za’atar manouche

Imagine the most beautifully set table. Conjure up a tablecloth so clean and worn that the gold embroidery gleams against the dry white cotton; the plates: matching ancient, never once chipped; the cutlery and serving spoons tarnished but loved; the chairs gathered from all over the house to crowd around and witness the feast. Hold onto these images. I’m going to take you on a quick tour around the table.

Earlier you would have found my great grandmother in her kitchen. She filled food with secrets, scooping wet curls of yellow flesh from a courgette’s core using a turquoise-handled gouge, replacing them with an aromatic filling of rice speckled with mince meat, studded with crisp pine nuts, and rained on by chopped coriander. Perhaps the secrets are what keep the courgettes afloat now, showing their backs like lazy whales in a wide blue bowl swimming with warm yoghurt, laced with garlic and fresh mint. This is kousa mahshi. We’re going to eat them with rice, splitting their tender sides with blunt spoon edges. The secrets come spilling out so deliciously that they are guaranteed instant sanctuary. Smuggled into hungry mouths. Leaving only beaded yoghurt drops on an embroidered Damascene tablecloth to betray their existence.

Warak enab. You can get them in tins, full of other people’s secrets like shoes you buy from a charity shop. But my great grandmother filled them with her own secrets in her own kitchen this morning. Wrapping wet green vine leaves over little mounds of parsley-ed rice, making rows of miniature Egyptian mummies never to be unwrapped again.

All this, yet nothing matches the delicacy of triangular fatayr bi sabanekh, ladening several trays, embracing the generosity of the table, creating warmth in thought and spirit — maybe that’s the magic of sumac. It’s still in the memory of my nose and my fingers dance with it. We laid the spinach on circles of the finest gossamer pastry, folded them into purses, and baked them until a firm, flaky shell formed to protect the softness of the secrets inside.

Are you wondering what those are, arranged unprotected by the bowls of homous? Kibbe protect their own secrets. The mincemeat is moulded perfectly into egg shapes, forming a hard shell in the oven. I reach over and eat one now. Inside my mouth I am aware of the soft pine nuts punctuating the sweetness of the mincemeat but I never see them. I remember something I read recently: “probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg before it is broken”. The kibbe is so private an egg that you don’t break it before eating.

Oh, and there’s tabbouleh like a succulent pot pourri soaked in tooth-tingling dressing. Baladi bread is wrapped in a napkin to keep it warm and soft and vulnerable. Have some. With olive oil? Or I can get you some za’atar if you like? Eat. It’s good for you.

Then afterwards, you feel the sun on your back through the window, warm like your own gratitude for such a blessing. There is coffee with the taste of cardamom; made with such precision I could not even begin to fathom how to hold the pot correctly. And perhaps ma’amoul, to keep you strong? It’s dusted with icing sugar and the dates are fresh and hidden deep within the soft shortbread. Or a kunafa bird nest. That’s my favourite. Like birds hiding their treasures and secrets in nests, we filled our golden nests of sleek vermicelli with the emeralds of pistachio nuts. Elegantly bathed in a sweet syrup. I ate, and it nourished me.

The meal was over 10 years ago, but still I am filled with these secrets.

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