Why is it that no matter how hard you try, or how meticulously you stick to the prescribed ingredients and recipe, some dishes only taste right when made by certain people in certain settings? If wine is all about terroir, then the mysticism of food and flavour is about Nafas. Following our Vicarage & Sons Easter feast in Amman with some friends and family, one of those present was kind enough to send me this article from the NY Times as a means to suggest that the V&S feast had exemplified a Nafasian quality.
Unfamiliar with the term until I read the article, Nafas acted as one of those classic awakening moments: a single word that describes a concept you have been struggling to get your head round and articulate for years. For me, it is best exemplified in my mother-in-law’s cooking. There are some dishes that no matter how attentively I watch her cook, I can never make it taste like she can. I can make it taste good, just not Naira good. During a leisurely Easter Monday afternoon in our sun-kissed garden, I got to thinking about the dishes that exemplify the concept of Nafas. Here’s a few of them to share with you. If you are inspired, why not share some of your examples with us?
- Beatrice’s chocolate mousse.
Beatrice was our aupair when we were growing up. Born and raised in Switzerland, she had a pretty awesome understanding of chocolate. How unique can a chocolate mousse be I hear you ask? Velvety airy texture, intense chocolate flavour and that beautiful creaminess that somehow only came when Bea made it. How could this be? Years later, when visiting her in Geneva, Bea let me into the secret – Swiss chocolate. Simple. But consider that in order to make the mystical mousse for all the family, she had to delve into her very finite stash of chocolate she had brought from home. Makes me feel a bit guilty for always demanding it – but what a treat.
- Ann Gabb’s chocolate pudding.
I asked our mum for the recipe for this a couple of months ago. On reading it, I concluded I still had very little understanding of how to make it! It’s one of those recipes with notes in the margins and measurements from a bygone era. Unlike Bea’s chocolate mousse, this is not necessarily about the chocolate, but obviously that helps. The pudding has a hard, baked surface which is hiding, underneath it, a deliciously warm, souffle like texture of chocolate goodness. My mum makes this well, but nothing compares to Ann Gabb joining us for Sunday lunch, her chocolate pudding in hand to share with the table.
- Naira’s Molokhia.
This is the ultimate expression of nafas. Molokhia is cooked in every Egyptian home and used in several different cultures in several different ways. Rather than going into the ins and outs of how it’s made (chicken boiled in a pot to make a stock, stock mixed with the molokhia, butter, coriander and garlic added with a sense of drama, chicken finished in a pan with oil and butter) I want to share the feeling of eating it in Naira’s apartment in Cairo. Somehow, whenever I arrive in Cairo to stay with her, there is always molokhia on hand. For me, it is an enveloping hug and welcome to Egypt that tastes absolutely unique to Naira’s apartment. I have now made Molokhia at home about 50 times. It never, ever tastes like it does at Naira’s. It’s actually quite infuriating.
- Saeed’s Sazerac.
I remember the first time I had this so clearly. Saeed and Hamad invited us over to Saeed’s to listen to their show on Radio alHara that they were recording live. We all made our own drinks as they were playing, in most instances with instructions between tunes. When finished, Saeed came to sit with us, beguiling sazerac in hand. Hamed asked for a taste. It was granted. The look on Hamed’s face told me everything I needed to know. I needed to try this drink. A sazerac is pretty straightforward – peychaud bitters, sugar, Rye all brought together with an absinthe “wash”. Since that first sip, my whole perspective on cocktails has changed. It’s all about the herby, aromatic complexity of bitters and heavy spirits. I still love a rum old fashioned, but if there’s a Sazreac on offer from Saeed, there’s only one winner. And it only tastes right when made by Saeed at his apartment between 11pm – 1am.
- Mum’s Boxing Day feast.
Without doubt, my favourite meal in the world. To express the depth of the nafas involved in this, it has to be boxing day, it has to be at my Mum and Dad’s, it has to be with all the family and it has to be eaten over several hours in front of several movies. The concept is pretty simple – all the leftover meat and stuffing from Christmas day brought back to life with sides of roasted vegetable couscous, baked potatoes and pickles. Oh, and a freshly roasted ham with a marmalade glaze. It is impossible for this to feel as it does in any other setting. So much so, I wouldn’t even attempt to recreate it. That, my friends, is nafas.