You are a prolific writer and an authority on Middle Eastern cuisine, based in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands. How would you sum up your story to those who are not familiar with it?
I grew up in East Africa and then worked and travelled all over the world – always lured by the food of street markets and villages and my irrepressible greed! After gaining a Cordon Bleu diploma in London and a degree in Social Anthropology from Edinburgh University, I began researching and writing about the cultures behind the food as well as the food on my plate and I have been doing that since 1979!
I began as a journalist in the Middle East and moved on to food and travel writing in different parts of the world for various magazines but I didn’t start writing books until I moved to the Scottish Highlands. I have now written over 40 cookery books but some of those I’m not very proud of as they were done out of necessity to pay the bills while raising my children on my own in a remote location.
I began my writing career long before the internet and social media so people often bought my books for research and publishers took care of the marketing but life has changed and the power of social media has enabled everyone to be food experts, writers, photographers, and chefs, so those of us who actually explored remote villages on foot and documented the culinary cultures 30-40 years ago, hand-writing notes, sending stories by telex or radio, and using heavy SLR cameras with reels of film that we had to develop in darkened bathrooms, will get left behind if we don’t adapt.
My mission now is to learn the mechanics of the social media world to push my own work and reinvent myself to come out dancing like Madonna with golden cones!
Can you tell us about your local larder in the Highlands and how you draw on this for your work?
The majority of my books are based on the culinary cultures of Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia so the ingredients are not easily sourced on my doorstep! In the early days, I had to drive down to Glasgow or Edinburgh just to find aubergines or avocados but now I can get most things in the supermarket of my nearest town, which is only an hour away. And, in the winter, all shopping has to be carried in backpacks or pulled on sleigh for the one and half-mile trek through the deep snowdrifts to my home.
So, the lack of local ingredients forced me to grow my own, to forage, and to preserve. In the summer months, I rely heavily on my garden and greenhouse produce and I love gathering plants like wild garlic, sweet cicely, and rosebay willow herb, as well as edible roots and bulbs, funghi and berries. I find it very satisfying to eat off the land, sometimes combined with wild meat – rabbit, hare, pheasant, deer – and locally sourced salmon. For the radio and other food projects, I can utilize my knowledge of wild Scottish food and world spices in different ways. For example, I am currently working on a Spirit & Spice project, matching spices with different whiskies.
You run amazing cookery workshops, food safaris and wilderness retreats – would love to hear more bout what visitors can expect from these.
As a single parent, I had to find ways of working around my children and their busy lives which involved great distances of driving so I wrote the books at night and I converted a barn in my property into a holiday cottage which is advertised as a ‘wilderness retreat’ as you literally walk out the door into the hills, there is no light pollution so the night skies are stunning, the deer come into the garden in winter and the moor is alive with the sweet tuneful sound of birdsong.
As the children got older, I was able to have an extension built on to the old stone cottage to house an open-plan kitchen/living space so that I could start up cookery workshops to give people the experience of working with spices and the food of different cultures in an atmospheric kitchen with a fabulous view. I call this a ‘food safari’ as we often travel the globe with the dishes we create and it inevitably touches people in different ways – tears and laughter – as they recall memories of childhood or travel and tuck into a tasty feast, packed with different flavours, that they would never have dreamed of being able to produce on their own.
You are known as the ‘original spice girl’, are there any traditions of the use of spices in Scottish food? What would you say to novices about incorporating spices into everyday cooking?
Compared to lots of other cultures we don’t have an expansive tradition of spices in Scottish cooking but different periods of history have produced flavours that are now so intertwined in some of our classic dishes, like haggis, black pudding, Scotch pies and baking that we don’t really think about the origins.
On the other hand, modern Scottish food has adapted to the growing appeal of spices and world food so there are many twists on old traditions.
Having said that, when it comes to meat, fish, shellfish, and cheese we do have some of the best produce in Scotland and often it can seem like a crime to play around with it too much as it is so delicious just as it is. Spices don’t have to be added to everything!
But, spices do enhance many dishes and they do contain valuable healing and digestive qualities so it is worth learning about them. My first piece of advice to anyone using spices in their cooking is to buy them in seed, root, berry, bark or nut form and then grind them when you are ready so that you work the natural oils to get the maximum flavour and health benefits.
Can you share a favourite recipe?
I’m going to leave you with my version of Singapore Laksa, which requires a little bit of preparation but then you can have a bath or watch your favourite TV programme while it cooks slowly to draw out all the wonderful flavours. It is a great showcase dish for marrying spices with fresh Scottish produce.
The key to a tasty laksa is to make a strong-flavoured rempah (the base spice paste) so don’t be bashful with your quantities of ginger, chillies and lemongrass.
For the rempah
- 4-6 dried red chillies, soaked in water for 2-4 days to soften, deseeded and roughly chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- a big nob of fresh ginger (like a giant thumb and forefinger), peeled and chopped
- 4 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and chopped
- sea salt
- 6-8 macademia nuts
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 heaped tablespoon ghee (or coconut oil)
- 2 red onions, or 6-8 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon crumbled or shaved jaggery (raw palm sugar), or honey
- 1-2 tablespoons ground turmeric
- 3 x 400ml tins of coconut milk
- 400ml chicken or vegetable stock (or 1 more tin of coconut milk)
- 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce (optional)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce (optional)
- a big bunch of fresh coriander, finely chopped
- 450g fresh egg or rice noodles
- 4- 6 skinned fresh salmon fillets, cut into bite-size chunks (or reduce the quantity of salmon and combine with fresh, shelled scallops and prawns).
- sea salt
- 2-4 limes, cut into segments
- Using a mortar and pestle, pound the soaked chillies, garlic, ginger and lemongrass to form a coarse paste. Add some salt to act as abrasive and keep pounding, then add the macadamia nuts which help to form a thick and creamy paste. Your paste won’t be super smooth and it is nice to have some texture in the laksa so don’t worry if doesn’t seem perfect.
- In a small heavy-based pan, dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds until they darken slightly and emit a nutty aroma. Tip them into a spice grinder and grind them into a deliciously aromatic powder.
- Heat the ghee in a large wok, or a large heavy-based pot. Stir in the onions, until they begin to soften, and stir in the spice paste. Keep stirring, until the paste emits a lovely aroma, then stir in the jaggery, ground roasted spices and the turmeric. Pour in the coconut milk and stock so that the paste and spices don’t burn and bring the liquid to the boil, stirring gently from time to time. Add the fish and soy sauces – these are optional as they add a bit of salty depth to the laksa but you can just season with enough salt on its own – and stir in half the chopped coriander. Reduce the heat and simmer very gently, giving it an occasional stir, for at least 45 minutes to allow the flavours to mingle (you can do this stage ahead of time and leave it in the fridge for a day or night, then heat it up, check the seasoning, and do final stages of adding the noodles and fish which takes minutes!).
- Taste the laksa and adjust the seasoning. If you’re a chilli fan, you can add some finely chopped fresh or dried chilli at this stage. Stir in the noodles to heat them through, then add the chunks of salmon, making sure they are submerged in the liquid for 1-2 minutes – the salmon barely needs to be cooked as it will continue to cook in the heat of the soup in your bowl. Spoon the laksa into bowls, scatter the rest of the chopped coriander over the top, and squeeze a segment of lime over it.
- Enjoy this delicious, warming bowl of soupy noodles with chopsticks if you can and then drink the liquid from the bowl. It is a meal on its own!
For further information about Ghillie’s work, cookery workshops and food safaris, please visit www.ghilliebasan.com
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram via @ghilliebasan