Peace in Middle East? Solution is roast lamb with harissa

Special blend: Harissa paste.
Special blend: Harissa paste. Photo: David Reist

I’m finding it a tad hard to jolly up your day with these endless geo-political events and that are and have been playing out lately. It’s like you really look forward to the light news segment in each broadcast – the bit with the cats doing weird things, celebrities having pathetic "punch-ups" and what Todd Carney is doing today – to get your mind off the question, as Kamahl used to put it: Why are people are so unkind?

I’m not sure whether this is a general diminished emotional response I’m having, but watching or listening to the news lately does leave me looking for something – anything – that is remotely ridiculous to cling to.

Like the recent statement about the possibility that this outbreak of Ebola in Africa is spreading to other continents and travellers should be diligent. If they notice internal bleeding, go and see your GP. See that news should have me panicking about how many people I’ve come in contact with that have been in the Congo lately. However, all I can visualise is sitting there, waiting, in a doctor surgery, thinking how long do I have to wait, I’ve got to feed to meter again and this internal bleeding is starting to concern me.

Peaceful solution: Oven roasted lamb shoulder with harissa.
Peaceful solution: Oven roasted lamb shoulder with harissa. Photo: David Reist

And I can go on: still in Africa, a driver transporting two giraffes in Centurion, South Africa, miscalculated the bridge height and, well, you probably don’t need me to paint the picture here. Suffice to say the reporter for News24 is desperate for anyone with a photo they can tweet. In the Ukraine... nope, I can’t find anything remotely light-hearted here. What about the conundrum that is the Middle East and this eternal conflict between Israel and, well, everyone else? Complex I’m sure but at our distance there seems to be at least one solution, like stop bombing each other, have they tried that yet? Interesting to listen to an interview with one of the pilots of the drones or planes that fly over Gaza, looking for places to drop their precision bombs. This pilot thinks he saves lives by choosing to not drop bombs on buildings, rather than the converse that he is killing people by doing so.

I really think they need to take a page out of the book that is the relationship between two cooks Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. One Israeli, the other Palestinian, together they run the Ottolenghi restaurants in London and don’t seem to lash out at each other as their respective countries are wont to do. When you look through their book, Jerusalem, the first thought is what an amazing food culture is behind this land. Just about everything that we see as being Mediterranean can be traced back through here. So colourful, so full of freshness, as divine a food that has ever been. Sure there is a niggling argument about who invented hummus, but that seems to be it. 

So in an attempt to put these issues out of my mind, I’ve been wading through this brilliant book, surely one every person should have, and the food is magnificent. Full of energy, flavour and potential. This dish has roots all through the Middle East and is based on Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s lamb shawarma, a celebration of getting along with each other. Now you’ll need to excuse me, I’m desperate to find out why black cats are being abandoned because they don’t look good in selfies.

Oven roasted lamb shoulder with harissa 

Both ras el hanout and z’atar are available from delis, specialist grocers and suppliers of Herbies Spices, such as Cooking Coordinates and Essential Ingredient. You can make these blends yourself but this is way easier. 

2 tbsp ras le hanout
2 tbsp z’atar
1 heaped tbsp freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch coriander, chopped
2 lemons, zested and juiced
1⁄2 cup olive oil
2 tsp Murray River pink salt
2-3kg lamb forequarter roast, scored deeply with a sharp knife

Harissa (see recipe below)

400g tomato puree
Olive oil
1 bunch parsley, leaves chopped
Pita bread

Mix everything together and smother the lamb roast all over, then leave to marinate for 24 hours in the fridge. Heat a large frypan to smoking and sear the top of the roast to give it a head start in the oven. Cook in a low oven at 100C-120C for 5-8 hours depending on the size and how accurate the oven is. The lamb should be totally giving.

After the first hour pour over one cup of boiling water and baste every hour if you think of it. Cover with foil if it’s starting to get a bit too charry.

To serve, mix a few tablespoons of harissa with the tomato puree and a splash of olive oil. Half open the pita bread and push some of this mixture into each.

Char grill or pan-fry these to warm through and serve with sliced lamb, extra harissa and chickpeas. Garnish with parsley.

Harissa paste

1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp caraway seed
Splash olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
10 long red moderately hot chilies
1 tsp salt
Juice of one lemon
2 tbsp tomato sauce

In a heavy based frypan, dry roast the spices until just starting to smoke, grind to a powder in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Clean the pan, heat oil and fry onion and garlic over a low heat until soft. Over a flame (or under the grill), grill the chillies so they are charred all over. Cool, chop and grind with onion/garlic mixture, salt and spices.  Stir in tomato sauce and lemon juice to make a thick paste.


200g chickpeas
1 tbsp salt
2 tsbp roasted and ground cumin seeds
200g tahini paste
60ml lemon juice

Soak in plenty of cold water for at least 24 hours, drain and rinse. Add 500ml of cold water and salt, bring to a very low simmer – you can use a slow cooker here or even a pressure cooker. Cook until tender, drain reserving ½ cup cooking liquor and toss the chickpeas in cumin, keep warm. Mix together the tahini and lemon juice, adding cooking liquor to make a thick cream like texture, pour over chickpeas to serve.