This 10 year anniversary green and gold clad edition of Veggiestan by Sally Butcher comes at an opportune time: vegan and vegetarian cookbooks almost outnumber the omnivore cookbooks publishers are currently offering, as climate consciousness encourages us all to reduce our meat intake and increase the production quality (and hence cost) of the meat we do consume. Simultaneously, our appetite for food from other cultures and climes blossoms relentlessly, and the UK’s ability to farm a wider range of pulses, fruits and vegetables increases, in part helped (ironically) by the effects of climate change.
As Sally says in her introduction though, our traditional UK vegetables are also well suited to the treatments afforded by Middle Eastern spicing, cooking techniques and instincts.
There’s lots of chat in this book outside the confines of the recipe text, and it’s conversation of the most disarming kind: it’s informative, casual, personal, self-deprecating, accessible and above all, funny. Sally has a joyfully irreverent and occasionally scatological bent which leavens the book and creates a thoroughly enjoyable read – I found myself reading recipes I had no intention of making simply for the pleasure of her witticisms and wisdoms.
Saying that, the text is also the most annoying part of this book. I don’t know whether the original edition suffered from this vice, but the introductory section and ingredients list of every recipe is in a pale grey font, with the ingredients in a smaller font than the rest of the book. It’s teeth-grittingly difficult to read when you’re trying to make a dish, even in a brightly lit kitchen.
That aside, recipes are well laid out, neatly and clearly described, are generally accurate and have useful notes which often give alternatives or tips for success – it’s a great book for someone confident in making the foray from omni cooking but less confident in their skills to base a diet around vegetables. Sometimes a thoughtful appended paragraph or a couple of unexpectedly inserted pages (on e.g. home and herbal remedies) will unfurl a whole world of information on treating the ingredients, caring for the gut or combining dishes for a more extensive meal. Elsewhere, frivolity, education and myth go hand-in hand with two sweet pages ’on how the aubergine got his hat‘. It feels like the work of an experienced exponent of the art, and I was surprised that this was only her second book; more have followed, with Persia in Peckham, Persepolis, Snackistan and Salmagundi under her belt.
It’s such a pleasure to see the recipes considerately named and indexed in both their original language and in English translation. A bit frustrating that my (otherwise good quality) index ended unexpectedly part way through the letter S, seguing suddenly into an excellent wide-ranging “further reading” list that’s threatening to trouble my bank account.
The contents list is as down-to-earth as Sally: bread and pastry; herbs and salads; dairy and eggs; soup; legumes and pulses; rice and grains; vegetables; cooking with fruit; saucing, pickling and preserving; desserts.
I chose four recipes, starting with Herby Rice with Saffron Vegetables (Sabzi Pulao). Despite turmeric in the ingredients list that failed to make an appearance in the recipe itself, this was a straightforward dish with tips to create a crispy ’tahdik‘ or rice crust that might have otherwise daunted me (it didn’t burn or stick, happy days) and a fragrant, textural accompanying veg and bean combination that could, frankly, stand alone. The limited flavourings helped the saffron to star and Sally’s advice on sourcing the best possible spice is particularly well placed when it predominates as it does here. My photo isn’t the prettiest, admittedly, and definitely not representative of the pictures of colourful, sunny food on pretty mismatched crockery, cloths and trays dotting the book (it’s worth noting that only perhaps one in three dishes are illustrated).
Pumpkin and Rice Soup with Za’atar Croutons (Shorbat Yaqteen) called to me when the autumn weather started to bite. Using pudding rice and a restrained quantity of soft spices, I feared this would be a little bland but the spicing level was just right and the unusual bite of the short grain rice really appealed. The toasted pumpkin seed accompaniment failed miserably (I’ve since learned that I need to brine the seeds before roasting) but I quickly toasted some shop-bought seeds to recover the situation and all was well. Those za’atar croutons are right on the money.
Afghan Carrot Hotpot (Qorma-e-Zardak) also had less spice than I’d expected but again was delicious – texturally satisfying, robust and a complex-flavoured meal when served with pittas and the suggested quick herby, lemony Salaata. The hotpot was equally popular reheated and dolloped with thick yoghurt for lunch the next day.
My final pick was Onion, Chilli and Mint Marmalade (Muraba-e-Murch-e-Surkh wa Piaz). This has a hefty kick, is surprisingly sweet and absolutely bangs when paired with a soft goats cheese or a punchy blue. I dithered over Fig Jam with Nibbed Pistachios and Pumpkin Jam with Garam Masala when choosing this so they’ll likely be next on my list to make as Christmas gifts.
Recipes cover a broad range of the Middle East and the breadth is part of its charm: familiar dishes like Ful Medames and Cacik (Yoghurt with Cucumber) have found their way into our Turkish restaurants; yet spotting a fascinating Jelly Lemon and Herb Salad or a fabulously extravagant Scribe’s Soup (Ash-e-Sholeh-Ghalamkar) containing coriander, parsley, dill, basil, tarragon, savory, mint and saffron, I know you will also be intrigued from page to page. I’ll be trying Broccoli and Tahina Bake (Broccoli bi Jarator) with its surprise ingredient of soy sauce. Chillied Peach Stew (Khoresht-e-Holu) sounds like the most divine late summer treat. Unusual cold-weather options such as Mung Bean Casserole (such an under-rated pulse) make this a year-round trove of goodies.
Useful sections on subjects like spice mixes, advice on cooking rice and other ephemera are sprinkled liberally throughout, and hidden gems peep or leap from the pages on every leaf through. It’s a book that rewards reading and absorbing as much as it does dipping in for a tempting dish from Sally’s imaginary land of Veggiestan.
Recipes From Veggiestan
We are delighted to share these two recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Pavilion.
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Veggiestan by Sally Butcher from publisher Pavilion. Book photography by Yuki Sugiura. Our photography by Nicky Bramley.
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