DIANA Al Shaer is an interesting woman. She's half-Russian, half-Palestinian, an international dressage rider and a cultural diplomat. She once quoted Tolstoy as saying that art conveys emotions to promote mutual understanding between people. Because as we sense and react to the transmitted emotions, we turn information into communication.
It sounds a bit like an explanation of how you make a horse cross a track and trot to the beat of the music. My excellent chef-cook sister Annette put it more simply when she said she would force diplomats to eat the food of the country where they are posted. Because when you experience someone's cooking, you experience something of the art and culture that makes them human, then it becomes much more difficult to fight with him. Yes, “him". It's mostly the men who fight while the women cook.
Annette's intuition was correct because food diplomacy — “culinary diplomacy" or the somewhat more unfortunate “gastro diplomacy" — has become jargon. On the assumption that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach — (almost) no surprises there — food culture is used to promote diplomacy.
But there is nothing new under the sun. The earliest example of food diplomacy is the battle when three men showed up uninvited to Grandfather Abraham, sitting at the tent's entrance by the terebinth tree of Mamre in the hottest part of the day. At lunch, you might say. Abraham got up, hurried over (yes, hurried), went to greet, and immediately had Sarah bake roosterkoek and had the servant slaughter a calf.
This act of remarkable hospitality towards three wild strangers brought him a promise of an heir and paved the way for his negotiations to let his nephew Lot escape the later discomfort at Sodom. It shows you what a nice plate of food can do.
Now I see a scene playing out in my mind's eye of Ukrainians and Russians eating borscht, shuba and caviar with blinis around a table. At the same time, a bottle of crystal-clear vodka is passed round (given how difficult they are for each other, maybe two bottles or even three). Also, in Gaza, people sit at a mile-long table laden with mansaf, musakhan, shakshuka, falafels and much more. And break bread together, talk, cry, comfort and try to make peace with full bellies.
Wishful thinking, I know. But Ari is not a pipe dream, even though you sometimes feel as if you're in one when he visits. He's an ex-boyfriend of sister Celia and an Israeli who now lives here. Ari is big and generous, a food connoisseur who gives these words meaning. He had the habit of arriving at an outstanding restaurant and ordering and tasting everything on the menu. He also spent a lot of time at my sister's restaurant and almost ate everything there too.
Ari cooked with the same dedication. When we met him 25 years ago, his generous use of herbs, garlic and olive oil was over the top for us. He cared little. Ari eats as he lives, without reservation or hesitation. He often arrived at the farm with an hour-and-a-half's warning, laden with bags full of ingredients from far and wide. Then he turned the kitchen into a war room and began to cook like someone fighting a battle. Orders were barked out in broken English, crumpled by a robust Israeli accent; great handfuls of chopped-up goodies were thrown into sizzling pans and the kitchen was used from side to side: every pot, pan, spoon, knife and bowl was used or at least messed up. And all this without a recipe in sight. But when you were sitting at the table, the point of the battle was clear: the total overwhelming of your senses. When you were done, you couldn't fight even if you wanted to.
Two of Ari's dishes, in particular, stick with me: grilled eggplant with a tahini sauce and herb and cheese-filled tortillas. Both are really simple but also delicious and quick to prepare, the herbs are blooming in my garden and bright purple eggplant is in season.
Ari, unfortunately, left the farm one morning after a special military operation that went wrong, and the recipes were part of the collateral damage. Therefore, the recipes I give here are partly based on my memory of the kitchen battles, partly on hearsay, and who knows, maybe a dash of imagination.
- Two nice large eggplants
- ¼ cup tahini (sesame seed butter)
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1-2 finely pressed garlic cloves
- salt and pepper
- a pinch of fine cumin and za'atar (optional) to taste
Cut the eggplants lengthwise with peel and stem on. Cut a deep diamond pattern into the flesh with a sharp knife but do not cut through the skin.
Paint or drizzle the eggplant's flesh with olive oil and season with salt or a fat pinch each of salt, za'atar and sumac.
Put on a baking sheet and bake until soft and golden brown in a medium-hot oven or air fryer, about 30-40 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and cumin together to form a tahini sauce. The mixture will become stiff, but be patient. Now, mix in cold water spoon by spoon until a creamy sauce forms.
Drizzle the sauce over the eggplant, sprinkle with chopped parsley and mint, and add a handful of pomegranate and pine nuts if you want to make it look pretty. You can also add a few dates cut into cubes, which add a surprising sweetness.
As you will have seen by now, the recipe is very adaptable. When Ari first made it, tahini was as rare as hen's teeth, especially in the countryside, and we improvised with thick yoghurt. You can, too.
Spoonfuls of aubergine on any fresh bread are too delicious for words, but served on the skin it goes perfectly with grilled fish, lamb or chicken.
Herb and cheese-filled tortilla
(4–6 people for a snack)
This snack is nice to make when you have guests or otherwise with a regular pot of soup. It's quick, easy and healthy. It consists of three stackled tortilla flatbreads with a filling between the layers of chopped herbs, cheese, olive oil and whatnot. It is roasted in a pan until done and cut into wedges for serving. Something like a cheese-herb quiche.(sorry, Ari).
- A selection of washed and dried herbs, like mint, flat-leaf parsley, coriander, dill, chives, basil, marjoram
- 6 tortillas
- Grated rind of 1-2 lemons
- 1 hot chilli, finely chopped (optional, but tasty)
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 cup grated mozzarella
- ¼ cup grated hard cheese, such as pecorino or feta
- lemon juice
- 2–4 tablespoons olive oil
Chop the herbs roughly so you have a bunch, at least 100g in total. Use less of the herbs with a sharper flavour, such as rosemary and thyme. A handful of baby spinach or rocket and a thinly sliced spring onion or two also work.
Mix the ingredients, apart from the lemon juice and oil, with your hands until everything is evenly combined. Then drizzle over the oil and juice and mix with a fork. Divide the herb filling in half. Place one tortilla on a board and cover with half of one mound of the herb mixture. Put a tortilla on top and repeat the process. Place the last tortilla on top.
Press down firmly to hold everything together and carefully place it in a hot, dry pan over a medium flame. Press flat with the palm of your hand so the layers begin to adhere. Turn over and grill on the other side until lightly browned and the cheese melts. Turn out onto a breadboard and let rest for a while before slicing with a sharp knife to serve. Repeat with the other three tortillas.
Where's Ari? I wasn't involved in the special military operation but whatever happened could be forgiven in exchange for one of Ari's kitchen battles. I'll set Diana Al Shaer on him if he doesn't watch out.
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.