Honey & Co.: Food from the Middle East is written by husband and wife Sarit Packer and Itamar Sruvolich, founders of the humble yet acclaimed café of the same name situated on London’s Warren street. The quaint café is undeniably a culinary gem, consistently packed with smitten eaters who affectionately tolerate the slightly chaotic, cramped atmosphere and squashed-together furniture for the kitchen’s knock-out seasonal dishes.
Every single plate served up in this charming topsy-turvy place in North London, whether it be slow-cooked chicken thighs and chestnuts topped with a crisp kadaif crust or crumbly blocks of feta sprinkled with Moroccan smoked paprika, goes beyond satisfying the diner’s taste buds. Each of Itamar and Sarit’s dishes takes inspiration from the couple’s own native Israel in addition to the Levant, Syria, Jordan and as far as Iran and Morocco. Honey & Co. is truly my favourite kind of food joint, one that draws loyal food pilgrims with sensational dishes and side-steps any fussiness or frivolous décor –
After all, let’s acknowledge why we’re all here… the food.
Before setting up their own place (which is quite obviously their pride and joy) Itamar was formerly Head Chef at Ottolenghi and Sarit was Executive Chef at NOPI (Ottolenghi’s Soho Brasserie). They have won various awards for their cooking and write a weekly column for the Financial Times magazine. In the Honey & Co. cookbook, both Packer and Srulovich address that they were itching to “to open a place: a noisy, crazy, sexy, smoky, messy, food/love/people celebration of a place.” The book details their much-loved recipes together with the stories behind the opening of their very special café. It covers everything from how to pickle carrots, a wonderful introduction to classic spices, glorious mezze dishes such as the likes of muhammara, slow-cooked lamb, to innovations such as octopus in meshwiya sauce with a crunchy celery salad.
Sidestepping slightly from the recipes included, what is most unique about this cookbook is the colourful narrative within it. It’s quite simply a book about stories of food, from anecdotes about the restaurant’s first members of staff to fond memories of the couple’s taste travels together, such as smelling nigella seeds and bread baking in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. The book shares the stories that inspired their recipes, from visiting a hole-in-the-wall canteen where an ancient Tunisian woman cooked delicious stews, shorbas and mezze, to being adopted by a Moroccan family who start their Friday feast with a bowl of fried chillies to whet the appetite for the huge spread to follow. If you have ever had the pleasure to visit the Middle East or North Africa, these nuggets of tales will transport you to fond memories of the exotic smells and tastes of local souks (markets).
Sarit and Itamar Packer are a truly lovable pair; within the cookbook they share the comical and romantic story of how they first met in Israel, recalling the early days of affectionately squabbling over whether the best falafel is served up in Jerusalem, or Haifa where they each grew up.
This book is not just an appreciation of food, but of the people and places that tie everything together and give it meaning.
As for the recipes included in the Honey & Co. cookbook, I have a fair few favourites and my copy has weathered the test of many cooking activities – the pages are slightly worn and now smell of a cocktail of spices. The Honey & Co recipe for muhammara (p.82) is described as a “a humble take on the Lebanese classic’, however, once its wondrous ingredients are roasted, blackened and blended then mixed with ground walnuts and sharp pomegranate molasses, you have the most elegant and sophisticated of Middle Eastern mezze dishes.
Big Itzick (p.132) named after a famous kebab shop in Istanbul is a gorgeous salad consisting of grilled aubergines, pepper, sweet red onions, parsley, mint leaves, garlic, lemon juice and vinegar.
Meatballs with peas, mint and yogurt (p.180) is a dime of a dish. Hand-rolled lamb meatballs packed with fresh, fragrant flavour are plopped in a rich zesty sauce with peas and preserved lemons, served on a bed of jasmine rice and garnished with flat-leaf parsley. When I made this for my grandparents, I was surprised by the delicate flavours which triumphantly counterbalance the rich, earthy lamb – it’s safe to say there wasn’t much leftover.
Perhaps the most loved of all the recipes included is Roast Chicken Stuffed with Freekeh (p.170) which my grandma described as a revolution of a boring, bland English roast dinner. This roast chicken bears no resemblance to the aforementioned, as the chicken is stuffed with a mixture of freekeh, an earthy, nutty, ancient grain mixed with fried onion, allspice, coriander, cinnamon, toasted almonds and pine nuts. In a rather uncivilised manner, you must fill the carcass with the mixture and place sliced lemons under the skin. Any remains of the freekeh mixture is placed on the tray with the chicken proudly perched on top. This way, all the gorgeous fatty juices of the chicken are soaked up by the grain while it cooks.
Another favourite of mine is the Cherry, Pistachio & Coconut cake (p.256) which transported me to family holidays in Wales as a child, buying coconut cakes from the lovely and slightly rotund ladies at the Post Office who would babble away in Welsh and pinch our cheeks. The whole, pitted cherries plopped into the top of the mixture add a wonderful tart and sweet element. A slice of this beauty sprinkled lightly with icing sugar and a dark, strong coffee is the perfect afternoon treat.
The section of the cookbook that never ceases to make me smile is the final part, dedicated to indulgent sweets and ice teas. Each delicious and refreshing tea recipe is listed with a carefully selected alcoholic spirit, should you wish to ‘pimp up’ your plum and vanilla iced tea as instructed (giggle).
All in all, I suggest you promptly pop the Honey & Co. into your Amazon basket as it is undeniably fantastic.
Lydia Daniels is a graduate linguist specialising in Spanish and Arabic. Now based in London, Lydia works in digital marketing while blogging on the side at The Foody Girl. She delights in whipping up sensational dishes, spending lazy afternoons sketching, hiking in mountains and immersing herself in new cultures. Her adventures have taken her to many enchanting cities so far; Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona, Amman, Rabat.
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