Interview: Ghillie Basan

She started writing cookbooks with no fridge or electricity, livedwith the Turkish army and endured a very public scandal, but Ghillie Basan is about to encounter her greatest challenge yet: convincing a dedicated kebab-hater to become a Middle Eastern convert

GHILLIE BASAN makes you work for your supper, but then that's the way she likes it. She has dedicated her life to her passion for Turkish and Moroccan cuisine, and if you want some of the epicurean magic to rub off then you must be willing to do some hard yards in her kitchen. Only then do you get to soak up the essence of the souk.

The first obstacle to Middle Eastern enlightenment is getting to the remote farmhouse where she weaves her gastronomic spells. The place is far-flung even for the Highlands; once you leave the remote Braes of Glenlivet road, which winds through a valley deep in the Cairngorms, her bothy is over a mile up a rutted shooting track that even tractors find impassable for two months every winter.

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This seems a strange base for a foodie to have churned out award-winning books on the cuisine of the Middle and Far East from, but then Basan is a very singular woman. A multi-lingual former investigative journalist who has taught tennis, skiing and English, she is also the hostess of exotic cookery courses. All that plus raising two children single-handedly and restoring a bothy from a ruin. The sheer energy of the woman is exhausting.

But if Basan is hyperactive, she's also very dogged. That much had become clear before I even met her. The Moon's Our Nearest Neighbour, her best-selling account of how she and ex-husband Jonathan moved to Corrunich in search of the good life, tells how she was forced to start writing cookery books when the couple ran out of money. The fact that she had no fridge didn't really matter, given that temperatures fell to –30C in midwinter, but the lack of electricity was inconvenient. The absence of shops selling the exotic spices and ingredients she needed didn't help either. Nor did the fact that for most of the winter she had to hump her supplies several miles home on foot using a backpack and a sledge. It didn't stop her making a huge success of the enterprise, though; she clearly has an indomitable spirit.

Just how much became clear when I parked beside the little place of worship that gives Chapeltown, at the heart of one of Scotland's last Catholic glens, its name. From here, it's an uphill walk of more than a mile to Basan's place, and as I trudge up the muddy track I'm grateful I'm arriving during a brief and unseasonal thaw. I wonder how this single mother coped with dragging two young children five miles to school each day on a sledge when they were too young to walk or ski through the snow.

After what seems like an age, I finally arrive at Corrunich. It's unfeasibly remote, desolate almost, and even though the weather is pretty good for this time of year, the tops of my ears tingle with the cold and I feel my fingers turning numb.

Once inside, the place is like a cocoon of warmth, with relics of Basan's years in Turkey evident at every turn. It is no surprise that the kitchen is the heart of her house, and as we put the coffee pot on I meet the other three cookery students.

If it has all been relaxed so far, things get a bit more serious when Basan asks me what type of food I like best (French) and least (Moroccan and Turkish). You could have got through half of Handel's Messiah in the pregnant pause that follows, though I quickly make amends by pointing out that the fault is undoubtedly mine – over-exposure to tagine on a recent trip to Morocco and a diet of kebabs and kofte during a stint in Turkey as a student were obviously the result of my lack of imagination. Situation defused. Sort of.

After my slurs, Basan is determined to guide me and the rest of the students around the most remote nooks and crannies of Turkish cuisine, and we set off at a breakneck pace. It seems to me that most Turkish cookery is about chopping stuff up. We chop vegetables into big bits and medium-sized bits, but mostly we chop them into tiny little shards, hacking at them until they are almost indistinguishable. My memory of Turkey is that the menfolk do commendably little while the women busy themselves 24/7 – at last I know what the ladies are up to. Chopping.

Once the preparation is out of the way, the remarkable range and variety of dishes becomes apparent. Basan is clearly a good judge of character, as she has given me two of the easiest dishes to prepare. The first is guney salatasi, a salad from the south-east of the country that is made from walnuts (chopped into little pieces), chillis (chopped into tiny pieces), a sprinkling of the sour spice called sumac (made from ground berries) and a liberal helping of thick, dark pomegranate syrup. My other creation is patlican ezmesi, a pure in which aubergine is mashed together with yoghurt, garlic, lemon and olive oil.

As we work, the hours fly by. Basan restricts her students to four so we each have plenty of scope for asking stupid questions – an option I seem to have a monopoly on – and time to see what everyone else is doing.

After almost five hours of hard graft, the table is groaning under the weight of food. There are tasty little peppers stuffed with feta cheese and served with cinnamon-infused pear; an unforgettable plate of spinach with pinenuts and garlic coated in a yoghurt and tahini sauce; tangy rosti-style fritters of shredded carrot, feta and onion seasoned with dill, mint, parsley and coriander; liver sauted in cumin, garlic and chilli and topped with fresh lemon juice; tagine of sweet potatoes and green olives cooked in lemon juice and orange-blossom water. To round off, there is Ghillie's signature dish: hot humous with pinenut topping, a delicacy served at weddings, funerals and birthdays in eastern Turkey. And there is pudding: apricots poached in orange-blossom syrup and stuffed with crme frache; and sakizli muhallebi, a simple milk pudding made firm with mastic and flavoured with rosewater. All of it is easy to make, all of it sadly absent from my four-month kebab-munching odyssey around Turkey.

As we tuck in, we wonder how many of the millions of Britons who visit the southern Turkish coast each summer to lap up the sun ever taste dishes like these. The answer, almost certainly, is none.

Basan loves writing about people, but then her degree is in social anthropology, and her abiding interest is in how food and culture are intrinsically linked. She spent years living in Turkey and has explored every corner of the country, even camping out with the army when she was doing a story about Kurdish guerrillas. She has few boundaries when it comes to culinary enquiry: she brings out a bowl of argan oil, made from nuts retrieved from the faeces of tree-climbing goats. (The women in our party give it a body-swerve, while the intrepid gentlemen tuck in.)

She has written books about cuisine and culture from Vietnam and Cambodia to Lebanon and Syria, and has garnered rave reviews from Scottish cooks such as Claire Macdonald and Clarissa Dickson Wright. But she says the secret is simple: research. She often turns up dishes that appear nowhere else.

While she admires the self-regarding chutzpah of celebrity chefs, she has no wish to follow their example. She loves her cookery workshops, but has no wish for the sort of profile that goes with a television series. Naturally self-effacing, she becomes nervous and clumsy when being filmed: she eschewed a career on camera after she leant too close to the gas hob during a live cookery show and, as she puts it, "My boobs caught fire."

Yet despite hiding herself away in one of the most remote areas of the country, she has still failed to find a quiet life. That's partly because of The Moon is Our Nearest Neighbour, but equally because of the notoriety gained when her half-Turkish husband Jonathan left her in 2002. Because of Basan's profile, the drama was played out in the press, a doubly hard blow for a woman who values privacy. "The fact that I was well known gave me huge problems because when my husband ran off he caused a scandal, and there was a lot of nastiness," she says. "I didn't show my emotions and that riled some people; it was as if I was to blame. I was in the depths of misery, but if you're going to cry you should do it behind closed doors. I'd never show in public how much it hurt."

Although she comes across as fairly shy, Basan is obviously resilient. Perhaps it's a result of spending much of her youth shuttling between her Scottish boarding school and her parents' home in Kenya, or maybe because she left school at 16 and travelled around the world on her own. Perhaps it's because caring for 12-year-old Yasmin and eight-year-old Zeki has forced her to find contentment in her Highland home after a lifetime on the move. Yet there is still a restlessness about her that finds an outlet in her work: she has five books in various states of production, including the sequel to The Moon is Our Nearest Neighbour, a children's novel and books on the cuisine of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

She is already looking ahead to her next projects. She has always wanted to travel the Silk Road and chart how food moved around the ancient world, how noodles came from China to become an important food in parts of Turkey. But first there is a Kenyan cookbook to consider: the country's cuisine is interesting because it carries the historical ingredients left by centuries of invaders and interlopers: of Arabs, Indians, Jews and Britons. She is also on a mission to bring her favourite Kenyan food – prawn-like flying termites – to a wider audience. She's even thinking of approaching Barack Obama to write the foreword to her treatise on Kenyan food and culture. She readily concedes it's a long-shot, but then she's a woman who seems happiest when the odds are stacked against her. r

Recipes for some of the dishes made at the cookery workshop can be found at www.scotlandonsunday.com. To take part in a cookery course, visit www.ghilliebasan.com. For Richard Bath's restaurant review, turn to page 33

Carrot-and-feta patties

Serves four to six

3–4 medium-sized carrots, washed and peeled

3 tbsp plain flour

3 eggs, beaten

1 large onion, cut in half lengthways, in half again and sliced

225g feta, crumbled

a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a bunch of fresh mint leaves, chopped

a bunch of fresh dill fronds, chopped

1 tsp Turkish red pepper, or 1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped

freshly ground black pepper

sunflower oil for frying

Coarsely grate the carrots, then gather in fistfuls and squeeze out the excess water. Tip the flour into a bowl and gradually beat in the eggs to form a smooth batter. Add the grated carrot, onion, feta, herbs and red pepper. Season with a black pepper – add salt if you like, but usually the feta is quite salty. Mix well.

Heat sunflower oil in a heavy-based, non-stick pan. Drop in a few spoonfuls of the mixture, leaving a little space between each one, and fry the patties in batches until firm and golden brown on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately, while they are still warm.

Here are some of the recipes cooked at Ghillie's workshop taken from her books Turkish Cookingand Flavours of Morocco.

SMOKED AUBERGINE AND YOGHURT PUREE

Serves four

2 large, plump aubergines

2–3 cloves garlic, crushed

juice of 1 lemon

225g thick, set, plain yoghurt

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the aubergines directly on to the flame on the gas hob, turning them from time to time, until the skin is charred and the flesh feels soft to the touch. Place them in a plastic bag and leave to sweat for five minutes. Hold each one by the stalk under running cold water and gently peel off the charred skin, until you are left with the smooth, bulbous flesh on the end of the stalk. Squeeze the flesh to get rid of any excess water and place it on a chopping board. Cut off the stalk and chop the flesh to a pulp.

In a bowl, beat the aubergine with the olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Beat in the yoghurt and season with salt and pepper. Serve with chunks of fresh crusty bread.

SPINACH WITH CURRANTS, PINENUTS AND YOGHURT

Serves three to four

350g fresh spinach leaves, thoroughly washed and drained

2–3 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, cut in half lengthways, in half again crossways and sliced with the grain

1 tsp sugar

1–2 tbsp currants, soaked in warm water for ten minutes and drained

2 tbsp pinenuts

1–2 tsp Turkish red pepper, or 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced

juice of 1 lemon

salt and freshly ground black pepper

roughly 200g thick, creamy, set yoghurt

2 cloves garlic, crushed

ground paprika for the top

Place the spinach in a steamer, or in a colander placed in a large pot partially filled with water. Steam until soft. Drain off any excess water and coarsely chop the steamed spinach.

In a bowl, beat the yoghurt with the garlic. Season with salt and pepper and put aside.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based pan and stir in the onions and sugar until they begin to colour. Toss in the currants, pinenuts and red pepper and fry until the nuts begin to colour. Add the spinach, tossing it around the pan until well mixed, and pour in the lemon juice. Season the mixture with salt and pepper.

Serve the spinach from the pan with the yoghurt spooned on top, or tip the mixture on to a serving dish. Make a well in the middle and spoon the yoghurt into it, drizzling some of it over the spinach. Sprinkle a little paprika over the yoghurt and serve while the spinach is still hot.

LAMB'S LIVER WITH CUMIN

Serves four

500g fresh lamb's liver

2 tbsp plain flour

1–2 Turkish red pepper, or paprika

3–4 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1–2 tsp cumin seeds

sea salt

1 lemon, cut into quarters

Place the pieces of liver on a board and, using a sharp knife, remove the skin and any ducts. Cut the liver into thin strips or bite-size cubes. Mix the flour and red pepper in a shallow bowl and toss the strips of liver in it until well coated.

Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan. Add the garlic and cumin seeds until they give off a nutty aroma. Toss in the liver, stir-frying it quickly on all sides. Drain it on kitchen paper. Serve hot or cold with wedges of lemon to squeeze over it.

CARROT-AND-FETA PATTIES

Serves four to six

3–4 medium-sized carrots, washed and peeled

3 tbsp plain flour

3 eggs, beaten

1 large onion, cut in half lengthways, in half again and sliced

225g feta, crumbled

a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a bunch of fresh mint leaves, chopped

a bunch of fresh dill fronds, chopped

1 tsp Turkish red pepper, or 1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped

freshly ground black pepper

sunflower oil for frying

Coarsely grate the carrots. Gather up fistfuls of the grated carrot and squeeze out the excess water.

Tip the flour into a bowl and gradually beat in the eggs to form a smooth batter. Add the drained grated carrot, onion, feta, herbs and Turkish red pepper. Season with a little pepper – add salt if you like, but usually the feta is quite salty. Mix well.

Heat enough sunflower oil for frying in a heavy-based, non-stick pan. Drop a few spoonfuls of the mixture, leaving a little space between each one, into the oil and fry the patties in batches until firm to touch and golden brown on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper. Serve immediately while they are still warm.

TAGINE OF SPICY KEFTA WITH LEMON

Serves four to six

For the kefta

450g finely minced lamb

1 onion, finely chopped or grated

a small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

1–2 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp ras-el-hanout

sea salt

2 tbsp ghee

1 onion, finely chopped

2–3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 thumb-sized pieces of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1 red chilli, finely chopped

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp ground turmeric

a small bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped

1 lemon, cut into segments, with pips removed

sea salt

To make the kefta, pound the minced lamb in a bowl. Using your hands, lift up the lump of minced meat and slap it back down into the bowl. Add the chopped onion, parsley and spices and season with salt and pepper. Again using your hands, mix the ingredients together and knead well, pounding the mixture for a few minutes. Take pieces of the mixture and shape them into cherry-sized balls. (These can be made ahead of time and kept chilled in the refrigerator.)

Heat the ghee in a tagine, or heavy-based casserole pot. Stir in the onion, garlic, ginger and chilli and saut with the sugar until they begin to brown. Add the turmeric and half the coriander and pour in roughly 300ml water. Bring the water to the boil, reduce the heat and carefully place the kefta in the liquid. Put the lid back on and cook the kefta gently for about 30 minutes, rolling them in the liquid from time to time. Tuck the lemon segments around the kefta, season with salt and cook gently for another 20 minutes. Garnish with the rest of the coriander and serve hot with a chunks of crusty bread or couscous.