, walnuts, rose water, whisky. Then the perfect thing to serve is Lebanese white coffee, which is not coffee at all but hot water poured over orange blossom water. Perfume fills the air. The moon rises high and clinks its silver against the gold Dome of the Rock and we can hear our ultra-Orthodox neighbours singing psalms in Hebrew. But trust me, it tastes the same, even in Paddington.