Under the Copper Covers, Sherine Ben Halim Jafar

How Middle Eastern Food Became Jafar’s Most Powerful Healer

The personal story that precedes the recipes in Sherine Ben Halim Jafar’s new culinary book – ‘Under the Copper Covers’ – is so highly moving and inspirational that I would advise immediate purchase. Offering a beautifully compiled printed edition – with valuable historical and family-related photo-illustrations – this author draws upon strong memories for each dish mentioned and every recipe lovingly included. Jafar takes the reader on a wonderful gastronomic journey that will urge you to get into the kitchen as soon as possible and start cooking or baking.

Sherine Ben Halim Jafar candidly explores two things: her private experience of living in exile as an Arab in the West and the unexpected triumph of food to cure much of the associated heart-pains and the psychological hurts of displacement. Coming from a very high profile political Libyan family – her father Mustafa Ben Halim was a Prime Minister under King Idris’s reign – she tells of how her once carefree and privileged childhood was suddenly interrupted in September 1969 on the occasion of Gaddafi’s coup and overthrow of the monarchy.

“The only place where I was to find solace was within the walls of the kitchen, with the comfort of my mother’s cooking and familiar smells: caramelized onions, fragrant cumin and rose water. It didn’t matter what ingredients she was using, which cuisine, culture or style – comfort was Mum and her food. My sense of belonging was measured by her cooking. Whatever Mum cooked was who we were, what we were and where we belonged.” P. 29, Under the Copper Covers

Just for having been a part of the monarchical framework, her father became an assassination target and the Ben Halim family were unable to go home and disabled from returning to Libya. Although they were granted Saudi Arabian citizenship and offered international diplomatic protection, the fear of attack became a constant threatening shadow. Due to the uncertainty of where their life was heading and worry for her father’s safety, little five-year old Sherine developed severe anxiety and depressive symptoms that unfortunately went untreated for many years.

In time however the family settled in London, where Sherine – the youngest of six siblings – studied at an International school and completed a bachelor’s in English Literature followed by a master’s at King’s College. Being the sensitive soul, she continued grappling with the troubling issues of a lost identity and the family’s cultural heritage now gone missing. It seemed very pertinent for her to address these. In the book, she says: “The skin could not, and would not, fit; the Arab inside conflicted with the West outside.”

Luckily she found out that there was a way of comfort available and that would be to connect with other exiled Middle Eastern youngsters who were able to understand and shared her condition; and, in doing so, she also discovered the great power of food as a method of sharing her soul’s desire for belonging and to make herself and others happy. It would also lead to the forming of strong friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

Now aged 51 and settled in Dubai, as well as being married with four children, Jafar has lived in so many different countries and been exposed to so many fascinating cuisines that hail not just from Libya; but, also, from Palestine (her mother’s country of origin), Iraq (her husband’s country of origin), Syria (her maternal grandmother’s country of origin), Iran (many of her friends are Persian), the Emirates (where she has been residing in Dubai for over twenty years), Saudi Arabia as well as England (she loves traditional fish and chips as well as steak and kidney pie) and Europe (Italy and France in particular).

The Food: Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran

In the cooking sections of the book, Jafar shares the magic of what happens in her kitchen. She has selected six countries to include some of the national signature dishes and desserts. With the help of her female friends and family members, her goal was to nail down the authenticity of each sweet or savoury item and offer the best of tried and tested recipes. It is truly a showcase of some appetising menus and ideas for hosting extraordinary feasts.

From Palestine, she offers her mother’s family flue remedy of chicken noodle soup, molokhiyeh (mallow stew), sfiha (authentic Palestinian meat pastries), msakhan (a feast of chicken sumac onion and bread), kidra (rice and meat cooked in clay) and plenty more main meals. If you have also ever tasted and wondered on how to recreate the heavenly Palestinian katayef (pancakes), tamriyyeh (semolina in phyllo) or the halawet al smeed (semolina in syrup), then you need to buy this book.

In terms of Lebanon and Syria, we are introduced to the recipes of Zahiya (who is Jafar’s friend Dana’s cook) and Rania from Damascus. Here you will find the perfect way of making the tasty Lebanese sayyadiyeh (fish with rice), the kibbeh bil siniyeh (double-layered cracked wheat with meat) and the Syrian horrak usbao (hot fingers), mhammara (crushed walnuts and red pepper dip), fatet makdous (stuffed eggplants in yogurt). For dessert, you have the Levantine basboosa (semolina cake) and goulash (phyllo stuffed with cheese).

From Iraq and Iran, we also get an insight into their eating habits, with the dolma (stuffed onions) to die for, the kubbat hamod shalgham (classic Iraqi dish), the kabab tawa (thin lamb burgers) and the Iranian’s ability to create a hundred different types of rice polow presentations, including with beans, cherries, nuts, barberries, fish and vegetables.

It is the Libyan food section however that I believe will be the most appreciated, as it is almost impossible to find a Libyan restaurant anywhere outside of the country and as Libyans tend to be very nervous about giving out their family kitchen secrets. So, thankfully, Jafar has given us clear direct instructions on how to make the shorba hassa and shorba hamra (traditional soups), mbattan (stuffed potatoes), shakshooka (eggs in spicy red sauce with dried meat), couscouy (how the Libyans do their couscous) and the spicy macaroni mbakbaka. Just in case you are a newlywed to a Libyan man, you’ll now be able to impress that difficult mother-in-law!

‘Under the Copper Covers’ is published by Rimal Publications.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2016