The saying t’fadalou, or ‘come eat at my table’ guides the preparation of every meal at Abla’s Lebanese Restaurant in Carlton, Melbourne. For this is the food of family and friends. It is all about sharing – of the food and also of yourself as you partake in a communal meal. I have eaten at Alba’s and, like many before me, I have surreptitiously loosened my waistband as I’ve left. There is nothing restrained about this food, it epitomises generosity. This is a restaurant where the tables appear to have reinforced legs to support the groaning platters.
Abla’s Lebanese Kitchen is an expanded version of her first book The Lebanese Kitchen (published in 2001), and it has over thirty new recipes. In an age of celebrity chefs, Abla Amad’s food is a stark contrast to the many gimmick laden creations that are developed in an effort to excite our jaded palates. Her food is unapologetically traditional. She has been making many of the same dishes for decades, but these are the ones that continue to satisfy and this is the food you will find in her new book.
The emphasis is on food for sharing – the index indicates which of the many items are suitable for mezza. The book opens with six suggested menus: two meat, two fish and two vegetarian. And there is a lot for the vegetarian here including many dishes that include nuts and pulses. In her chapter on meat she says that it is only in recent years that Lebanese people have begun to eat it on a daily basis. Meat consumption was far less in the past as preventing spoilage was problematic when refrigeration was limited or nonexistent.
There are recipes for many well known staples of Lebanese food, such as Baba ghannoj, Hummus, Kibbee and Tabouleh. There are crisp salads that zing with fresh ingredients and a whole section on yoghurt. There are hearty soups, barbecued meat, and then there are the sweets. Biscuits filled with dates and nuts, cakes and pastries drowning in syrup, and all to accompany rich cardamom scented coffee.
Everything is well set out – the ingredient lists are clear and the instructions are straightforward. This is a book that makes it easy to recreate your own Lebanese banquet. Many of the dishes are photographed, but not all of them and there are no lengthy series of photos detailing complex step-by-step preparations – this is a book that assumes a basic competency in the kitchen. Each chapter is introduced with Abla’s own recollections about the food it covers, what its personal meaning is, and I thoroughly enjoyed the rich insights that these stories provided.
Abla Amad was born in Lebanon and arrived in Australia in 1954 at the age of nineteen. She has always had a passion for cooking the food of her homeland and became renowned among Melbourne’s Lebanese community for sharing wonderful meals in her kitchen at home. In 1979 she opened her restaurant, Abla’s, in Elgin Street, Carlton.
It has since become a Melbourne institution and has attracted the praise of leading food critics and chefs. Abla has five children and lives in North Carlton, Melbourne. For more information visit: http://www.ablas.com.au/
ABLA’s LEBANESE KITCHEN is published in Australia by Penguin (RRP AU$49.95)