A meat free taste of the Middle East
Think of Middle Eastern food and you probably imagine big platters of succulent lamb, spiced chicken and meaty tagines – and lots of it.
Iranian-British chef Sabrina Ghayour is a “die-hard meat-lover”. Being born in Tehran and having grown up in the UK, meat has just always been a huge part of her family’s culture and a staple on the dinner table.
“In a Middle Eastern or Persian family, if you don’t have meat on the table there would be suspicion,” she said with a laugh.
So it’s perhaps surprising that, after the success of her previous cookbooks Persiana and Feasts, Ghayour is now back with her third title, Bazaar – and there isn’t a kebab in sight.
It’s a collection of colourful, generous vegetarian recipes, ranging from unmistakably Persian aubergine and caramalised onion kuku, to butternut baklava pies and the ‘world’s best’ toastie.
It’s not as radical a shift as it may seem for Britain’s best-known Persian cook though; the 42-year-old is eating a lot less meat than she used to and has discovered a real passion for plant-based cooking. In fact, she’s gone from eating meat every day to reducing her intake by 40 per cent.
There are other reasons to cut down on meat of course; it’s better for the planet, animal welfare, our wallets and often our own health – and eating too much is a pretty big issue in Western culture too.
Ghayour says her journey to more plant-based cooking has happened quite organically. “I started chucking cabbage into my pasta, ribboning it up and frying it – as you would with clams – with garlic and chilli, lemon zest, heavy on the black pepper and some pecorino,” she said. “And I was like, ‘God, this is delicious!’”
Although still true to her heritage in many ways, Ghayour’s signature style has evolved pretty far from classic Iranian fare.
“If you look at Lebanese and Turkish food, there are loads of vegetables – we don’t really have that in Persian culture. We’re very meat-heavy and we don’t use spices at all, apart from saffron because we cultivate it, and a pinch of cumin in one dish.” She added: “I’ve probably confused the hell out of people because of my love for those things.”
There’s plenty of Middle Eastern influence in general at work in Baazer, although not exclusively. Think feta, pul biber, and oregano macaroni, or ras el hanout and buttermilk sweet loaf cake.
But really, her new book is a homage to the infinite possibilities from the plant-based world. “These are the most natural products on the Earth that are bountiful, plentiful and not hard to season well.”
And the book is written with meat-eaters in mind (she assures she’ll never be fully vegetarian): “I do love meat, but I love better meat, less often.”
A message we should probably all be taking on board right now.