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Greg Malouf loves food
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I'm reading
Greg Malouf loves food
Pass it on
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I'm reading
Greg Malouf loves food
Pass it on
Pass it on
If Mum was around, and I knew she was making kibbineh, I'd probably take the night off and go and have some.
Conversations
1 October 2011

Greg Malouf loves food

Interview by Jessica Friedmann
Photography by James Braund

Jessica Friedmann on Greg Malouf

I’m walking down an alleyway I’ve never heard of before. For a lifelong Melburnian, this is inexcusable. I’m supposed to have a map of the city’s laneways etched onto the back of my eyelids, so as to locate any of Melbourne’s ‘hidden’ bars and restaurants in the blink of an eye, but Beaney Lane is entirely new to me. Strike one.

Strike two is the fact that, despite being a keen home cook, I’ve—up until very recently—never so much as flicked through any of the books written by the man I’m walking down the alleyway to meet—Greg Malouf, Melbourne’s high priest of Modern Middle Eastern. I confess this in the office a few days before I’m set to meet Greg, and Patrick gives me a long, level look. “You have eaten Malouf food, though,” he says, after a minute. “Remember the pomegranate salad that we served? That was Malouf.”

I turns out that I’ve eaten plenty of Malouf food in my lifetime. That lamb that you liked, one friend tells me. That pistachio pilaf. The sour cherry sorbet. In fact, asking around, it seems that every Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese or Persian dish I’ve been cooked in the last few years can be traced back to the Maloufs. And borrowing Patrick’s copy of Saha, I immediately understand why.

Immersive, gorgeous, and impeccably researched, the book is a delight, and reading it has me neatly torn between wanting to rush off and book a plane ticket, and wanting to hit the market for eggplants and sumac and figs. I settle for making barazek, which turn out perfectly, and then start plotting ways to get my hands on a copy of Moorish, or Arabesque, or Saraban.

And then I find myself walking down an alleyway, and being ushered into a lush Aladdin’s cave of a space, all gold brocade and soft light. Greg welcomes James and me, and we settle in for an hour’s conversation about smuggling photographers over the border, choosing the perfect wallpaper, and picking fennel by the railway tracks. Melbourne has heaps of edible weeds, it turns out, just ripe and ready for the picking. It’s amazing what you can discover right under your nose.

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

GREG MALOUF: So have you seen the current book that’s out, Saraban? I might just grab you a copy of it. It’s a book on Iran.

JESSICA FRIEDMAN: It’s beautiful.

Yes, we’re very happy with the book. It’s–I think–a very important piece of work about the country, about the food culture.

What was travelling around Iran like?

Amazing. We went early last year and the year before–we went twice–to take in two seasons. So we went there in spring and in autumn.

It tells a very different story to the one the media tells about Iran.

Sure. Even travelling in Iran, people always made reference to, “We’re not what you think we are”, or “We’re pretty damn peaceful and generous”–well, they didn’t actually say that, but we knew that and could feel that, that they are peaceful and gentle and generous and incredibly kind. It’s kind of those words that you’re not really used to in Western society, so… It was amazing. Amazing journey.

I’m interested in the travelling. When I was flipping through Turquoise, particularly, it seemed like every page had an amazing anecdote about someone you had met, or a friend of a cousin –

Oh yeah, doors opened as quick as they closed, and if one door opened it was followed by a series of little adventures that may have taken a couple of hours or a few days, but they certainly did take us to some wonderful remote spots. We were lucky to meet some very very interesting… well, friends, now, that we still keep in touch with.

And when you decide to do a book like this, where does that start? What’s the genesis of a book like Saraban or Turquoise?

Well, it’s a bit like being blindfolded and throwing a dart at the Middle East, taking an area and thinking that that might be suitable.

It’s a bit more complex than that, but Turquoise happened – it was a book that I wanted to do because of the fact that when I was a kid, or when I was younger, cooking, I lived in Vienna, and made a trip to Istanbul when I was 23 or something and just was captivated by what I saw and those memories just stayed with me until a few years ago, when I told the publishers that it would be great to take a journey to Turkey, to Istanbul.

I think Iran was a book that just came about through a natural progression, with the spice trade or the spice route as well–we’re kind of working backwards in a way–and we thought; ‘it’s such a remote area, and it’s a place that so many negative things are written about,’ we thought – and when I say ‘we’ this is Lucy, my former wife, we’re still good mates and we still travel together – that it is a food culture that I know very little about, and it’s really the cradle of why we eat. And the timing was right. We started research for six or eight months, perhaps more, just looking at the right locations and getting the seasonality correct and going through all the protocol with the visas-you know, it’s not an easy country to get into. So, you don’t just land at the airport and expect to get through the other side of customs, you need visas and all that sort of thing, but we were very fortunate.

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #29 of Dumbo Feather

I was going to ask about that, actually. Looking through Saraban just now, I was struck by a few photos of people, just ordinary Iranians going about their lives. Did you have any trouble getting a photojournalist into the country?

Well, that was another story in itself. The photographer we were taking, an English guy, Mark, his visa was rejected about a week before we were due to leave. The publishers were in a bit of a panic, and it was too late to try to find someone here, so they decided to try to find someone over there, which was the best thing they’d ever done. It was just through connections, and through a few Iranian families I knew here, that we made contact with a noted photographer in Teheran. So he got the job, and thank God he did, because he took us to places where there’s no way a Westerner could have got us into. And he’s got a brilliant eye, and culturally he understands what’s going on. And he had a big appetite as well, which helped. He spoke great English, and it all fit together. I think that’s now what we intend to do, if we’re going to do another travel book, we’ll probably use a local photographer for the shots locally, the scape shots and the city shots and the people… It just makes more sense, and that was something we found out. We were delighted that we’d found this wonderful balance.

If you don’t have a photographer acting as a guide, how do you go about meeting the people who wind up on the pages of your books?

Well, apart from the photographer, we had a guide who would translate–the language in Iran is Farsi, and I don’t speak Farsi. But what we did do, we had a few lessons beforehand, we took I think about five or six lessons which didn’t help us at all (laughs)–it’s not an easy language–and the only thing that I could relate to were the numbers, I could read the numbers because they were the same in Arabic.

Oh, you speak Arabic?

No, just very little, very little. Really poorly actually. Enough to make myself understood.

So you mentioned that you travelled with Lucy, who is your former wife, and you do all the books collaboratively. What’s that relationship like?

Well, I’m a better friend a co-author than a husband, so… We’re good, we work well together, we’re very good friends. Lucy’s on a sabbatical at the moment in the South of France. She remarried, I remarried. I’m going over at Christmas time with the family, my new wife and kids, and we’ll spend Christmas with her and her family. That’s how close we all are.

I’m sorry if I sounded like I was prying – I realised as I said that how it came out – I actually meant your collaborative relationship, your working relationship.

Well, I get asked that all the time.

I imagine though that something like writing a book, it’s a deeply personal and quite idiosyncratic experience.

She knows me better than anyone else. In terms of the process involved in recipes, the way I dream about food or dishes, so she’s pretty, I guess well-connected–we’re just well-connected with books and with the process of the books and the process of loving food, so yeah, it’s a really nice balance that we have.

One of the things I really liked when I was reading through Turquoise, was that it was all written in the first person, but there were points where the first person was you and points where it was Lucy.

Yeah, well I have to say, I can’t write, I struggle to put a shopping list together, so Lucy’s the wordsmith, I’m the dreamer. Again, this is the balance that works well.

Say a book like Turquoise, where you’re going into a country and eating its dishes in a very… I hesitate to say ‘authentic’ way–

Well, that’s what you do…

I guess you don’t get more authentic than eating Turkish food in Turkey… What’s the process of bringing those dishes back and putting your own spin on them, or interpreting them in a Greg Malouf way?

Any recipe, or most recipes, possibly ninety percent of all recipes from all the books we do, are an interpretation.

There are a few recipes that are traditional, classical, that I just don’t want to play with – the dish has been around for a thousand, two thousand years, I’m not the one who’s going to put new wheels on it, and they don’t deserve that, either.

All I’m doing is, I look at the dish, especially Lebanese because that’s my background, and perhaps just present it slightly differently. It might even be the fact that I’ve got a gorgeous piece of crockery that I use, and baba ganouj is baba ganouj. It’s just the way you put it in the bowl and garnish it, and if it is a beautiful bowl then that is half the look of a dish, potentially. And also it’s surroundings like this that help–well, it doesn’t change much about the dish, except that inside you might feel a little bit more special, sitting with sexy wallpaper and lush crockery, cutlery and surroundings and music, it’s all part of the journey that we have here in the restaurant.

The books are a little bit different–they’re there for people firstly to understand the trip and the travels and give a little bit of insight into the people themselves, and then the recipes are there, they should be accessible and approachable and things you can achieve. I’m happy when chefs buy this book, but it really is a book for the domestic kitchen, where you can let go and let loose and look at the ingredients and have a little play for yourself. Things aren’t as structured in the books–a chef normally has a cookbook that is quite involved, lots of technique, and in these books there’s not a lot of technique. Presenting a dish is very important, but it’s really more about balance of flavour and how accessible the dishes are in a domestic situation.

Is it ever a challenge cooking Middle Eastern food in Australia, in terms of things like seasonality and access to ingredients?

No, we’re lucky here. I think Melbourne is one of the few cities in the world that has embraced Middle Eastern food, outside the Middle East. I think in a contemporary sense, we’ve embraced it more so. And it is seasonal. People say that you can get anything any time of the year, well… you’d be struggling to get broad beans in March, or artichokes in December, and things like that. I mean, you could get them, but you don’t want to, because firstly they’re incredibly expensive, and secondly they’ve been travelling so far that half their life has disappeared. We’re lucky here. Produce is great, and at least we have seasons. It’s not hot all the time, winter’s a great time for some beautiful root vegetables and all sorts of things that are completely within the winter season, and the weather’s slowly changing now. When the seasons start to change, that’s when chefs start to look at changing menus and ideas.

Before, you mentioned that you aim to give readers an insight into a country’s people in your books, the people and the culture. How much is that a consideration when you sit down to write?

When Lucy sits down and writes? [Laughs] I’m probably the wrong person to ask! But as I was saying before, it is a travelogue, and it’s a snapshot of our trip, our journey, but it’s also a very important piece, it says a lot about their food culture and about how their part of the world operates, and how they operate as well. It’s not that we’re trying to get into their minds, but it really gives a broad sweep of what daily life in all sorts of environments there is life, whether it’s urban or industrial or, you know, we could be on a plantation somewhere with pistachios or olives, and again, she will write about the generosity of the people that we were in contact with.

For example, when we were on a pistachio grove, the owner came out and said hello to us and spoke beautiful English. He invited us to his place for a cup of tea, which is quite normal, and we knew that it’s not just going to be tea. So we kind of prepared ourselves, and we were right: it was a full-on banquet, from tea and fruit and nuts comes probably twelve or fifteen dishes. I think for them,

the way to anyone’s heart or soul or mind or culture is through how they feed you,

and the warmth and generosity that they have. And that’s not only Iran and Turkey, Lebanon and Syria; all through the Middle East, as well, and it’s probably the most common thread you’ll find. People ask me is the food all the same through the Middle East, and no, it’s not; I can see the differences, but the biggest thread they have is their generosity.

I was asking because it seems like your collected works are really a love letter to the Muslim word, as much as anything, and that can seem like quite a political letter to write.

Well, it’s not only Muslim. You’ve got to understand that there is a certain percentage that are Christian, and it’s not about Muslim worlds at all. I mean, it is fascinating, and certainly all the architecture just screams out gorgeous Islamic art and it’s unbelievable, especially in Iran. I think those were the most detailed, intricate works I’ve ever seen in my life, in any country. But it’s not that we’re targeting any race. I mean, it’s incredibly fascinating, and we do write about it, but it’s not really what the books are about. It’s giving everyone a glimpse of the little secret world that exists, and it’s not documented enough. And if it is documented, there’s ordinary cookbooks out there that display very one-dimensional recipes and works. I mean, there are a few out there that are exceptional, and I’ve got my favourite kind of authors that write beautifully about Middle Eastern food. But generally, pretty bland.

I was really impressed when I was reading through Saha by the depth of historical research that you had done. Was that just the two of you sitting down and saying, “I want to be more involved in the Ottoman Empire today”?

Look, that’s incredibly important, but the way we split up our roles is that Lucy will research the cultural side of any place that we go to, and I will obviously research the food, and look at regional dishes and I’ll make a huge list of things that I want to taste, see, visit, and from that list that we compile, Lucy will find the areas that are renowned for these dishes. That’s kind of how we split things up. I might take on the role of finding suitable airlines and negotiating with them to get us over there, sponsorship and things like that, where Lucy will look at internal travel, guides, hotels, things like that. I mean, she does most of the work, I’ll tell you now.

And how long does a trip take, generally?

Six weeks or so. We try and split it into two breaks, that’s not always the case but six weeks is average. Lucy spent a little bit more time in Iran, she was there nearly eight weeks. I had to cut a little short. Unfortunately Mum passed away while we were away, so I kind of dropped everything–I think I had a week to go or something–and just came back home. The book was dedicated to her. But she was ill for a long time, and it’s good that she’s in a better spot.

And you have children, yes?

Well, I’ve got stepkids, and she’s got stepkids, which is great. They’re oldish–well, fourteen and ten…

Are they interested in coming travelling with you?

Well yes they are, actually, especially the ten-year-old is fascinated about Beirut at the moment. But these kids are not my kids–I kind of play second fiddle, obviously, I’m not their father, I’m just a friend and support. Their palates are good. If I had kids, I’d probably be a lot more strict on their palates–well, not strict, but they’d be eating olives and things at a younger age. I had that, but because they’re bought up here, it’s a bit different, they don’t like things that are spicy, they’re a little bit fussy about this and that. And I struggle with that a little bit, but they’re certainly loving kids and they’ve got good appetites. In fact, I created a dish for them in the new book, and it’s a dish that they both like to eat. They actually made it for me, and I kind of tricked it up a bit. They made tabbouleh for me, and I’ve never had cucumber in tabbouleh before, and it was great, I really loved it. So I kind of took that idea and made a kind of tabbouleh that they introduced me to.

So you grew up eating mostly traditional Lebanese food then?

Yeah, yeah. Mum did the regulation Lebanese thing, all the dips, it was good. The best thing was her kibbineh, which is raw minced lamb and cracked wheat, but I guess any Lebanese son would say the same about his mother and her kibbineh, which is true. My father was a lot more experimental with his food.

Oh, he was also a chef?

No no, he was a rag trader, he was in clothing, women’s clothing. But he loved food, he loved cooking, and he was in the kitchen on Sundays, always, trying to do something. He was at the markets on Saturdays, filling up the fridge for the week–it was good. It was nice.

And you always knew that food was going to be the thing?

Yeah, yeah. Even at the age of twelve. I mean, I had a big appetite. I just loved eating. And I think it was really mum’s–I think most chefs say that anyway–it’s just back to family values. If she was around, and I knew she was making kibbineh, I’d probably take the night off and go and have some. There are a few things like that that will never go away.

What gets you excited about food now, having seen the culinary landscape change probably quite dramatically over the last 20 years or so?

Well, simple things.

I came in quite early this morning, and as I was arriving, the produce was arriving, and that’s when I think chefs get most excited, when the produce is at its best.

We had some gorgeous things arrive today, and today’s the first day of the week for us, so Tuesday’s a great day to eat in a restaurant, particularly seafood. You just see all these beautiful things coming in and think, this is why I’m on this planet. Plus, apart from living in the city, the house is in North Melbourne, so I was there last night and we’ve got this massive garden with violets everywhere. So every morning, before coming in to work, I pick thirty or forty violets, for here.

Just to have in the kitchen?

Oh no, for food, for garnish. We use a lot of flowers in our food at the moment, because of this book, because of my travels. I mean, there’s not a lot in the book as such, but when we were in Shiraz there was a lot of flowers used in a lot of different dishes. And I just thought it was the best thing, and that’s exciting me at the moment. I’m telling the staff now that if they’ve got anything in the garden that’s edible, and that the dog hasn’t pissed on, then bring it in.

And we’ve got these amazing violets at the moment–violet’s just such an amazing colour.

But what does it taste like?

It’s got a perfume, more so than anything. It does two things; it firstly has a perfume, and then the colours are so vibrant that it triggers off something in your brain that helps you adore or love the dish that you’re eating. Especially when they’re incredibly fresh or just picked. We’ve got a special dinner tomorrow night, a dinner for Clinique, the cosmetic company, to celebrate that elixir that they have that’s forty years old or something. It’s a nanna perfume. And they’ve asked me to design a menu around this elixir, so this morning I was on the phone to the guy who blends it in New York; I wrote a menu for it, and I got the tasting notes and everything, and I got the perfume, and I was telling him about the dishes and how they’re going to be constructed, and the different notes that are in the dishes, like baba ganouj we’re making with a little bit of sandalwood smokiness. And sandalwood’s not an easy thing to find, firstly, and secondly it’s incredibly expensive. Things like that we had to research, and the use of chamomile and jasmine, musk, all things that are notes in this perfumes that are designed around these dishes. I’m actually looking forward to it, it’ll be a big night.

It sounds great. I’m just so interested – when you say that a scent and a wallpaper triggers off something that’s more than a food, do you come at that from a scientific point of view, or is it purely emotional?

No, no. It’s just through your emotion. If you’re given a bunch of flowers, how do you feel? You feel pretty… what’s the word? I don’t know the word. It triggers of a sense of pleasure. You have these gorgeous dainty little flowers on a plate, it triggers off something, so it should surely have the same effect. Even I get flowers – occasionally my wife will go and buy some flowers and put them in the apartment, and I’ll come home and think wow… it does wonders for a lot of reasons, and it’s gotta do something to food. Or to the brain, whilst you’re eating, there’s gotta be a connection there somewhere. It’s not a scientific thing. I’m not a mad scientist that sprays yoghurt on sorbets, or makes snowmen from – what was that thing from TV the other night? The MasterChef final?

I didn’t watch it, sorry!

No, I was told – someone was telling me about this snowman that was made, it was crazy. With kind of, almost, well it was molecular style cooking.

And that’s not a style that appeals to you?

Look, it’s interesting, but I think it’s just a one-off thing. You couldn’t sustain it. You look at the way elBulli’s history’s turned out, and I don’t know if they’ve had repeat customers, but the place did not ever make any money. It certainly got the world’s attention, and it captured the imagination of a lot of chefs, but at the end of it all, I kind of think that you just lose connection between your hands and the produce itself. Everything’s put into a bag and vacuumed and poached and then if not, things are tipped into a can and frozen and then put into a machine and shaved, so they’re all incredibly fine, it’s a textural cuisine more than anything else and everything’s lost all it’s texture because it’s pushed through a sieve and pulverized. And I don’t know, it’s not for me, it’s not for Middle Eastern food. Maybe it just doesn’t belong to my ethos. I’m sure there’s Middle Eastern chefs out there that play with it.

Well, unless there’s anything else you’d like to talk about – I know you’re pressed for time – maybe we’ll leave it there.

Oh, well, there’s lots to talk about! But I can’t, I’ve really got an appointment at 3.30 and I’ve got to prepare for it. What else can I tell you about–the spice range! Are you familiar with the spice range I have? I have a spice range that was developed about eight years ago, that was purely, clearly, Middle Eastern blends. Wet and dried mixes, and it’s the classic kind of things like dukkah and chermoula and harrissa and preserved limes and lemons, which are doing really well. But I think I’d like to embellish and put them on a bigger stage, because there’s a lot more I could do with these blends that again will introduce people to more interested ways of putting a lamb chop on a barbecue. In the Middle East, they’re renowned for their wild herbs, more so. There’s endless numbers. And they’re weird, as well; bitter, fragrant, grassy, muddy, sweet, sour, peppery, all sorts. And mainly in Turkey, I found that, and in Iran as well.

So you can read the cookbooks, and cook the recipes, but really, what you need to do is travel to Turkey and pick a muddy, grassy herb you’ve never seen, or heard of, before, from the side of the road, to have the full experience?

No, you’d be surprised what’s in your backyard. I don’t know if you’re familiar with purslane, it’s a weed that grows between the cracks of the pavements in most suburbs, if not railway stations. That’s a very important herb that’s used in the Middle East, it’s called ‘butleh’, it’s the most important ingredient in fattoush, I don’t know if you’re familiar with fatuous, it’s a bread salad that they make in Lebanon and Syria. Arabic bread is fried or dried in the oven and it’s mixed with lots of radishes, tomato, cucumber and onions… and butleh, or this purslane. But we don’t use it. I think the Anglicised version is with cos lettuce, or they make a dressing with sumac, which is that beautiful dried berry from the Middle East that’s kind of salty and sour. There are a lot of things in the backyard that you could use in the kitchen if you were familiar with them, with the wild herbs. The Greeks are, and the Turks, they’ll be in the railway yard, especially with wild fennel, you see that growing everywhere. And I don’t know, it’s interesting, why wild fennel grows in railway stations.

Yeah, I don’t know! Maybe this is the next spice range: the Railway Station Spice Range?

[Laughs] Yeah, railway fennel seeds. Yes. Thank you.

Jessica Friedmann

Jessica is a writer and editor living in Canberra, ACT, with her husband and small son. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Lifted Brow, Smith Journal, Dumbo Feather, Voiceworks, Arts Hub, newmatilda, Australian Financial Review, The Age, Luxury, and more. Her debut book of essays, Things That Helped, is based on her experience of extreme and debilitating postpartum depression.

Read more at jessicafriedmann.com

Photography by James Braund

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