I love food. That’s pretty obvious. In fact, I’m sure I don’t need to state it – particularly on this forum! However, my passion for food doesn’t just end with sampling the fares at some of Sydney’s best restaurants. I also thoroughly enjoy getting my hands dirty and preparing food myself – braising, baking, grilling, roasting – you name it, I do it. Therefore, for this year’s Crave Sydney International Food Festival, I thought rather than purely spending the month being fed by others, why not learn some new skills as well? I went to the “Hands On” section of the Crave Sydney website to find a class. They have everything from sausage and salami making, to gluten free Italian cooking, and sushi and sashimi preparation. However, as a big fan of Middle Eastern food, the class that really caught my eye was “Syrian Home Cooking” at Almond Bar (www.almondbar.com.au), Darlinghurst.
We arrived at Almond Bar at 10am on a sunny Saturday morning at. We were warmly greeted by our host Sharon, her sister Carol and their mother Violet. On each table top was a recipe booklet, a plate of spices and a bag containing the ingredients and utensils we would be using that morning. The three dishes we would cook were Kousa Mehshi (stuffed zucchini baked in tomato sauce), Lamb Kafta and Baklawa. Cooking classes I have attended previously generally took a certain format: Guests will watch a chef prepare food; at most, the guest may chop some vegetables, lend a hand in stirring a pot or be encouraged to make failed attempts at creating something complicated for comedy value. A couple of hours later, the guests sit down together and eat what has been cooked. The class at Almond Bar was very different to this, and I liked it. We each prepared our own dishes from scratch, but rather than cook them on the spot, when they were ready to go in the oven we packed them up to take home. We were then presented with a cooked version of the dish so that we could see for ourselves how the finished version should look and taste. This meant that not only did we learn how to prepare these meals ourselves, we got to taste the beautiful food cooked by the chefs at Almond Bar, and bring home a 3 course meal that we could just pop in the oven later that evening. For me, it was the best format for a cooking class I’ve been to.
While sipping on glasses of minted homemade Middle Eastern lemonade, we began to cook. For the Kousa Mehshi, we combined soaked rice and lentils with diced onion, capsicum and tomato, chilli flakes, a blend of spices, chopped parsley, salt and pepper. We were each given 3 zucchinis and a Manakra (implement used to hollow out zucchinis) and we removed the flesh of the zucchinis, trying our very best not to crack the skin. Violet came around and offered her advice and caution on how best to do this. We then stuffed the zucchinis with our mixture, placed them in a baking tray, and they were ready to be put in the oven once we got home. Our lovely hosts also gave us each a gift of a Manakra to take home and use when we’re preparing the dish ourselves in the future.
Next up we made the Baklawa. As this wasn’t a patisserie class used pre-made sheets of filo pastry – I think we would have been there for days otherwise! We gently laid down layer upon layer of filo pastry, butter and chopped walnuts mixed with sugar, rose water and orange blossom water. Once our dishes were ready, we packed them into our bags and were treated to some freshly baked Baklawa straight out of the oven in the Almond Bar kitchen.
The last dish we prepared was the Lamb Kaftas. We mixed lamb mince with capsicum, onion, olive oil, fresh parsley, salt, black pepper and mixed spices. We learned the tricks of rolling the mince mixture around the kebab skewer to make the long, cylindrical Kafta shape. As we washed up our knives and chopping boards, Violet cooked up some fresh Kaftas for us to all taste.
I learned so much in just a few hours at Almond Bar’s cooking class. Not only that but I had a full meal ready to bring home and cook. This was a really great way to spend a morning and Carol assured me that they are thinking of making their cooking classes a more regular event and not just a one-off. So keep an eye out for when they start! RG
Almond Bar, 379 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst www.almondbar.com.au