It was actually Diala’s father, Mohammed, I met first. He’d come to the club for lunch with Carmen, his wife, and, having chatted about Middle Eastern menus, I came away – delighted, excited – clutching scribbled instructions for how to make the best ever falafels. Mohammed didn’t refer to his recipe as the best ever falafels but that’s what they turned out to be.
Diala (designer, chef, photographer – find her at www.eatmy.net) was living in Beirut at the time so it was more than a year before we found ourselves searching for wifi on Sharrowvale Road in Sheffield, finally locating a comfortable table at Eve Kitchen (where, incidentally, they make the most incredible handmade doughnuts). We pored over Middle Eastern menus until well after closing time – my appetite whetted by Diala’s descriptions and pictures of slow-cooked lamb falling off the bone, aubergines blackened over flames, chicken marinated in chilli, coriander, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses, crumbly flower-shaped biscuits stuffed with pistachio, scented milk pudding in cut-glass bowls sprinkled with rose petals. Oh my!
As the longest day approached we lit the fire bowls at the club and Diala joined us for a long weekend of sumptuous Middle-Eastern loveliness. We did indeed blacken aubergines – for a beautiful, smoky, baba gannoush. We stuffed pumpkin kibbeh (little rugby-ball-shaped dumplings deep-fried to a perfect golden brown). Straining yoghurt, we made labneh and served it with Diala’s Armenian red-pepper Mhammara – one of a handful of Arabic words that the staff learned to pronounce; it has a rhythm to it, Diala coached, like playing a drum. Mhammara. Mhammara. Baharat-spice-infused lamb was piled onto aubergines, and Freekeh (an ancient green wheat grain) was cooked in aromatic lamb stock. We fried halloumi and paired it with plump, oozing figs in syrup. It was all very, very delicious.
Diala was a joy to cook with, chat with, sit by the fire with. As if that wasn’t enough, I learned a few important things; one must be brave and patient when charring aubergines; straining yoghurt overnight is transformative; when it comes to aromatics sometimes less is more; the magic of mastic (a resin from the Greek Mastic tree); I need to live in Beirut for a little while at least; sweetened Arabic coffee and whisky are perfect together; we need a large, unfeasibly heavy, antique, brass pestle & mortar at the club; and…finally… a spanked pomegranate spills its seeds most gratifyingly.
Diala will be back in the kitchen for another Persian food weekend at the start of August!