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Imad's Syrian Kitchen by Imad Alarnab

Posted by Nigella on the 6th July 2023
Image of Imad Alarnab's Muhammara
Photo by Andy Sewell

"In Syria”, Imad Alarnab writes in the introduction to his Plain Rice (Riz Shaeira) recipe, “there is nothing called plain rice or plain anything! We always add something to everything! In some countries, plain rice is just plain boiled rice, but … we cook rice with a very fine pasta, like angel hair pasta, and we always add spices. It would be too plain without it. We don’t even consider salt or pepper seasoning: it’s with everything. It’s like waking up in the morning. It’s what you do next that’s important.”

I smiled when I read this; indeed, I smiled reading so many of the recipes in this wonderful book, which is just brimful of flavour, generosity and gentle good humour. It is a huge testament to the author, who, for all his open-hearted cheeriness, has endured so much to be here. A Syrian refugee who lost almost everything — his home, his restaurants, his country — he came to the UK with nothing in 2015, and he has since brought his family to safety and established himself here with a restaurant, and a zeal to share his food with others. He professes how lucky he feels to be here, but I rather feel we’re the lucky ones. And I wish everyone would read his short section at the beginning of the book entitled What Is A Refugee, from which I will quote just a few words:

“My name is Imad Alarnab, and I was a refugee, an asylum seeker, a displaced person, an illegal immigrant. What does that make you think of? Be honest. Does it make you think of people deciding one day to leave their home country for a more exciting job or better opportunities elsewhere…We didn’t ‘choose’ to leave, it was not a decision any of us came to lightly. Every single one of us was forced. We had no choice. We fled our homes that we loved because we were no longer safe, or because our homes had been destroyed. Our families were in danger and we had to do what we could to keep them safe. What would you have done? We don’t want to travel illegally. We don’t want to take advantage of anything or anyone; we want to be part of a community, to work, to play our role in society again. We are all just like you.”

How I can possibly whittle down the recipes to give you a taster of the book, I don’t rightly know for I want to cook and eat everything in it. But I’ll do my best. I have to tell you about his hummus, which he likes chunky (though gives instructions for how to make it smooth if that’s your preference) that involves a brilliant touch: you fry 6 cloves of garlic in 100ml of olive oil, then blitz some of them into the hummus as you make it, adding couple along with a drizzle of the garlic-infused oil on top. Then there’s the wonderful Flatbread (Khubz) which he cooks over an upturned wok on the stove (a method I learnt from a young chef in Spain, strangely enough, some years ago); the most gorgeous fried breadcrumbed aubergine/eggplant and cheese dish, Saroja; crushed new potatoes with garlic and spring onions, topped with chermoula yogurt and tahini (Mtuma); a divinely aromatic slow-cooked shoulder of lamb (Katif Ghanam); Syrian Fish and Chips with Tahini Sauce; the Mujadara, which I know as a dish of lentils, rice and onions and which is here made with bulgar wheat; Makloubeh; Kabsa Rice with Chicken, Kabsa being a particular Syrian spice mix (and the recipes for the various spice mixes and sauces are particular favourites of mine); a rice, aubergine and lamb dish that just sings to me; a Syrian (and vegan) Moussaka; bulgur wheat with courgettes/zucchini and dill (Barghil Bialkusa); and an avocado-y and olive-studded Fattoush Salad. And then, of course, there are the desserts, which include Baklawa; Date and Tahini Sweet Dip; that glorious, soaked semolina and yogurt cake, Besbusi; and Konafa — think a gooey hot cheesecake with shredded-wheat pastry.

It’s been hard leaving out so many of the recipes. You’ll have to get the book! But I’m very happy to be sharing a lovely recipe with you today, and it’s the Muhammara, a characteristically Syrian dip I adore, made with red peppers and walnuts, and topped with pomegranate molasses and seeds, red onion and parsley.

Imad’s Syrian Kitchen by Imad Alarnab is out now (HQ, £26).
Photos by Andy Sewell.

Try this recipe from the book

Image of Imad Alarnab's Muhammara
Photo by Andy Sewell
By Imad Alarnab
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Cosmo Cocktail Sausages