Sunday, 29 April 2012

Weekend breakfast: Izha and Za'atar

Ever since I was a little girl, lazy Saturday and Sunday mornings have always included a morning spread of Izha and Za'atar with pitta bread.

Izha is a thick black paste (it looks a bit like molten tar or oil) of nigella seeds roasted and ground with sesame seed puree, or something else which makes it more liquid. There are very few places I know of in the world where you can buy it - Palestine or Jordan. Even many locals don't know about it, and I have often had confused looks when I ask friends to bring me back a jar when they go back home to friend once brought me back a big bag of nigella seeds!

Izha needs to be prepared before serving, as straight from the jar it can taste very bitter. Although that doesn't stop my dad from eating a teaspoon of raw izha every day. Apparently there are many health benefits to izha, including strengthening the immune system.

The best way to prepare izha is:

  • Pour a small amount into a bowl (1 - 3 tablespoons depending on the number of people). Add a small amount of boiling water to the mixture and stir in, until the izha absorbs all the water and thickens to look like grey cement. 

  • Add more water little by little to the mixture, all the while stirring until it reaches the consistency of thick custard. The biggest mistake is to add too much water which makes the izha too runny to eat as a dip. If this happens, you will need to add a little more izha to the mixture to thicken it up - it's a judging game and takes practice if you don't get it right the first time.

  • To sweeten, add a teaspoon or two of clear honey. This also makes the izha beautifully glossy and black. Sugar is fine as an alternative if you don't have honey to hand, but make sure this is added before the hot water, as it won't dissolve after and will make the izha grainy.

Za'atar is a blend of dried herbs (including thyme), toasted sesame seeds and salt. It can be eaten by dipping bread in olive oil and then the herb mixture, or mixed with olive oil and spread on dough for baking in the oven ( a form of mana'eesh). It can also be used to season meat, hommus or yoghurt.

Za'atar has become quite trendy recently, and is now commonly sold at places like Waitrose. I would NOT recommend buying it from supermarkets as they sell you a measly amount at a rip-off price. Go to a Middle Eastern shop like Green Valley off Edgware Road instead.

I love Izha and Za'atar. We even named my two late cats growing up after these two amazing dips!


Maroush - King of Edgware Road

After a late evening in the office on Friday, I went to have dinner on Edgware Road. When all you are craving is really good hommus and a warm meal, you can't go wrong with Maroush. Stand on the street a little way down from the Marble Arch end of Edgware Road, and you can see Maroush Express, Ranoush Juice and Maroush Gardens on each corner - all part of the same chain!

We had Hommus Beiruty to start with (made with chickpeas, tahini, hot pepper, parsley and lemon juice), as well as cucumbers, big fresh tomatoes, peppers and olives.

For the main course, there was Bamia with rice (a vegetarian dish with okra and tomatoes) and Malfouf (cabbages stuffed with mince).

My friend Sylvia requested we feature more vegetarian recipes, so I found a delicious looking Bamia recipe here.

We washed down dinner with fruit cocktail (Maroush makes this with yummy fresh fruits) and fresh lemonade with mint and rosewater.

Marouf Abuzaki opened his first Maroush restaurant on Edgware Road in 1981. The chef, and his wife Houda came to England during the civil war in Lebanon. They now have an impressive portfolio of restaurants, delis and cafes across London - on Vere Street and Edgware Road not only can you get a good meal inside you, but often they have live music and belly dancing too!


Thursday, 26 April 2012

Gazan Prawns with Oven-Baked Kale

Yesterday evening I went to my friends Heather and Ahmed's place for dinner in north London. They had prepared a traditional, slightly spicy dish from Gaza, with prawns and sesame seeds. This was served with rice and oven-baked kale, drizzled in Fairtrade, Palestinian organic extra-virgin olive oil from the highly-recommended company Zaytoun.

Zaytoun are a community interest company (founded by my friend Heather and her partners Cathi, Atif and Saleh), who bring artisan Palestinian produce to the UK market. Their products, which include olive oil, medjoul dates and olive soap, can be found at stores such as Wholefoods, Planet Organic and from many online retailers.

I look forward to working more in the future with this fantastic company, and using their ethically sourced products at upcoming Cafe Palestine events.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Daoud Basha

Today my lovely friends from Syria cooked a Damascan dish - Daoud Basha - for me. Named after the Ottoman 'David Pasha', the dish involves minced meat (beef or lamb), tomatoes, cinnamon, onion, garlic...think meatballs with a Middle Eastern twist.

I found a few recipes on the internet for this, but this one from Ya Salam cooking looks pretty good.

Let me know what you think, or if you have any better versions of this recipe to share!


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Why are we here?

Hello and welcome to the Cafe Palestine UK blog!

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this post. You are probably reading this because your curiosity has brought you here from Twitter or Facebook. So what is Cafe Palestine all about?

I have to give credit a brilliant woman in Germany, Gabi, who inspired me when I went over to perform with my dabke group, Al Zaytouna Dance Theatre, in Germany and Switzerland last November.

Gabi is part of a forum called Cafe Palestine, with bases in Zurich, Freiburg and Stuttgart. The idea is that people come together at a venue (often donated by the owner at no charge) on a regular basis to try traditional Palestinian cuisine and learn more about the history, culture and politics of Palestine.

It dawned on me that despite all the different events held in London in support of the Palestinian cause (which I commend), there didn't seem to be anything that was available to the average Joe on the street who may not know much about the region. Indeed, the current 'scene' is awash with people who have in-depth knowledge on Palestine's history and political situation past and present. This can be intimidating to someone who is a 'beginner'.

I have many friends who often ask me questions like 'I'm ashamed to admit I don't know much about the conflict - can you tell me more?' or 'what is Palestinian cuisine like?'  - So I wanted to adapt the idea of Cafe Palestine and bring to the UK an open, welcoming forum for people to come together and learn more.

Palestine has much to offer - I am very proud of my cultural heritage -  however music, poetry, art, cuisine, dance and film too often get overlooked in favour of media reporting on conflict in the region. Awareness and understanding of the conflict is extremely important, but it is also important that Palestine be celebrated as well.

That's where Cafe Palestine UK comes in. People from all backgrounds will be welcome to come, have authentically cooked Palestinian food and drink at a fair price, and be treated to anything from a musical performance, to a film screening or lecture on Palestine.

Questions will very much be encouraged - there is no such thing as a stupid question! Any money raised will be given to Palestinian charities and most importantly I want people to have a fun and engaging evening.

Keep an eye on here for more details about our first upcoming event. In the meantime, if you have any feedback or suggestions, please comment below.