Anissa Helou and Aisha Al-Tamimi in the Books for Cooks kitchen
report and pictures by Susannah Tarbush
Compared to the cuisines of many other countries in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, the cuisine of Qatar is one of the least known internationally. Londoners had a rare and welcome chance to watch Qatari food being prepared, and to eat the delicious and colourful results, at two Dishes from Qatar evenings held last on Tuesday and Wednesday last week at the famous Notting Hill bookshop Books for Cooks. I was invited along to the Tuesday event.
The evenings featured Aisha Al-Tamimi, a leading Qatari cook, accompanied by a team from the Food Forum of the National Museum of Qatar. Aisha was partnered in her cookery demonstration by the well-known Lebanese-Syrian cook, food writer and consultant Anissa Helou. Aisha is the author of several books, which were display at the evening. Anissa's latest book is Levant: Recipes and Memories from the Middle East (Harper Collins, 2013).
books by Qatari cook Aisha Al-Tamimi
Anissa and Aisha are lively characters with keen senses of humour, and their rapport with each other and with the audience enhanced an informative and entertaining evening.
The Dishes from Qatar evenings were part of the Nour Festival of Arts from the Middle East and North Africa, running in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea from 1 October to 30 November.
The evening was also part of Qatar UK 2013 - a year-long programme of events to celebrate and develop the partnership between Qatar and the UK. The programme aims "to increase engagement between the people of both countries in the spirit of innovation, openness and learning." Qatar Museums Authority and the British Council are co-ordinating the programme of activities in both countries, in association with several other partners. On the second Dishes from Qatar evening the guests included the Qatari cultural attaché in London and his wife.
Nadya al-Saleh, Senior Specialist for Programmes at the National Museum of Qatar, introduced the event. "Today, as we all know, food is a main aspect of our life: it brings us joy, and happiness, I think all of us love food," she said. "It is also a main, important and accessible way to understand the culture, and the identity, of any nation."
The new National Museum of Qatar, currently under construction, is scheduled to be opened at the end of 2015, 40 years after the original museum was opened. The new museum is being built around the original museum, to architect Jean Nouvel's innovative design inspired by the desert rose. Nadya explained that despite its name, the desert rose is not a flower. Desert roses are rose-like groups of crystal found in desert regions.
The new National Museum will explore the history and the identity of Qatar and of its people. "One of its important features is a 70-seat auditorium for the Food Forum and kitchen demos. And we will also have the food culture programmes" Nadya said. "Tonight we are very happy to present the two special ladies: Anissa Helou - our National Museum of Qatar food consultant - and our famous Qatari chef Aisha al-Tamimi."
Nadya made various contributions to the discussions of Anissa and Aisha with the audience during the cookery demonstration, talking for example about the food culture around Ramadan, and about Qatar National Day held annually on 18 December. Ramadan foods include the traditional harees, a kind of porridge made of cracked wheat cooked with meat or chicken and then given a lengthy beating.
Nadya al-Saleh, Senior Specialist for Programmes at the National Museum of Qatar
Coffee plays a central role in Qatari hospitality and guests at Dishes from Qatar were greeted with dates and small cups of fragrant Qatari coffee. They were given recipe sheets for the coffee and dishes prepared during the evening, as well as canvas tote goodie bags decorated with the UK Qatar UK 2013 logo. The bags contained fridge magnets and a hard-backed notebook with the logo, and a decorative little dallah made from golden wire and containing a sachet of coffee and spice mix with instructions on how to use it.
Holding a splendid traditional dallah, Aisha demonstrated how Qatari coffee is made and served. She placed a kind of brush in the spout of the dallah to strain ensure the poured brew from coffee grounds and spices. Some Qataris still use the traditional dallah, but nowadays thermos flasks are used to keep the coffee hot for hours.
Aisha Al-Tamimi with traditional dallah coffee pot
Aisha made the coffee by boiling a lightly roasted coffee for around 10 minutes with saffron, cardamom, a spice mixture - including mastic, cloves and other spices - plus a little powdered milk to lighten the brew. The addition of powdered milk is not traditional, but Aisha said it is now the way most people in Qatar, and many people in Saudi Arabia, prepare coffee. She explained how a visitor's little cup of coffee will be refilled repeatedly until the visitor shakes the cup from side to side to indicate "enough".
Nadya al-Saleh serves coffee the modern way - from a thermos flask
Aisha then moved on to prepare the main dish of the evening - marguga. Anissa noted that every Middle Eastern has a dish made with bread - for example the fatteh of Lebanon and some other countries. Marguga is Qatari savoury bread dish. It involves making a salona, "a cross between a soup and a stew, a kind of broth with vegetables and meat, flavoured in different ways." The broken up bread is added to the pot towards the end of cooking.
Marguga derives its name from the very thin flat bread that is its vital ingredient. Another popular bread dish, particularly in Ramadan, is tharid - said to have been the favourite dish of the Prophet Mohammad.
Anissa described marguga as "basically like an Arabic pasta dish except that the difference between the Arabian version and the Italian version is that marguga is not al dente at all, it has to melt." Aisha added that marguga is far more spiced than an Italian pasta dish.
The recipe sheet for marguga included the recipe for bread made from a simple flour, water and salt dough "kneaded for half an hour" and then rolled very thin and cut into strips and added to the marguga. For her demonstration Aisha used already baked flat Iranian bread.
In her marguga Aisha used skinned organic chicken cut into pieces which she dry roasted rather than boiled it before using it to make the dish. The list of ingredients for marguga covered a page and a half of the recipe sheets. Alongside onion, garlic and tomatoes were vegetables including courgettes, potatoes, carrots, aubergine, pumpkin and green pepper. There was a battery of spices and herbs: star anise, cloves, curry leaves, fresh ginger, green chilli, fresh coriander, parsley and dill, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, fennel, paprika, cinnamon, cardamom, cinnamon stick, dried red chilli flakes. An essential ingredient of Gulf cookery, pierced dried black lime, was also included.
Aisha shows some of the ingredients for marguga.
There was particular interest from the guests in the b'zar - described by Anissa as "a wonderful spice mixture" - of which a tablespoon was added to the marguga. Aisha's b'zar incorporated 29 spices. Each family tends to have its own recipe for b'zar. Anissa said two of Aisha's sisters are in charge of making and distributing the b'zar for Aisha's entire extended family. Aisha and Anissa contrasted the use of spices in Lebanese and Qatari cuisine. In Lebanon food is mainly spiced with black pepper, cinnamon and allspice. But in Qatar "we must put in red chilli, cumin, coriander, fennel etc... like Indian food," Aisha said.
While Aisha prepared and cooked the food she told the guests how she got married at 15 and was told by her husband after the honeymoon that she should herself learn to cook rather than employing a cook. From an older sister she learned how to prepare mashbuss, white rice, salona and other Qatari staples. She continued to learn from her sisters, friends, books, magazines, with results that were received enthusiastically by her husband. She widened her culinary repertoire when she went to the US where he did his master's degree, and then to Wales, where he did his PhD. During this time she did various cookery courses, including one in cake decoration.
Aisha with plates of mini regag of various flavours
As her starter at Dishes from Qatar Aisha made mini regag, small flavoured discs of thin crispy bread. Her secret weapon in making the mini regag was an electric chapati maker. She placed teaspoons of bread batter on the plate, spaced to allow for spreading, and then lowered the lid for a short time. She lifted the lid to reveal the magical transformation of the batter into regag. "I love these little crackers: there is a commercial venture possibility here!" said Anissa.
Aisha showed plates of mini regag that she had made earlier and said "they are nice to serve when visitors come - nice tasting, and small." Four different flavours were used in making the mini regag: saffron and rose water; ketchup; crushed flaked almonds and ground fennel; and poppy and sesame seeds with a pinch of cayenne pepper and fine sea salt.
During the first course of the dinner that followed the demonstration, the mini regag were served with a yoghurt dip including cucumber, walnuts, barberries and fresh mint. The flavoursome regag had a unique crunchy wafery texture which complemented the dip beautifully.
marguga is served
The margug was bursting with colours and flavour. It was certainly a plus visually and taste-wise that many of the vegetables were cut in generous-sized chunks rather than cut small. The bread had been transformed to a softness, adding to the "comfort food" nature of the dish.
The sweet dish of the evening was balalit, made with cut vermicelli, turmeric, ghee, cardamom powder, sugar, water, rose water and eggs. The vermicelli is boiled with turmeric and cardamom and then drained and mixed with sugar, rose water and saffron. The desert is then baked uncovered in a low oven uncovered to dry the noodles. Finally it is topped with an omelette, made with black pepper and coriander. Some Qataris prefer to scramble the eggs. Balilit is similar to certain Indian vermicelli sweets topped with an omelette.
"This is a typical breakfast in Qatar, and it's really delicious" Anissa said. Aisha said she makes it when people visit in the mornings, between breakfast and lunch. She recalled how neighbours used to gather in their houses every day and would eat sweets such as balalit, khabees and aseeda. Balalit is also served as a sweet after lunch and in the evenings.
Aisha prepared her balalit the traditional way, adding the dried vermicelli to boiling water. Nowadays the vermicelli is sometimes fried before boiling to make a richer, deeper-coloured dish.
Aisha carries the balalit to the table
Aisha and Anissa pose for pictures while guests tuck into the Qatari feastfor further information on Qatari food activities follow @eatqatar on Instagram