Melanie, my sister, wails with annoyance when yet another reminiscence of our rambunctious adventures in childhood draws a clear, straight forward blank in my mind. I sit, blinking dumbly at her, trying to rattle the chest of memories; nowt, nada. It’s an unfortunate quirk, for lack of a better word, that seems to have followed me through life. I am infamous for my lack of memory, at once a blessing and a curse. The hard parts stay, the difficult fades, the good remain on the fringes but I consider it fortunate that she is the gatekeeper of our good times. The older you get, the more you need to be with those who knew you when you were young.
Perhaps that’s why food associations are so important to me. A scent, floating like a silk scarf on a breeze, grazing my cheek will bring flashing images of those forgotten days. Like the scent of Jaipur, the Boucheron perfume in a bottle that resembles an Indian bangle, reminds me always of my mother. Or the rare days when Dad would take us to an Indian restaurant and I catch the scent of the Mukhwas, fennel seeds coated in sugary, neon bright colours resembling hundreds and thousands, laid on a tray for departing customers at the cash counter by the door. I would always order Butter Chicken, without fail and remember the taste when I open my jar of fennel seeds.
Automatic was an Abu Dhabi institution. Situated on the corner of Hamdan street, it was for me, the only acceptable place to go for a shawarma. In those days, the massive upturned conical slabs of marinated meat and fat were cooked outside, tended to with gusto by a fat Arab man with a triangular paper hat, sweat pouring out of him while battling the combined heat of the desert air and blasting grills. You couldn’t pass by without taking a deep breath of tempting caramelising meat and spices. The lamb shawarma, thin slabs of marinated and spiced meat, were interspersed with fat which dripped down the massive kebab, basting the meat with its succulent juices. The aroma was intoxicating. The air was saturated with the scent of allspice berries, cinnamon and cloves. Even to the eyes it was a feast to see a spat of fat burst of the edge of the kebab, or the side of the kebab yielding to the heat, turning a tempting golden brown. All around the shawarma was theatre; people crossing the pavement to huddle around this beast and the heat, loud banter and the shouting of orders from within the Auttomatic cafe, swarms of swarthy, dark haired Arab men jostling around inside chopping, packing and delivering with riotous energy. The shawarma brooked no differences – Arabs, Indians, Sri Lankans, Filipinos, Africans all stood patiently for their baton of soul happy food.
The shawarma man shaved off the thinnest of slices with a slender, long and flexible knife, turning the kebab as he did so. The slivers of tender meat would fall to the tray at the bottom, into the puddle of fat and meat juices, where it was swiftly turned and laid onto a small, kubooz or flatbread. Lashings of creamy tahini sauce would cover the meat, followed by bitingly acidic batons of brined cucumber pickles, topped with fresh parsley with a heap of thinly sliced onion for good measure. With speed, he would roll the generously filled flatbread into a baton with two sheets of tissue paper, twist one end like a sweetie and bag it up for you. It was a lively choreography. By the time you retrieved the shawarma from your brown paper bag, the fat would have seeped through the bread and left its splattered marks on the tissue paper. This was blissful messy eating; the scent of the marinade seemed to embed itself into your palms as you clasped the roll for the first bite. At once hot, sharp, creamy and tangy in the mouth, with chewy, crispy, soft textures, it gave instant, deeply gratifying satisfaction. No wonder the mighty, yet humble shawarma is etched so deeply in my memories.
I’ve echoed the memories of those flavours in this recipe. Allspice, is grudgingly accepted by my family; they fight its clove-like heat and strong flavour. I love its belligerence and how it makes itself unquestionably known on my palate. Of course the perfect meat partner is lamb and you could very well use thick cut lamb chops or a rack of lamb here instead. I’ve compromised and used chicken as it’s the route of least defiance at my table when it comes to allspice. Usually, I use a whole chicken, cut into joints, skin on and bone-in, marinated with allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, doused with lemon, infused with sliced onions and basted with olive oil. You could use all thigh joints. I let this marinade seep into the meat overnight. Sweet potatoes, in itself bland, positively sings when partnered with more intense flavours and spices is definitely the way to go with this tuber.
The marinated meat sits over a bed of thickly sliced potatoes. As it cooks, the juice and fat are released from the meat, along with the liquid of the potatoes, to form a self-saucing gravy in which the potatoes cook. Once the potatoes are tender and soft, and the meat crisped and tender, I carpet the dish with fresh parsley and sliced spring onions. Served with my tahini and yoghurt sauce, a plateful of this dish has me returning to Hamdan Street, Melanie at my side, tucking into our hot lamb shawarmas as we walk in silence down the paved, traffic congested, skyscraper lined streets of Abu Dhabi city. I hope she remembers.
Allspice Roast Chicken & Sweet Potatoes
I like to serve this with some sauteed green beans with a good grinding of black pepper and tossed at the end with lemon juice. Know, that this spice mix works superbly with lamb in any form. For a vegetarian meal, I’ve often roasted wedges of sweet potatoes with this spice mix and tossed in a tin of rinsed chickpeas at the end. In this case, I watch the amount of lemon juice I add, but up the cayenne. This too is finished off with parsley and spring onions and served with tahini sauce for easy, food-in-a-bowl comfort.
For the Chicken
1.2-1.4 kilo of preferably, organic whole chicken jointed into 8 pieces or equivalent of chicken thigh joints, skin-on, bone-in
4 garlic cloves,minced
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Half a nutmeg, freshly grated
Good fresh grinding of black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
1 medium red onion, finely sliced
2 medium or 1 large sweet potato
Good bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
2 Spring onions, sliced
Place the jointed chicken into a large bowl. Mix the garlic, allspice, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, grated nutmeg, ground pepper, olive oil and lemon juice together. Pour onto the chicken, along with the sliced onions and mix well into the peices. Cover with cling film and leave to marinade in the fridge overnight.
Preheat the oven to 180degC. Cut the sweet potatoes thickly into rounds, around 2 cm thick. Oil a large roasting tray, salt the potatoes and lay on the base of the tray. Fish out the onions from the marinade and toss over. Pour the marinade into the tray. Lay the chicken pieces, over the potatoes, skin side up and sprinkle over a goodly amount of salt. Place the tray into the oven for 40-45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and the chicken is cooked through and its skin is a golden brown. Sprinkle over the parsley and spring onions if using before serving with the tahini sauce.
For the Tahini Sauce
This gives quite a creamy, mellower sesame tasting sauce. Sometimes, I want a richer tahini taste, in which case I add less of the yoghurt. Other days I want it quite sharp with lemon. Also, if you have roasted garlic cloves lying around, they are wonderful in here, but add judiciously or it will overpower everything else. This is just a basic blueprint. Make it to please your palate.
1/4 cup tahini (the Middle Eastern type, which is quite smooth, loose and creamy)
1/4 cup of natural yoghurt (low fat is fine)
half a clove of garlic, minced
Lemon juice to taste
A few tablespoons of warm water if necessary
Salt to taste.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, optional
Mix the tahini with the yoghurt and garlic. It will thicken and seem like it’s seizing, which is okay. Squeeze the juice of half the lemon and mix. If it’s still too thick, add enough warm water to make it a smooth, soft consistency. Check for taste – it should be nutty with the sesame, tangy with the lemon and creamy with the yoghurt. Adjust these three ingredients to get a balance you like. Add salt to taste and decant into a serving bowl. Drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle on sesame seeds or some paprika if the fancy takes you.