In her book, The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian, Sally Butcher, owner of a Middle Eastern food store in London, Persepolis, shares recipes she’s gathered along her travels.
Where does your passion for Middle Eastern cuisine come from?
My first awareness of the difference in culinary culture came on a family holiday in Greece (which is, after all, an honorary member of the Middle East) when I was about eight years old. Our Greek friend, a suave and generous host, treated us to meze in a taverna. The relaxed ambience and the fact that we were sharing everything made a huge impact. It was then that I realized that food could be really fun and important at the same time.
What do you love most about Middle Eastern cuisine?
The style of eating: it somehow makes magnificent feasting more accessible to the masses and yet elevates simple meze and street food to something quite elegant. I love the way food has traveled across the Middle East: the way that one country has passed a dish or an ingredient to another, and how it has evolved.
What inspired you to write a vegetarian cookbook?
Frankly, I am really not very fond of meat, flavor or texture-wise. It feels like it offers just so many empty calories (yes, I know it is full of important trace minerals and protein, but nothing you can’t find elsewhere), and I would far rather fill my tummy with tastier stuff that counted for something. There is such a rich pantry full of ingredients and such a wealth of regional recipes that it just seemed logical to share them. I also felt for vegetarian customers who came into the shop to try and choose a Middle Eastern cookbook: they were always left trying to pick the one that had the least meat in it, and that didn’t seem very fair.
Where did you learn to cook? Where did you learn to cook Middle Eastern food?
I’m a university dropout, so I’ve gone from studying the classics to cooking them instead. I went into catering as a kitchen porter, and cooked my way through the ranks. I spent many years running a small chain of Greek restaurants, and the cuisine of Greece is not so far removed from Middle Eastern stuff. Once I married my Iranian husband, I applied myself to learning the Persian culinary arts from my mother-in-law. But in truth, not a day goes by when I don’t learn some new cooking trick from my many Middle Eastern customers.
What is your favorite dish to make?
I love making soup: the business of creating a good soup is a great stress buster. The Persian word for soup is ash, and a chef is an ash pas, or soup maker: soup is thus very much at the heart of the kitchen, and it is used as a metaphor for all sorts. There is a lot of ritual attached to the making thereof, which I like, and so I guess my favorite dish from the book would be Khaleh Fizzy’s Ash-e-Sholeh Ghalam Kar [an herb and bean soup].