Picture this: there we all were, in the middle of a country in West Africa. It was the end of the day on a beach, a superb sunset and four of us looking for food. We were an Iraqi pleasure seeker, a ravenous omnivore, a Buddhist from Burma and, the difficult one, as always, me, the vegan. There were so many places we might not eat and be compatible. Last night, our Iraqi friend sang Frank Sinatra’s My Way in a sleazy club; the night before, the Burmese brainy one beat everyone in a general knowledge quiz in a hotel pub somewhere we could not remember by the next day. I was happy to eat vegetable yassa or some rice or beans or just fruit and vegetables. Then we stumbled on Ali’s Cafe at a crossroads in the middle of a dusty town.
Ali’s looked like a 1970s fish-n-chip café, all formica tables and cracked ceramic tiles and a cold floor and one of those blue fierce electric things on the wall which zaps bugs. There was no-one else in there, at least, no-one visible to the eye. Ali beamed and showed us to a table, brought out a bottle of Lebanese wine and said ‘A meal with no meat? No problem.’
I had no idea what was to follow, as I expected – and I would have been delighted with – a plate of hummus and bread and a bit of a salad. However, Ali turned out to be the best host in the world and a blindingly brilliant cook.
When the food came out, there were cheeses for the others, soft white goat’s cheese and creamy soft cheese topped with oil and zaatar and pastries filled with cheese and pine nuts and all sorts. But it was not one of those meals which I often find myself confronted with, where it’s all about me having to question and then avoid most of the stuff on the table. At Ali’s, I was spoilt for choice. Baked pastries with spinach and nuts and vegetables, delicious vegetables and nuts rolled in vine leaves, baba ganoush, pickled vegetables, salads such as fattouch, olives, tabbouleh, dips, sauces, fried potatoes, fried pastries, aubergine dishes, okra dishes, rices. Oh, and hummus and flatbreads. And falafel, mutabbel, mujaddara, makdous, fuul, toum, batata harra, roasted nuts.
Of course, then there was the fabulous coffee- I seldom drink coffee but this sweet black coffee was an exception – and the others nibbled honey-soaked baklava. The meal lasted for three hours – the food didn’t stop, and we ate slowly, with pauses between dishes – and of course this meant that the conversation flowed from philosophy to politics to literature and then degenerated totally to shared laughter and shared good memories.
I cook Lebanese or Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food a lot at home. Lebanese wine and the coffee are favourites too. I seek out good restaurants such as Mashawi in Exeter and Kilis just off Upper Street in Islington where the food is exceptional and the service friendly. I have great memories of both of those places; in particular, two of us were in Kilis waiting for two more people who were detained in traffic for an hour and we drank some good Lebanese wine and were uselessly happy for the rest of the meal. Good food, good company, good conversation shared. Good times.
It’s interesting how much of our culture is based on food. Family meals, sharing, celebrating. Meals at home and out with friends. No wonder Cesar Chavez said, ‘If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.’
You don’t have to eat a lot, or drink too much. But there’s an old Irish proverb: ‘Laughter is brightest in the place where food is.’ And given their history, our Irish foreparents should probably know best.