It was December 1972 and I’d been living in Damascus for about 3 months, getting used to the presence of armed soldiers on every street corner; taking the shortages of food, clothes, and basic necessities like bread and bottles of calor gas, in my stride.
My mother-in-law and her relatives used to speak wistfully of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, which was less than 70 miles from Damascus.
They made the it sound the epitome of fashion, elegance, and refinement. And, most importantly, it had a very fashionable shoe shop – Red Shoe.
Beirut, located on the Mediterranean, was very chic and very French – at least the part my in-laws chose to visit.
It was decided, because I was from the west, I would be pining for a spot of refinement and elegance, and that I should visit this mecca of fashion as soon as possible.
A taxi was ordered and I went with my mother-in-law to Beirut. After a tense border crossing where the car was searched and I was eyed with suspicion, we rattled into Beirut in this ancient Damascene taxi.
The city was everything my in-laws had talked about. It was light and lively, and as we strolled down trendy Rue Hamra (Hamra Street) with its sidewalk cafes and elegant men and women gesticulating and speaking a mixture of French and Arabic, I could have imagined I was in France.
The Beirutis were so well-dressed, so confident, so European. By comparison, I felt dull and unfashionable in my hippy-style wrapover skirt and cotton top.
We had been invited to lunch at the house of an old school friend of my mother-in-law. Layla Khanoum was a tall, slim, charming lady of about sixty-two, and lived in a large apartment in a fashionable area of Beirut.
After she and my mother-in-law had exchanged greetings and brought each other up to date on the latest news, we sat down to lunch.
There are only a handful of meals I remember in my life and usually they are the simplest. That day, we ate sultan brahim (red mullet), perfectly grilled and served with wedges of lemon (I was by now getting used to lemons appearing with nearly every dish) and a simple carrot salad that was refreshing with the tang of lemons and sweet with plump sultanas.
Born and raised in Glasgow, I was used to eating lots of carrots. They were a staple root vegetable that usually made an overcooked appearance in soups, stews and the famous ‘mince and potatoes’. We rarely ate them raw, never with dried fruit, and as for lemons, they were used when you had a cold and not for squeezing into salads – certainly not the amount needed for that salad.
Since my visit to Layla Khanoum, I have made carrot salad frequently. It has grown more elaborate over the years, and nowadays, it’s a fiery, lime-soaked melange of carrots, dried fruits, seeds and sometimes, nuts.
I’ve given a recipe below but you can add or subtract any of the ingredients, or add more of one than the other. Also if you don’t have limes, you can add lemon instead. Walnuts give the salad extra crunch and earthiness and go well with a grated apple added to the mix.
The main thing is that the salad should taste fresh, sweet and citrusy. It should also be moist – that’s important. And because of its sharp flavour, it goes very well with any dish where you need something to cut through the richness or oiliness of the dish – oily fish, for example.
Ingredients 0.00 (4 Servings)
- carrots Peeled and finely grated 500 gs
- root ginger Peeled and finely grated 25 gs
- red chilli finely chopped 1 ....
- currants 40 gs
- mixed seeds you can buy these ready-mixed or mix your own - pumpkin, sunflower, linseed 50 gs
- small red onion Peeled and finely sliced 1 ....
- zest of 1 lime ....
- juice of 2 limes ....
- flat leaf parsley chopped 5 gs
- coriander chopped 5 gs
- dill chopped 5 gs
- olive oil 2 tbsps
- Place the first 6 ingredients in a bowl
- Add the lime juice and lime zest
- Add the olive oil
- Now taste for heat, adjusting the amount of chilli, if necessary
- Then taste for sharpness and adjust the amount of lime juice – there should be a distinct refreshing zing
- When you are happy with the taste, gently fork through the herbs
- You can make this salad ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. If you do, add the herbs just before serving so they don’t become limp