PHOTO: Jonathan Lovekin/Interlink Books; Dishes featuring za'atar and saffron from Orient Express by Silvena Rowe.
Laura Brehaut/Postmedia News
Originally published on March 15, 2013;
London-based chef Silvena Rowe showcases recipes from the streets and bazaars of the Eastern Mediterranean in her new cookbook Orient Express (Interlink Books, 2012). Known for exploring the cuisines of her youth (Rowe is Bulgarian and her father was Turkish) in her previous books Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume (HarperCollins, 2011), and The Eastern and Central European Kitchen (Interlink, 2008), Rowe strives to bring the food of her favourite cities – Damascus and Istanbul – to the kitchens of the West.
Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume was Rowe’s first book inspired by Ottoman cuisine, which was succeeded by Turkish cuisine, and greatly influenced the cuisines of the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. Rowe travelled extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean region while researching and writing the book. She fell in love with Syria as she ate dishes such as White Butter Bean, Feta and Za’atar Spread, and Mahluta (Lentil, Rice and Lamb Soup) in the ancient village of Ma’alula in the mountains outside of Damascus. She sat in the garden of Abu Sahdi – the last hakawati (storyteller) in Damascus – and listened to tales of how he honed his craft.
Orient Express, while continuing on the Ottoman theme, presents recipes for small plates that are organized by key flavours and ingredients rather than course: Chili and Cumin, Sumac and Fresh Herbs, Cardamom and Honey, and Cinnamon and Flowers. “Orient Express very much follows the flavours [of the Eastern Mediterranean]: the za’atar, the sumac, the moutabal [baba ganoush], the dips,” Rowe says in an interview from her home in London. “Everything is very much inspired from there but with a slight modernization to [allow you to] apply and replicate in your own home in the West.”
In adapting the traditional recipes, Rowe used less fat and oil, changed the techniques slightly to suit today’s home cooks, and shortened the cooking times. “No longer are we using tons of oil in hummus and I don’t use any animal fat,” Rowe says. “The butter is brought down to a minimum and you know what? I don’t think we’re losing out on anything. We still get the best part – we get the inspiration, the dreams, the colours, the experience of travel, and the feeling of adventure.”
Rowe’s enthusiasm for the region comes through both in conversation and on the pages of her books. She emphasizes that she focused on flavours in Orient Express because she finds them so evocative. “I find the cuisine extremely alluring, inviting, delicious, colourful and magical. Like a film – like Alice in Wonderland especially – with the flavours being the main actors,” Rowe says. “We never had flavours so pronounced in any other cuisine, even French cuisine, you can’t think of flavours like this. You think of butter, you think of garlic, you think of cream but it’s not the same. They do not have the same kind of feeling. They don’t provoke you the way those flavours provoke you.”
Cumin, paprika and za’atar are among Rowe’s favourite spices to play with and she takes creative license with her za’atar in particular. The name za’atar can apply to a single herb (Origanum syriacum) or a spice blend, which can include dried herbs such as thyme and marjoram, sesame seeds, sumac and salt. “My za’atar is very different. I make a za’atar with black truffle and it’s incredible, so I go that little bit further to create something very, very different,” Rowe says. “I have a dish with citrus za’atar where I use dried citrus peel to emphasize the citrus element of the za’atar and it works very well with the seeds and with the herbs in the za’atar blend.”
The subtitle of the book, “Fast Food from the Eastern Mediterranean,” may lead you to think of quickly prepared recipes but the term ‘fast food’ actually refers to the concept of street food, and dishes you would eat out and about in Ankara or Aleppo, for instance. “I would describe it as a luxury street food,” Rowe explains. “Like chicken wings that are glazed in chili caramel for example, or meatballs made with sour cherry cumin pistachio, or a little burek – a very quick pastry.” These recipes may take up to a few hours to make, but Rowe adds that the pastries, for example, can be frozen and then baked before serving.
Luxury Ottoman street food is a concept Rowe plans to take further with Ottoman Café – a project in the works for a laid-back, mezze-style eatery in London. She recently left her position as chef-patron at Quince in The May Fair hotel in London, where she had been since June 2011, to focus on her television career (she will appear on BBC Two’s Country Show Cook Off on April 1) and realize the concept.
Photographer Jonathan Lovekin photographed the recipes for Orient Express, and the styling of the dishes was of utmost importance to Rowe. “I wanted to have [styling] like Donna Hay, very light, breezy, summery, like you’re on the Bosphorus somewhere,” she says. “It’s all about [presenting] this cuisine and lifestyle [to readers] because we’ve done to death the Tuscan and Umbrian villa or the south of France, so why not visit a small region somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean that we have no notion about. So it was just to create a different experience.”
Flowers and herbs feature prominently in both Orient Express and Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume, and enhance both the presentation and the flavour of the dishes. “The cuisine is so beautiful,” Rowe enthuses. “Just imagine in the Middle East or in Turkey when you give them this cuisine. These people, more than any other race and nation, eat with their eyes. You can’t say French eat with their eyes. You can’t say Italians but Middle Eastern types; they eat with their eyes and their stomachs.”
Recipes excerpted from Orient Express: Fast Food from the Eastern Mediterranean (Interlink Books, 2012) by Silvena Rowe.
4 tbsp pomegranate molasses
juice of 1 fresh pomegranate
1 tbsp runny honey
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2lb/1 kg chicken wings
for the Ottoman spice:
1 tbsp ground oregano
1 tbsp ground mint
½ tsp ground black pepper
¼ tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground cumin
¼ tbsp ground ginger
¼ tbsp ground fennel
¼ tbsp ground allspice
½ tbsp ground sumac
to serve:
seeds of 1 pomegranate
1. Four hours in advance, combine the pomegranate molasses, pomegranate juice, honey, and garlic in a bowl. Add the chicken wings and thoroughly coat with the pomegranate marinade. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. Meanwhile, mix all the spices together.
3. Preheat the oven to 400°F (350°F fan)/200°C (180°C fan).
4. Arrange the marinated chicken wings on a large baking tray and sprinkle liberally with the Ottoman spice blend, putting aside a little for later. Roast for 30–40 minutes, until golden. Sprinkle on the remaining spice and pomegranate seeds just before serving.
5. Serve with Caramelized Onion Salad with Sumac and Pomegranate Dressing.
for 8 to share
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 rabbit, jointed into small pieces
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground paprika
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp za’atar, plus extra for garnish
scant ½ cup/100 ml dry white wine
¾ cup/200 ml chicken stock
small bunch of fresh oregano, finely chopped
3 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp olive oil (extra)
3 large circular sheets of yufka or filo pastry
1–2 tbsp melted clarified butter or ghee
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (350°F fan)/200°C (180°C fan).
2. Heat the olive oil in a large ovenproof casserole dish. Add the onion, garlic, and rabbit pieces and cook for about 5 minutes, until the meat is browned on all sides. Stir in the cumin, paprika, allspice, cardamom, za’atar, white wine, and chicken stock. Simmer for 5 minutes, then cover and cook in the oven for 45 minutes.
3. Remove the rabbit from the casserole dish and allow to cool completely before shredding the meat and discarding the skin and bones. Meanwhile, return the casserole dish with its cooking juices to the heat, bring to a boil, and reduce until a third of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the shredded meat and fresh oregano. Remove from the heat.
4. Combine the melted butter and olive oil in a small bowl. Stack 3 circular sheets of yufka pastry and cut in half. Lay the halves on top of each other and cut into 4 equal wedges, so that you end up with 24 in total. Now cut off the rounded edges at the top of each wedge so that you have 24 triangles.
5. Brush some oil and butter onto one of the pastry triangles, spoon on some of the rabbit mixture and top with another pastry triangle. Seal down the edges, brush with some more oil and butter, then sprinkle with the extra za’atar (see overleaf). Repeat until you have 12 filled pastries.
6. To cook, brush a frying pan with the clarified butter and when medium hot, sauté the gözleme for about 1 minute on each side, until golden and crispy.
makes 12
for the cake:
7 oz/200g pistachios, ground
½ tsp ground cardamom
11 tbsp (150 g) unsalted butter, cubed
1½ cups (225 g) self-rising flour
1 cup (183 g) superfine sugar
3 eggs
½ cup (125 ml) thick yogurt or suzme (strained yogurt)
for the frosting:
3½ oz (100 g) white chocolate, chopped
7 oz (200 g) cream cheese
½ tsp rose water
1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
¼ tsp ground cardamom
1–2 small edible roses, petals only
1 tbsp confectioner’s sugar (for sprinkling)
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (350°F fan)/200°C (180°C fan). Butter and line an 8in/20cm cake pan with parchment paper.
2. Using a food processor, blend the ground pistachios, cardamom, butter, flour, and sugar until you have something resembling breadcrumbs. Tip into a mixing bowl and combine with the eggs and yogurt or suzme. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Cover the cake with foil halfway through cooking. Allow to cool on a rack.
3. To make the frosting: Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and allow to cool. In a separate bowl, combine the cream cheese with the rose water, then add the cooled chocolate. Sift in the confectioner’s sugar and sprinkle in the ground cardamom. Mix well until you have a smooth cream.
4. Serve cake accompanied by the chocolate and cardamom cream. Sprinkle with edible roses and dust with confectioner’s sugar. Serve.
for 8–10 to share
Back to Top