One of the chefs that I talked to during Savour New Zealand was the innovative and influential Greg Malouf. An Australian of Lebanese descent, Greg has taken Lebanese food out of the souvlaki take-away shops and moved it into the world of fine dining with his acclaimed Melbourne restaurant MoMo. He has also been instrumental in broadcasting his take on Middle Eastern cuisine through masterclasses like Savour New Zealand and with his books – Arabesque and Moorish – written by Greg and ex-wife Lucy Malouf. Arabesque is an A-Z of Middle Eastern ingredients, an invaluable aid to the cook who has bought a bag of sumac or bottle of pomegranate juice and doesn’t know what to do with it. Moorish is a more straightforward cookbook for those who already know what to do with the ingredients but are looking for new recipes.
Greg recently spent a month travelling in the Middle East for his new book which he hopes to launch in November of this year. “It’s going to be a kind of travel diary, I just spent a month in the Lebanon and Syria. They are very different countries even though they border each other and occupy each other. Lebanon is very European, particularly Beirut, but the Arabic influence is also strongly felt. Lebanon is steeped in food culture so there aren’t many trends but now there are a lot of high-end Japanese and French restaurants. If I was going to do a sabbatical, I would consider going over there and doing something contemporary Lebanese or Middle Eastern.”
He travelled a lot as a young man, having a “ten year plan to expose myself to different cuisines.” Greg worked in kitchens in France, Switzerland and Belgium before spending three years in Hong Kong: “that’s where I got the interest in fusion cooking.” During his travelling days he learned new techniques and about the importance of good ingredients and great produce. Despite his awareness and interest in world cuisines, Greg “always had Middle Eastern food at the back of my mind.” His upbringing, as in many Lebanese households, was based around the kitchen table: “as a child I lived in the fridge.”
When he returned to Melbourne in 1991, he started work at O’Connell’s – the restaurant where he first made his name – during a time of great experimentation for him. “But I had to learn the importance of restraint. In the early days there was the temptation to put lots of things on the plate.”
Although it may not be how we eat in the West, in the Middle East this made sense. “The way of eating in Lebanon is very different. When you sit down many little dishes are placed in the middle of the table – chickpeas, raw minced lamb, little rice birds with pomegranate dressing – then they bring the main course when they think you’ve had enough.”
Later, watching Greg Malouf in action with restaurateur Judith Tabron of Auckland’s Soul Bar and Bistro at his Middle Eastern Magic class, I observed lot of affectionate banter between the two presenters who have known – and been abusing each other – for years. As Greg cooks, Judith tells of the first time that they met and that his first, abrupt question to her was “how many pin bones has a salmon?” Despite initial impressions, Judith has had him come to Soul for several cooking classes, causing headaches for herself when she tried to source certain ingredients that he wanted. Pigeons aren’t normally sold as a foodstuff in New Zealand so she ended up buying a brace of “retired” carrier pigeons. Sourcing “smack”, apparently the correct pronunciation of Middle Eastern seasoning sumac, has also proved difficult in the past. Greg interjects to say that sumac was originally used when there were no lemons around to add tang and flavour to a dish.
These were typical of the tips and comments handed out freely during the class as we ate our way through the rich Farmed Rabbit Bistayeea (a Moroccan-style sweet spiced pie with eggs and fried almonds) and lighter, but no less tasty, Sautéed King Prawns with Ras el Hanout, Angel Hair Pasta and Lentil Vinaigrette.
With Greg Malouf’s passion for, and evident love of, educating people about the foods and tastes of his ancestral homeland it looks like the new book will definitely be worth taking a look at. Before it is launched, however, you might like to do yourself a favour and start your learning curve on the wonderful Moorish and, particularly, Arabesque.