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Greg Malouf’s Arabian nights

Samantha Weinberg savours the recipes of a chef who is part pedant, part professor

Samantha Weinberg | March/April 2013

Australia is the birthplace of several flavours of modern cookery. One of its most delicious came into the world in Melbourne, thanks to a tubby Aussie with Lebanese parents. Greg Malouf, "a greedy boy" by his own admission, knew he wanted to cook from an early age, but his mother barred him from her kitchen. So he learnt by working as a chef first in a local Mexican restaurant, then in Europe and Hong Kong. After getting married, to Lucy, a travel writer, he made repeated research trips to the Levant. Their book about ingredients, "Arabesque', was published in 1999, but it was with "Saha: a Chef’s Journey Through Lebanon and Syria" (2005)—the first of three exquisitely photographed, evocatively written travel-cookbook hybrids—that their brand hit its mark. Like its follow-ups, it is filled with recipes that refashion the culinary traditions of Malouf’s homeland into a way of cooking he calls “modern Middle Eastern”. Now in his early 50s, Malouf continues to travel—and to cook what he preaches, most recently at his restaurant MoMo in Melbourne and Petersham Nurseries in London. This year he has begun planning a new venue in Dubai, and he and Lucy, now divorced but still collaborating, are working on a new book.

TABLE MANNER  A combination of erudition and enthusiasm, part pedant, part mad professor. Malouf’s recipes are more cheffy than Yotam Ottolenghi’s, and are all about attention to detail. In "Saha" he hunts down the world’s best pine nuts – “strongly resinous yet sweet, with a soft, buttery texture” – and recommends that the perfect houmous should have “all the chickpea skins” picked out.

KEY INFLUENCES  Claudia Roden. Malouf read her “Book of Middle Eastern Food” while he was a trainee chef, and it made him think people might enjoy the kind of food cooked by his other guiding lights: his mother, May, and the army of aunts, grandmas and cousins who chopped, baked and roasted in the kitchens of his childhood.

FAVOURITE INGREDIENTS  Preserved lemons, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, saffron, yogurt, quail and pigeon. Malouf is happy to describe his palate as “sour”.

TYPICAL DISH Whole salmon fillet in fragrant salt, tarator-style. This takes flavours of the Middle East—coriander leaves, tahini and sumac—and applies them to a fish more at home in higher latitudes. It’s treated with reverence: first cured in salt and spices, including cumin and ground fennel seeds, then dressed in paper and warmed at 80˚C. Cooks are urged to “peel away the skin, then gently scrape away all of the grey blood line”, before spreading yogurt, tahini and tarator—a walnut and coriander tabbouleh—“neatly and evenly” on top. The result “almost dissolves in your mouth”.

WHAT WORKS  Recipes harking back to the Middle East are sure-footed and often sublime. Bedouin-style spinach, lentil and lemon soup is earthy yet lifted by a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and a swirl of garlic, coriander and olive oil. Lamb shawarma—marinated overnight in a poised confection of spices, then cooked on coal—first explodes, then melts on the tongue. Watermelon and rosewater sorbet is a nightingale’s hymn to the hot summer nights of the Levant.

WHAT DOESN’T  Malouf’s Middle Eastern take on Western staples can be a little forced. Cooking southern-fried chicken with Eastern spices, or beef ribeye with Baghdad Café butter, feels like dragging a teenage boy to the ballet.

COOK HIM BECAUSE  He brings an Arabian Nights sense of wonder and refinement to a cuisine often consigned to falafel shops.

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