Majd, an old college friend from Lebanon, was visiting London last week. It’s been nearly a decade since I last saw him, and I was so glad to see him.
As is customary with Lebanese, the traveler will always ask “badeek shee” (addressing a female) or do you need anything from here? And the person being posed the question should ideally respond: “toussal b salemeh” (addressing a male) or “your safe arrival”
But I just went straight for the kill and said; “Dude can you bring me some Arak with you” He’s thinking: “Is she having withdrawals or what?!”
Arak– Lebanon’s national drink- is a clear, colourless, unsweetened, aniseed flavoured alcohol distilled from grapes. It is quite similar to other spirits from around the Mediterranean like the Greek ouzo or the French pastis, amongst others. It’s also been nicknamed “halib al seba3” or “The milk of lions” when back in the old days it was drunk by men in the mornings to show off strength and masculinity along with the belief that such a practice can also bring health. In Lebanon, the preferred alcohol volume of Arak is around 72%. To drink arak, it is diluted with water where it turns into a milky white color.
Majd arrived for dinner with a lovely bottle of Arak. We talked, drank, talked some more and laughed so much remember the old days; when we were young, stupid and stupider..We were all congregated in the kitchen as I prepared a dish of prawns in arak and sumac. I twisted open the bottle of arak and started pouring it into the pot of sizzling onions and garlic when suddenly Majd had an all too familiar bewildered look on his face ” Beta what are you doing, aren’t you supposed to use wine?” he asked. ” Well you can, but I’m not making mariniere, this is my Lebanese inspired version, ya know!” I replied.
“hmm, yea I guess but we don’t really use arak in cooking because the process to distill it is so long and precise, and arak is such a delicacy, it goes through three distillations.” He insisted, his heart breaking.
“yeah, I know! You sound like my dad!” I said.
He’s right and he wasn’t the first one to give me such a perplexed look at first. When my dad first saw me cooking with arak- a man that distills his own arak- he proclaimed me crazy! That was it for him! What kind of daughter did he raise! He quickly got over it.
I recently made this for my aunt while in the South of France and it has now become one of her favourite ways to enjoy mussels.
And when Majed tasted those prawns, he stopped arguing with me. That was it. No more conversation. Just E.A.T.I.N.G!
Some traditions are meant to be kept and some are meant to be broken! And I’m breaking the hell out of this one!
- a generous knob of butter
- 1 onion, finely chopped (can use shallots as well)
- 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
- 1kg/2 lb 4 oz fresh mussels- cleaned and de-bearded
- 125ml/4 fl oz/ ½ cup arak (You can buy Arak from this online store: Al Doukan Otherwise, Ouzo or Pernod will do the trick as well though it's on the sweeter side)
- 60ml/2 fl oz/ ¼ cup dry white wine
- a handful fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Add a saucepan on medium to low flame, melt the butter then add the onions,cover and sweat until they are soft and translucent, about 3-4 minutes.
- Add the garlic and sauté for a further 1 minute, stirring often.
- Then pour in the arak and white wine and let it reduce by half, about 2 minutes. Stir often. (If you know how to flambé, you know what to do)
- Add the mussels and a couple of pinches of salt. Cover the pot with the lid and give the pot a nice gentle shake.
- Cook for 3-4 minutes to get moist and juicy mussels. You don't want to over cook them because they turn dry and tough. You'll know when they've finished cooking once they're shells have opened. Garnish with coriander.
Mussels in Arak
Add a saucepan on medium to low flame, melt the butter then add the onions,cover and sweat until they are soft and translucent, about 3-4 minutes.
Add the garlic and sauté for a further 1 minute, stirring often.
Then pour in the arak and white wine and let it reduce by half, about 2 minutes. Stir often. (If you know how to flambe, you know what to do)
Add the mussels and a couple of pinches of salt. Cover the pot with the lid and give the pot a nice gentle shake.
Cook for 3-4 minutes to get moist and juicy mussels. You don’t want to over cook them because they turn dry and tough. You’ll know when they’ve finished cooking once they’re shells have opened. Garnish with coriander.