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…