Sirocco: Fabulous Flavors from the East
By Sabrina Ghayour
Suzy: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Sabrina: I'm Sabrina Ghayour and my new cookbook is Sirocco.
Suzy: Your recipes are in all inspired by flavors of the East, but use fresh produce, techniques, and cooking styles of the West. Most of us think Middle Eastern food is spicy and time-consuming. Talk about the versatility of your recipes.
Sabrina: I think the versatility of my recipes come probably because I don't have any hard and fast rules for cooking at home and bear in mind that all my recipes always come about from home. They're not things ... I don't have a professional kitchen so I cook pretty much similarly to most people, I would say, granted that I'm aware my skillset is a little bit advanced when it comes to Middle Eastern food, but I don't feel restricted about something having to be Middle Eastern or Chinese or Italian or whatever.
I kind of like to fix food that feels good to me and sometimes that's maybe based around one fresh ingredient that maybe I need to use up or the real star of the show is a spice, or something like that. For me, using the two together is very natural for me. If anything, Sirocco really shows my own comfortable food style at home and the kind of things that I like to eat that don't really have an identity, but for the sake of sharing this with people, I would say it feels Middle Eastern but it's a little bit more Western style.
Suzy: What does the word Sirocco mean?
Sabrina: Sirocco means ... It's actually the name of a Saharan wind. The Italians call it scirocco, with a C. S-C-I-R-O-C-C-O which is this Eastern wind, starts in the Sahara and it's warm and it blows toward the Mediterranean. It kind of felt appropriate to call the book that because it's very much how I cook. It's flavors that feel Eastern to people but the dishes themselves once produced are a little bit more Western and let's say familiar for us, perhaps. More than we know. So they don't really have an identity. It was a no-brainer for me to pick that name.
Suzy: This cookbook is all about combinations of flavors and textures. Do you have a go-to spice to give simple dishes that extra flavor?
Sabrina: Yeah, I think at the moment, I have to be honest, I'm fairly obsessed with pul biber. It's a Turkish pepper flake, sometimes called Aleppo pepper. It doesn't have seeds in it and it's a much less aggressive chili flake. It's much more friendly for putting in everything, and I admit, I put it in everything at home because we love spice. It doesn't always just necessarily lend an aggressive chili flavor. Sometimes it just gives something a little note that gives your tongue a sort of pleasant tickle as you enjoy the food. It's nice, it's not uncomfortable in any way. I like using that. I'm guilty of using it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I've kind of stopped myself at cakes, but I'll probably find some way of incorporating it into a baked bread with maybe honey or something. It's wonderful stuff.
Suzy: It doesn't add heat, it adds flavor? Or flavor and heat?
Sabrina: Definitely if you want to, if you want to put a pronounced amount in it, it will definitely very comfortably add head to food, definitely. It has that because it's a chili. But it doesn't have to if you use it in the right combinations, provide anything more than a perfect companion that complements whatever ingredient ... Let's say you're using feta cheese for example. On feta cheese, because feta cheese is salty and rich and creamy, that kind of chili heat dissipates a little bit and just becomes more of a tickle. But if you want to, you can but a teaspoon on it all over the feta and then it's spicy, but it's still spicy married with creamy and salty and lovely. It just works really well with pretty much everything.
Suzy: I have so much admiration for self-taught chefs like yourself. Tell us how your passion for Persian cuisine took hold in your teens.
Sabrina: Really, my love for Persian food, I think if you grow up with the food, you don't often have appreciation for it until it's taken away from you and then, suddenly, you start to miss it. My grandmother learned to cook from 1979 onwards in England as a case of absolute necessity. It was only, I can count on one hand how many dishes she actually learned. She wasn't a comfortable cook and she used to do it once a month, make loads of things on a Sunday and freeze them. Once she got older, the absence of having any kind of Persian food or waiting for somebody to very kindly drop some stew 'round or something, I got tired of it, waiting for it. So I set out to teach myself, probably over the next decade after my teens, how to get some of these flavors and how to get the stews right. I'm not going to lie, to my memory, one particular dish that I would never teach because it's so personal, took me ten years to nail that comfortable flavor that I personally remember.
Persian dishes, they might be simple, but every family might do some different element. Different regions use different ingredients for that particular stew, like the bean might be red kidney bean in one stew, but in some region they use brown beans, some region they use black-eyed beans. Some people put spinach in it, some people don't. The variations are quite interesting. You can have so many versions and they're still acceptable, but the one I remember from my childhood of how things tasted for me, it took me a while to get it. I kind of try to veer away from teaching people things that I feel would maybe befuddle them or wouldn't be as great unless they really, really got it right. I prefer to teach comfortable food to people, things that I think work really well and are actually incredibly simple, because if they want to explore it and go for the harder stuff, they don't need me. They can do that.
Suzy: In the United States, our supper clubs were popular in the '30s and '40s and were generally found in the rural upper Midwest. It was a whole evening of cocktails, dinner, and nightclub style entertainment. Describe your supper club in London.
Sabrina: Oh god. I did everything myself so there was definitely no nightclub style entertainment. I can tell you can on a number of occasions I did everything I could to discourage people staying too late because it was my home and I had to go to sleep. Basically, I fell into it out of no alternative, because I lost my job and I just had to do these things to earn money and luckily they were popular at the time.
Dinner for 12 where I was the cook, the waitress, cleaner, serving people whilst cooking 10 dishes for them. Then, it sort of started in early evening and ended by about, I would say, 11 o'clock at night because they were midweek and I kept it kind of early in the week to be sensible. But it was fun! It's like sitting on one large, very cramped, intimate table with tons of food on it, forced to talk to people you wouldn't normally get to meet or maybe you wouldn't choose those kind of people. It was always interesting and never negative. Never one bad occasion or instance or uncomfortable conversation with all my guests for four years of doing them. It was always really lovely, which is why I, when I ended it, I thought, "That's great, most people want to end things on a high, and that was definitely a high."
Suzy: What is your process for developing a recipe?
Sabrina: The unanswerable question. I would just say the kind of truth would be to say "Remove said process entirely," because I'm a very instinctive cook. I cook every single day, either breakfast or breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I'm constantly looking. I'm constantly picking out what looks good at a market or a supermarket or what I have in the freezer or my fridge that needs to get used up. That's really great, because you end up coming up with very varied combinations sometimes of the same thing, but it enables dishes and real flavor combinations to develop to the point that you're like, "A-ha! That was good! Yep, everybody was raving about that tonight. Stick that on my list." And boom, there's a recipe.
I kind of cherry-pick from what I do at home and eat out and then come back with different ideas of how to wildly vary said recipe based on, let's say, a raw asparagus salad or something like that. I come and I do my version of that at home, and then tweak it. You know, it's a combination of things, but sometimes I think travel is the best thing, really, because it opens your eyes to so many different flavors and techniques that would also work with Middle Eastern flavors. It's important to stay varied.
Suzy: Are there ever any Middle Eastern vegetables or ingredients that you say, "Wow, I've never used this."
Sabrina: It actually occurred to me the other day when my mother came home with this Ziploc bag with these black seeds in it and she said, "Cumin." I looked at it and I could smell it as it came in, and I was like, "That's not cumin." She was like ... You have to remember, my mother doesn't really know much about food, ingredients, names of things, you know. I was like, "That's not cumin," she was like, "You know, for us, it was cumin." I was like "That's caraway, Mom. I know that because I hate it." I don't know why, I just can't stand it. It's so pungent. She loves it and she thinks it's cumin, and who am I to argue?
I think caraway actually is the one thing, it is quite Eastern. The Russians use it a lot in baking, lots of countries use it. Yeah, it's not my bag, I have to admit it's not. I don't cook with it and I realized, a couple of days ago, I've never written caraway into any of my books. Maybe if I do another book, I'll really have to sit down and find something I like about caraway and maybe a way of using it. Maybe grind it down and then use it as a background flavor with something sweet and spicy, and maybe I'll love it.
Suzy: On Saturday night, I made your recipe for Chickpea Butternut Squash, Preserve Lemon and Harissa Tagine on page 164.
Sabrina: What did you think?
Suzy: It was so good. But I thought there's a lot of cinnamon in this recipe. I kept thinking, "This is too much cinnamon!" But it totally worked.
Sabrina: It's funny how people are nervous, especially with cinnamon. Cinnamon is a dangerous spice to pick. Idealistically, I think especially for Americans, it's really cinnamon rolls and apple pie. It has a very strong identity in North America as a spice and it's very defined what people are comfortable using it in. Of course, the Middle East, it's completely different. All we use it in are savory things mostly. There's a reason. It reduces your blood pressure, it's got so many health benefits. Cinnamon tea. Of course, for us, it's a comfortable flavor, it's not associated solely with baking. I think people think, "Well, lamb, maybe that's weird with cinnamon." But, actually, I pile it into lamb dishes and spices.
When you're combining things with other things, they take on a different character anyway, so it's not the same flavor that you would mentally picture. Especially things like butternut squash and sweet potato, potatoes, celeriac and all those root vegetables and squashes, they love spice like on another whole level. I think pumpkin pie is a comfortable marriage of a squash vegetable with cinnamon, but just think of it with a savory note, it would still work beautifully. I'm a lot more confident with my spice use, I think.
Suzy: Tagine is the dish and also the cooking pot. Do you think it matters if the ingredients are cooked in a traditional tagine or, let's say, a regular stock pot?
Sabrina: Absolutely not. I don't have a gas burner at home. There's no way I could authentically cook a tagine dish at home and I certainly don't let it stop me. You're more than welcome to do that at home. You can buy clay tagine dishes online and in specialty stores in the states, it's very easy to do, but I just find it a bit of a fiddle because you've got to bring it home and boil it in milk to make it extra sturdy and then ... It's just too much faff and it's a massive dish if you want to serve enough people, which, I'm Iranian, Middle Eastern, we don't make a whole dish that serves just two people. We think big, we think family, freezing, all of those things. When we go, we do big portions.
I just found using a cooking pot absolutely fine and a tagine would have been a vessel created out of necessity. We don't need to do that now, even though it definitely is a completely different result. I have to say tagine creates a slightly more whole-ingredient dish with a much thinner, less broth, because it relies heavily on steam. It is different but you can still create the same flavors. Enjoy yourselves, don't let a clay vessel come between you and a good time.
Suzy: Thank you, Sabrina, the golden girl of Persian cooking, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Speaker 3: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.