Every two weeks, frequent traveler and cookbook author Yasmin Khan takes us to a different locale by way of a cookbook that captures its essence. This week, she explores Greg and Lucy Malouf's Saha: A Chef's Journey Through Lebanon and Syria to give us a recipe for braised Swiss chard with crunchy pine nuts and tahini sauce—a hearty, creamy side dish with a surprising kick that's truly representative of Levantine cuisine.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a truly great cookbook. The cookbooks I cherish the most are the ones that instantly elevate my mood—they are uplifting, sensory, immersive. They tickle my tastebuds as I flick through their pages and propel me, urgently, to my kitchen. A great cookbook improves my technique, teaching me how to bake, baste, or barbecue to perfection. A great cookbook can also, on occasion, offer a useful history lesson, capturing a unique snapshot of a place at a particular moment in time. As celebrated food writer Julia Child once said, “Cookbooks are the history of an epoch. They provide answers to social, political, and economic questions about the society for which they were written…[and] are an essential ingredient to preserving our past and enhancing our future.” Saha (the Arabic word for “a blessing" or "a toast to health”) is a great cookbook because it does all of the above.
Saha follows Australian chef Greg Malouf and his writing partner, Lucy Malouf, on their travels through the rugged mountains of Lebanon and Syria. Greg is of Lebanese heritage and his recipes are imbued with an enchanting sense of love and longing—the same nostalgia so many second-generation immigrants capture when writing about the food of their ancestral roots. His recipes are easy to follow and enticing, but equally unexpected; variants on hummus and baba ghanoush are minimal in this book. Instead, Greg takes the reader on a journey through the more sophisticated cuisine of the region, with dishes such as quail with fragrant rice and dates, potato kibbeh stuffed with spinach, mozzarella, and pine nuts, and panna cotta with an orange blossom–peach caramel.
Alongside Greg’s recipes are vivid travelogues written by Lucy, whose touching stories capture the intimate details of everyday life: a glimpse of an old man shuffling around his kitchen in pajamas, the hectic bustle around a street stall selling refreshing black licorice juice. This is perhaps Saha’s greatest gift.
Lucy writes not only about the meals she and Greg share in homes and restaurants, and visits to spice souks, dairy farms, and pine nut forests, but also the history and politics of Lebanon and Syria. And therein lies the rub. Saha was published in 2005, a year before the Israel-Lebanon war, and six years before the the devastating civil war in Syria that has shaken the region to this day. Lucy’s depictions of ordinary, beautiful, everyday life in Aleppo and Raqqa before the wars—cities that are now unnervingly familiar for all the wrong reasons—take on new poignancy in light of their current destruction. These tiny snapshots of history are all the more moving as a result.
While I was drawn to numerous dishes from Saha, one in particular stood out: braised Swiss chard with crisp fried onions and tahini sauce. The complexity of flavors, yet simplicity of ingredients and preparation method, are indicative of Greg's style and represent several key ingredients in Levantine cuisine. The silky, lemony tahini sauce in Greg's dish takes the hearty greens to a new level. I slightly modified the recipe from the book by replacing the onions with pine nuts and adding Aleppo pepper, to pay homage to that city and in recognition of its role as one of the epicenters of Middle Eastern cuisine.
With recipes like these, Saha reminds us of the life-affirming abundance that exists in the Middle East, despite the tragedy that has unfolded in the years since this book was written. It celebrates the creamy nuttiness of tahini, the sour brightness of citrus, the earthy tang of pomegranate molasses, the sharp pepperiness of extra-virgin olive oil. It takes us to arak distilleries, to vineyards and olive groves. It walks us around sweet shops, peering at shelves that groan with baklava, and offers us a plate of flaky pastries stuffed with thick clotted cream. It celebrates life. And this is perhaps the most important thing every great cookbook should do.
For the braised chard
- 3 bunches Swiss chard (about 2 lbs)
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons light olive oil
- 1 clove garlic
- 5 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 pinch kosher salt
- coarsley ground black pepper
- 1 pinch Aleppo pepper
- 20 grams (1½ tablespoons) butter
- 40 grams (⅓ cup) pine nuts
For the tahini sauce
- 75g grams (¼ cup) tahini paste
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- ¼ teaspoons salt
What's your favorite way to cook hearty greens? Let us in on the secret in the comments!