Last Updated on May 20, 2021
Cooking over fire around the Levant
In her introduction to Chasing Smoke (Pavilion) – the latest cookbook by the inimitable and much-adored Honeys (Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich) – Sarit writes about her memories of family BBQs in Israel where she grew up. Her job was to ferry the meat from the kitchen to the fire where her father cooked it to perfection. She never noticed how he cooked or even made his fire, but her love of barbecued food was established, and she wonders whether there is something primal about it. I think there certainly is and many cultures revere food cooked over coals. I grew up in a country where the BBQ is almost a religion, but its secret rites were reserved for men, passed on from father to son, a very gendered activity. My role, as a girl, was to clean the BBQ and, like Sarit, to carry the meat outdoors to where my father taught my brother to develop his skills at the fireside. To this day, despite being a confident cook, I have never made a BBQ, although I have catered for them on countless occasions. I can only hope that young women these days are being taught to BBQ and if they are not, we all have Chasing Smoke to teach us how. Sisters can do it for themselves.
In truth, I don’t actually own a BBQ – that probably speaks volumes as I possess every other piece of equipment one could need to cook a meal. I do, however, have a griddle pan and I substituted this for a grid over a flame. Growing up eating barbecued food regularly, I agree wholeheartedly with Sarit that nothing tastes better than food on the fire. Anyone who has had a steak in a restaurant will know how different it tastes from one done on a pan at home.
The book traces the evolution of Sarit and Itamar’s fascination with food cooked over fire and takes readers along with them on their journey around the Levant. They travel to Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Greece, relating wonderful stories of their taxi rides, adventures in back streets and roadside stalls, restaurants visited, markets enjoyed, landscapes and observations about food and culture. Their writing is illustrated by the simply wonderful photographs of Patricia Niven, whose pictures here go way beyond the dishes themselves (as beautiful as her food photography is always) and bring the evocative writing to life in full colour.
Their trip took place before Covid and seems to be from a different age, one we recall through the haze of the past year. The publication of Chasing Smoke will make us hunger even more for the day when we can safely travel through countries, meander through local markets and chat to people about their produce and their food – what Sarit and Itamar, along with many lovers of food, consider to be the pinnacle of travel.
Those of us fortunate to have eaten at Honey and Smoke – the Middle Eastern grill house that Sarit and Itamar opened a few years ago in Great Portland St – know what fabulous things they are doing on their wood-burning grill. I am such a fan, that almost every family event is celebrated in one of the Honey and Co. restaurants. So, it was with great joy that I set about trying out some of the recipes in Chasing Smoke.
Beginning with a few vegetable dishes, I tried my hand at the grilled cabbage with chilli garlic butter. This recipe uses a white cabbage and after cutting it into quarters, I seared it on a very hot griddle pan for a few minutes on each side. This cooked it pretty quickly and left lovely char marks and flavour. While it grilled I made the fabulously punchy butter dressing which added colour and lifted the cabbage way beyond the mundane vegetable it may sometimes be considered..
Next up I tried the sweet potatoes with almond tahini and smoked almonds. This was quite simply the best-dressed potato in town. The almond tahini was fun to make and had an unexpected tang from the sherry vinegar (use a good quality variety as the taste comes through clearly). A baked sweet potato is a thing of beauty in its own right, but here it is anointed with the almond tahini, date molasses and smoked almonds. Perhaps I have been living under a rock my whole life as I have never encountered smoked almonds and now regret the lost years. These nuts should be sold on prescription. People talk glibly about certain foods being like crack cocaine. I have never tried crack cocaine and will stick to Chasing Smoke rather than chasing the dragon, but these nuts, once savoured, are seriously addictive.
Already on a high from the potatoes, I fired up my gas ring and placed a whole aubergine on the flames to blacken. Fans of baba ganoush will be familiar with this method of smoking an aubergine. This recipe takes baba ganoush to new heights – I was feeling quite emotional eating it, to be honest. Once the aubergine is charred all the way around, the flesh inside will be melting and silky. Slit open and, while still hot, douse it with the chilli, garlic, lemon dressing and then dollop over a luscious tahini sauce. Then drop in a raw egg yolk and sear it with the back of a very hot spoon (or live coal if doing it on the BBQ). The juices simply must be mopped up with lots of flatbread and abandon all thoughts of decorum. You will be fighting your loved ones for the last morsel. (see the recipe below).
The chefs suggest that the chapter on chicken is the one that readers might use the most. There are some outstanding ideas here. I have always resisted brining foods for some reason to do with not wanting too much salt, but I am now convinced to give it a try before roasting chicken. I had to laugh when they describe flattening the chicken while spatchcocking as the movement needed to administer CPR. I hope to never have to administer CPR but if I do, I will endeavour to remember that it is similar to spatchcocking a chicken. I chose to cook chicken wings from this tempting chapter – find me a chicken eater who doesn’t love a wing! These were possibly the best wings I have ever eaten. I marinaded them overnight and roasted them in a hot oven the following day. My goodness – the marinade is simply fantastic, redolent from two types of paprika, chilli, spring onion and pomegranate molasses.
The chapter on red meat – largely lamb – was sadly lost on me because I have mostly given up eating it, but if I were tempted I would make a beeline for the recipe for roast leg of lamb with a pomegranate molasses glaze. Or perhaps loquat and lamb koftas. I enjoyed reading about the Turkish Adana kebabs which, in my meat-eating days were my absolute favourite take out from our local Turkish grill house. There are well-explained instructions for those keen to give these a try at home.
From the fish chapter, I chose the salmon and egg sauce recipe because I eat a lot of salmon and am in constant need of new ideas. This was certainly one of those. The salmon, cooked on my super hot griddle pan, was perfectly cooked, moist, with great flavour and char marks to feel proud of. I thought that the accompanying egg sauce was in search of an ingredient that would, in my view, bring the dish together. What is a BBQ without a potato salad? This egg sauce – fragrant with spring onion and chopped dill and a mustardy dressing – is begging to be mixed with Jersey royals or other new potatoes. Then it would be a great accompaniment to the barbecued fish. On its own with the fish, it felt like a slightly off-kilter match.
Chasing Smoke is, like its authors, filled with life, fun and the love derived from the simple pleasure of food, simply cooked with punchy flavours. Sarit and Itamar are delightful in their writing, their recipes and their Insta cookalongs which never failed to cheer me up through the long months of lockdown. They also have a series of podcasts. Their energy is infectious, their dancing hilarious. I even enjoy watching Sarit doing puzzles on Insta – although the boredom of months stuck indoors might explain that one. I am clearly biased, but I really do think Chasing Smoke will be a good addition to the summer season that lies ahead. Those of us lucky to live nearby can also continue now to enjoy their restaurants. Those outside of the capital or those just preferring to eat at home can order from their online service.
Chasing Smoke is full of the sort of food that requires that you roll up your sleeves and get sticky-fingered. This is sexy food. Don’t hold back. I would buy Chasing Smoke simply for the sweet potato, aubergine and chicken wing recipes – although there are so many more I plan to cook that it will take all summer to do so. I know one thing for certain – I am going to treat myself to a BBQ.
Burnt aubergine with a punchy dressing, tahini and egg
- 2 aubergines
- 50 grams tahini paste
- 50 ml ice cold water
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 red chilli deseeded and finely chopped
- 1 green chilli deseeded and finely chopped
- 3 large garlic cloves peeled and finely chopped
- 1 - 2 lemons juiced to get around 80ml
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 bunch parsley pick leaves and chop
Cook the aubergine on a very hot grill of a BBQ or on the embers. Scorch all over so that the skin is charred and the flesh is soft. If you press it you will feel it softening.
In the meantime make the dressing by mixing the chillies, garlic, lemon juice, spices, sugar and olive oil. Add the chopped parsley when you are ready to dress the dish.
Whisk the tahini paste with the ice cold water.
Remove aubergine carefully from the grill or fire and place on a serving dish. Slit open.
Pour over half the dressing, followed by dollops of tahini sauce. Make an indentation in the sauce with the back of a spoon and drop in the egg yolk - one yolk in each aubergine.
Remove a hot coal with tongs and lightly char the egg yolks. Carefully return the coal to your fire.
Drizzle over the remaining dressing.
If making this dish indoors, place the aubergine directly onto the flame on the hob and blacken as above. If you have no gas hob, set your oven to its highest grill setting. If grilling in the oven, prick the aubergine before cooking. Do not prick it if cooking on the gas flame.
Keep moving the aubergine around from section to section as it chars.
As you will not have a hot coal with which to char the egg, heat a spoon until very hot on a gas flame (be careful not to burn yourself on the metal) and use the back to sear the egg.