Five minutes with Salma Hage
Written by Mike MacEacheran
Following the success of her debut cookbook, The Lebanese Kitchen, Salma Hage became an unlikely champion of Middle Eastern cuisine.
The eldest of 12 children, the unassuming housewife grew up in the mountains of northern Lebanon, learning to cook by necessity, before moving to London. Despite the lack of a Michelin-star restaurant or any TV appearances, her recipes have won her thousands of fans – one of whom is French superstar chef Alain Ducasse. Her second book, The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook, is out April 25, through Phaidon (phaidon.com/store).
Why was it the right time to launch a vegetarian cookbook?
It wasn’t a matter of being the right time, more something that came naturally to me. It’s largely how I ate as a child growing up. We had the most amazing climate, one that was ideal for growing delicious fruit and vegetables, and meat was something we could rarely afford. In the last few years, my family have become vegetarian, and I’ve started to revisit recipes I used to cook as a child.
Is there a growing trend for vegetarian food in the Middle East?
Definitely. You get fruit and vegetables like nowhere else on earth because of the perfect climate. Naturally, this has meant so many vegetarian recipes have their roots in Middle Eastern cuisine and so many great restaurants, chefs, and cookery writers are now celebrating that. In fact I would go as far as Chef Ramzi (Lebanon’s famous TV chef) in saying our cuisine has overtaken Chinese and French in terms of popularity and influence. It’s more versatile and lends itself better to healthier eating, which is becoming more important to people.
Are people’s attitudes changing towards food from the region?
The world has become a much smaller place since I was growing up, so I think they are. When the first car came to our village, everyone wanted to ride in it. How many people can you usually fit in a car? Four or six, maybe? Well, we used to fit 20. Nowadays, people have far greater access to information, and this is breaking down cultural barriers. Now, you can walk out in London and buy falafel as tasty as you can in Beirut (well, almost!).
What dish do you think would surprise people in your new cookbook?
I don’t want people to be afraid of vegetarian cooking, so I wanted to include vegan versions of many famous meze staples. Kibbeh is one of my all-time favourites, and although it’s more often made with lamb, I’ve created a recipe that uses lentils, bulgur wheat, flour, potatoes, coriander, parsley, and seven-spice seasoning. I make them like burgers and fry them in olive oil. The texture is similar to traditional kibbeh, but without the meat. It’s delicious.