OLIVES, LEMONS & ZA’ATAR

olives-lemons-zaatar“One of the first things I make myself when I go home to Nazareth is the aubergine sandwich we often ate on Friday afternoons when I was growing up. I always dressed mine with tomato slices and a simple sauce of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Perfection.”

Sometimes I buy a cookbook, and I have the strongest feeling – if I’m being honest with myself – that I probably won’t cook out of it much.

I used to think this was a sort of heresy, but I’m over it. As well as instructional tomes on how to cook certain things a certain way, cookbooks can also be travel books, or photography books, or in some cases, a memoir or a history. In a pie chart, they can be made up of different slivers of all these in terms of what we find appealing about them. The broader each pie slice, I find, the better a cookbook works overall. Equally though, I can take a whole chunk of something new, or devilishly difficult if it’s persuasive. In this way, some books that aren’t even cookbooks, are great cookbooks. Like Helena Atlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow, for example.

I even like to sit down at the kitchen table, possibly with a nice lager, and read a cookbook to imagine making the dishes in them, maybe even in a different kitchen, different country, a different life even. I might be in the process of grilling fish fingers or microwaving beans, but it doesn’t matter. I’m somewhere else in my imagination. The best cookbooks can pick you up like the little yellow man on Google Maps, and drop you in Milan, or the Middle East. Cookbooks can have the life affirming qualities of art, sometimes. I buy them on instinct, collecting, like almanacs.

There is a kind of wonderful escapology going on with Olives, Lemons & Za’Atar. The photography is both travelogue and food detail, and works very well. I love the cover, with its texture so vividly and cleverly captured on the roughish board that you feel you can almost touch the textile photographed. There are rich close ups of gorgeous food, and captured street scenes and details of gardens, of kitchens. It’s superb.

I had it pegged to begin with as a book I probably wouldn’t cook from. I resolved to give myself a break if I didn’t try the Raw Kibbeh or master the Arabic flatbread first time. I started tutting gloomily about the limitations of my local shop. I have to face facts, I might be able to get a Fry’s Turkish Delight, but I’m not buying Turkish Chilli Paste any time soon. I could order online, which is of course true, but it’s very expensive. So let’s just enjoy the travel, let’s just …

Hang on a minute!

I became slightly giddy after reading this book for half an hour or so. This isn’t far away cuisine I can’t make, that I can’t get from my cupboard. This is all do-able! There are recipes in here that are very simple, and also the simple building block for others. Sure, some ingredients I don’t have, and definitely, some dishes are difficult, but what fun with the Sweat Pea and Kafta Stew, the Garlicky Bean and Tomato Stew, the Whole Stuffed Chicken. These, and many more like them, are enabling recipes. I love too the informative interludes, about Breakfast Traditions, or Mezze, for example, and the personal story underpinning the recipes and influences from Nazareth to New York and points between. Overall the book balances access and adventure with style and has a lot, lot more going on than I’d thought.

It passes too the “where the hell?” test as well, which tells me I like a book. I read it in the kitchen, the sitting room, in bed. When I want to find it, I can’t, because I can’t remember where I left it. Rawia Bishara and Nigella Lawson wander around as if they own the place at the moment. Some books seem phoned-in to be frank – lots of celebrity cookbooks are like this, even those that aren’t deep down – but some are clearly a labour of love. Rawia Bishara’s book is just such an endeavour.

And I’m not defeated at all. I can make more of this than I think, and learn lots. The slices of pie are perfectly equal.