Bazaar - A Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook |

Middle Eastern Minus The Meat: Sabrina Ghayour On Cutting Down And Embracing Plant-Based Cooking

As her 100% vegetarian cookbook Bazaar is released, British-Iranian chef, and self-confessed carnivore...

Posted on

14 April 2019

Sabrina Ghayour

All Credits: PA

Think of Middle Eastern food and you probably imagine big platters of succulent lamb, spiced chicken and meaty tagines – and lots of it.

Iranian-British chef Sabrina Ghayour is a “die-hard meat-lover”. Being born in Tehran and having grown up in the UK, meat has just always been a huge part of her family’s culture and a staple on the dinner table (and breakfast and lunch, for that matter). “In a Middle Eastern or Persian family, if you don’t have meat on the table there would be suspicion: ‘What’s going on? Does she need money? Did you drop the meat? Is the kebab still grilling?'” she says with a laugh.

So it’s perhaps surprising that, after the success of her previous cookbooks Persiana and Feasts, Ghayour is now back with her third title, Bazaar – and (to the apparent dismay of some of her social media followers) there isn’t a kebab in sight.

It’s a collection of colourful, generous vegetarian recipes, ranging from unmistakably Persian aubergine and caramalised onion kuku, to butternut baklava pies and the ‘world’s best’ toastie.

It’s not as radical a shift as it may seem for Britain’s best-known Persian cook though; the 42-year-old is eating a lot less meat than she used to and has discovered a real passion for plant-based cooking. In fact, she’s gone from eating meat every day to reducing her intake by 40%. “Maybe age has something to do with it, but I can’t digest as much as I used to, I don’t crave it as much as I used to, it makes me feel heavy and sluggish,” she says.

There are other reasons to cut down on meat of course; it’s better for the planet, animal welfare, our wallets and often our own health – and eating too much is a pretty big issue in Western culture too.

“We didn’t have meat in all of our cultures in times of war, famine and suffering, and when we did have a bit of money, meat was the first thing a family would put on the table, as a sign of, ‘Hey! It’s good times!’,” says Ghayour. “So in the Middle East, especially because they’ve been through constant war after war, in hundreds of thousands of years of history, that has really impacted us [the food eaten], probably a little bit excessively.”

Middle Eastern minus the meat

She says her journey to more plant-based cooking has happened quite organically. “I started chucking cabbage into my pasta – ribboning it up and frying it – as you would with clams – with garlic and chilli, lemon zest, heavy on the black pepper and some pecorino,” she says. “And I was like, ‘God, this is stupendously delicious!’

“Converting people in my family and cooking for my mother [who lives with her] is a different ball game. I would say, ‘Dinner’s got no meat in it’, and she’d be like, ‘OK, I’ll have some ham, I’ll open a tin of tuna’,” Ghayour tells, laughing. “But now she’s the same as me – as long as there’s lots of flavour, she doesn’t care.”

But, does it require a lot more skill to make vegetarian food delicious? “I just think you have to give it a bit of thought, people just need a bit of inspiration, even vegetarians – they’re probably sick of eating mushroom risotto in restaurants.”

Although still true to her heritage in many ways, Ghayour’s signature style has evolved pretty far from classic Iranian fare. “If you look at Lebanese and Turkish food, there are loads of vegetables – we don’t really have that in Persian culture. We’re very meat-heavy and we don’t use spices at all, apart from saffron because we cultivate it, and a pinch of cumin in one dish.

“We don’t like chilli or garlic, unless you live in the region that grows garlic,” she adds. “I’ve probably confused the hell out of people because of my love for those things. We have one salad in Iran. One salad. But we do eat our body weight in herbs.”

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Today is a special day (well, for me at least!) It’s my 42nd birthday and this is one of my favourite pics of the year picking apples from my own tree in my house in #Yorkshire 2018 was a great year for me, i learned so much about myself and learned to let loose. Being 42 sounds scary tbh, I still feel 18 at heart, although my body sometimes feels 80! I think I basically scrub up well and havent aged too badly. I’ve only discovered 1 white hair so far and that was well over a year ago. My skin is fairly decent and generally I’m happy with the ageing process. So let me share a few personal things with you, should you give a hoot! - I never use conditioner & I only shampoo my hair once and never wash it more than twice a week (unless it gets sweaty/dirty) - I didn’t start moisturising until I was 38 (YES I SAID IT!) and even then, I use Oil of Olay very occasionally. The less crap you pile on your face, the better. - I have never used Botox or fillers (I am petrified of needles) - I have never dyed my hair (except for one dreadful ‘blonde streak’ incident in the 90s which made me look like a badger so I had it removed) - I have accepted that exercise IS necessary after 40 and I owe so much to @tomcheesemanfitness - I have no tattoos (again, STILL petrified of needles) - My diet generally swings like a pendulum from one extreme to another and stress affects what I eat and makes me eat more. - I hate diets. I hate diets. I hate diets. They make you fat and unhappy. - one of the kindest things I did for myself and my own sanity was to subtly cut out people from my who didn’t make me happy and make friends with wonderful new friends all around the world that enrich my life and make me laugh and connect with me and where I am in life right now. - I still crave Monster Munch and stupid childish shit like that AND IM NOT SORRY! Because memories are made of this. - I still get sad if people don’t seem to like me, the only difference is that with age, you get over it pretty quickly as you stop blaming yourself! You live & learn eh? I’m excited for 2019 to unfold Thanks for all your love and support ALWAYS.

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There’s plenty of Middle Eastern influence in general at work in Baazer, although not exclusively. Think feta, pul biber, and oregano macaroni, or ras el hanout and buttermilk sweet loaf cake.

But really, her new book is a homage to the infinite possibilities from the plant-based world. “These are the most natural products on the earth that are bountiful, plentiful and not hard to season well. There are nuts for texture, dried fruit for sweeteners – you can char a cabbage and cauliflower leaves, using the whole cauliflower, and it’s totally delicious.”

That doesn’t mean Ghayour’s latest culinary venture is all about joining the healthy bandwagon though: “There are lots of people who slate salad-eaters and lots of people who slate cake-eaters – I’m the scales of justice, with cake in one hand and salad in the other, because that’s the happiest I’ve ever been body-wise in my life.

“Once in a blue moon, I might say, ‘Right I’ve chubbed up a bit lately, it’s time to reign it in’.”

She adds: “There’s a rice recipe and it’s better with butter; it doesn’t need butter but it’s SO good because it makes the grains silky and makes the sauce completely different. So what? I’ll have a salad on the side.”

What she really wants to get across is that her flavour-packed veggie food is all pretty simple, and always quick (“Life is too short”).

“Let’s not blow it out of proportion, it’s not Michelin-starred, I’m not some culinary French institute, this is good, simple home-cooking,” she says.

And the book is totally written with meat-eaters in mind (she assures she’ll never be fully vegetarian): “I do love meat, but I love better meat, less often.” A message we should probably all be taking on board right now.

Bazaar: Vibrant Vegetarian And Plant-Based Recipes

Bazaar: Vibrant Vegetarian And Plant-Based Recipes by Sabrina Ghayour, photography by Kris Kirkham, is published by Mitchell Beazley. Available now (