Stuffed Vine Leaves Saved My Life

Stuffed Vine Leaves Saved My Life
By Nadia Sawalha
Doubleday – £20.00

The mantra in the Sawalha household in relation to cooking was: ‘’Good food, cooked with love, feeds the soul as well as the body,’’ which one can’t really argue with. But so far as Stuffed Vine Leaves Saved My Life is concerned, one has to contest the degree to which eclecticism takes precedence over continuity.

From a mouth watering meal such as Shawarma – upon which authoress Nadia Sawalha writes: ‘’It’s taken me years to get this recipe just right, and along the way many of my relatives have told me not to bother trying as it’s ‘impossible to get the right taste’’ – to a mind-numbingly mundane meal like Macaroni Cheese: ‘’[…] I don’t know whether it was the cheese or the pasta, or perhaps both, but whenever we ate this we rarely had a hangover the next day,’’ one finds oneself grappling with the reasoning behind (the inclusion of some of) the recipes.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Macaroni Cheese; although one has to by and large agree that it does teeter on the precipice of Sheffield Wednesday induced cuisine, much celebrated and sought after by families of no less than fifteen amid the countless corridors of couldn’t give a toss.

Indeed, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with said meal, but ought it to be included in a cookbook of predominantly Arabic persuasion?

Alas, there’s something for everyman and woman herein.

From Rice with Meat and Chickpeas to KFC (Kickin’ Fried Chicken) to Sfeeha (Mini Middle Eastern Pizza) to a mildly entertaining segment called ‘A Bad Case of the Falafels,’ in which Sawalha muses: ‘’Whatever you do, don’t ignore this recipe! If there’s only one recipe you do in this book, do this one! If you’ve ever tasted those bullet-like falafels that British supermarkets have on offer, I beg of you to wipe all memory of them from your minds. When I asked my husband if he liked falafels, he thought I was referring to one of two things: (a) a small town in Cyprus (in which case it was probably yes, because he likes Cyprus), or (b) those nasty balls of mushed-up papier mache you get at music festivals (in which case it was no […]. Even good supermarket falafels bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to what my father calls ‘true falafel.’ True falafels have to be gloriously spicy with a crispy-on-the-outside crunch, and a light-and-fluffy-on-the-inside bit-of-give.’’

So there you have it, Nadia’s take on falafels, which, although somewhat amusing, really isn’t amusing enough to beguile the reader into reading further for the mere sake of.

The all-round splendid photography and occasional ace recipe, such as Apple Pancakes, Seriously Luvverly Chicken (‘’this has become Mark’s all-time favourite supper, lunch, snack or indeed breakfast’’) and Mussakhan (which believe me, tastes even better the next day – thus substantiating Nadia’s point: ‘’I think this dish is one of those that, if given a bit of extra love and attention, can go from being simply delicious to simply divine. I ensure this by standing over the onions the entire time they’re cooking, stirring, tasting and adjusting the seasoning to get not only the taste perfect but also the texture.’’), accounts for this book’s success.

Moreover, to my mind, had Sawalha endeavoured to put something together that focused on Arabic cooking in its entirety, Stuffed Vine Leaves Saved My Life would undoubtedly have been so much stronger, coherent and inviting.

As is, Nadia Sawalha has most certainly put her stamp on the book – by way of her family – but it really doesn’t lend itself to that of the Arabic saying ‘’The miser’s food is a disease, but the food of the generous is a cure.’’

David Marx


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