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Book review: Saha by Greg and Lucy Malouf

Book review: Saha by Greg and Lucy Malouf
by Greg and Lucy Malouf
Published by HGB

Not cooking from this book would be a crime - or at least a crying shame.
It's fitting testament to this wonderful tome that I already had my own well-thumbed copy when asked to review it. Saha's subtitle, 'a chef's journey through Lebanon and Syria', goes little way to forewarning the reader just what a rich experience they're in for. The title, however, provides some clue- 'Saha' literally means a blessing.

Greg Malouf is an eminent chef in his native Australia. For 'Saha', he teamed up with Lucy to take us on a journey through the diverse, abundant cuisine of the area. The pair are a great team; fans of 'Saha' will be happy to see them collaborate once more on the later book 'Turquoise'. Lucy's introduction cleverly has us engaging with the authors, instilling that sense of familiarity that, to me at least, is so vital to my enjoyment of a book.

Although the vivid prose very much paints its own picture, much of the pleasure to be had from 'Saha' is woven by imagery in the form of gorgeous photography by Matt Harvey. Taking in landscapes, architecture and cultural references, not to mention illustrating many of the recipes, these pictures truly bring 'Saha' to life.

And what a life! An introduction spanning politics, history and religious influences on cuisine begins the chapter on the spice blends so vital to Middle Eastern food. Informative without ever verging on dull, we're educated via personal anecdotes and encounters with local, colourful characters. It's almost a travelogue in parts- but oh so much more.

Not cooking from this book would be a crime- or at least a crying shame. On a recent, overlong car journey to Bristol, 'Saha' was a more-than-welcome distraction- almost necessitating use of a few napkins for my over-active saliva glands. There's not a dish in here that doesn't sound delicious, or at the very least intriguing.

Although all the classics- hummus, pastries and grilled meats- are here, they often come with an unexpected element. I was excited to be able to authentically recreate dishes I've only ever had at restaurants. It's lovely stuff- great for sharing at informal picnics and barbecues, but equally suited to more formal occasions- it's a rare guest indeed who could fail to be impressed by the lavish 'Quail stuffed with ma'ahani, baked in kadaifi with whipped Bulgarian feta and paprika oil'.

Although the book follows a traditional 'recipe book' structure- hors d'oeurves, mains, sides, breads, sweets- the chapter introductions charmingly focus on producers' stories, or the influence of a particular area on that type of food. Thus, we are transported to the Bekaa valley in the chapter on 'Salads and dressings', and learn about 'The Storyteller of Damascus' whilst simultaneously being introduced to an array of scrumptious 'Puddings and sweet pastries'.

As I came to the end of 'Saha', I honestly felt the anticlimax you experience at the end of a fantastic journey. The last few pages were turned slower and slower as I tried to prolong the inevitable. But no matter- it's the kind of book you flip straight back to the start and plunge in once more. Best enjoyed with a cup of mint tea and a pastry, on the sofa with a few hours to spare on a dreary afternoon. You'll soon be in paradise- or at least somewhere in Lebanon and Syria.
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23 July 2009
By: Zoe Perrett
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