Neither Silvena Rowe’s husky Eastern European drawl nor her Ottoman-style cooking have been diluted by more than 25 years of living in Britain.
The 6ft, blue-eyed, spiky white-blonde haired Saturday Kitchen regular, known for her sweet sauces and exotic spice blends, has a formidable presence that is definitely more Istanbul than Islington.
‘It’s hard for me. People say, ‘But you’re not Turkish’,’ says the chef who moved with her husband to London in the Eighties.
‘But I think because I am from Ottoman origins, I have this feeling – ‘Ahh’ – something just draws me back there constantly.’
Communist Bulgaria might have been home for Rowe while growing up, but her family kitchen was Turkish. And when Rowe’s Istanbul-born father died in 2007, the mother-of-two was inspired to go on a journey through Turkey and Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, eating, and tracing her Ottoman roots. The trip resulted in her first best-selling recipe book Purple Citrus & Sweet Perfume.
Her follow-up book, Orient Express, is a more straightforward proposition, although no less exotic.
This is the kind of book you want to savour on a sultry summer’s afternoon. Simple fresh recipes bounce off the page, bursting with originality and subtlety, balancing sweet and savoury flavours.
Rowe uses spice blends such as za’atar and sumac to give her dishes a warming, salty flavour and then contrasts these husky tones with sweet glazes and sauces of nuts, citrus fruits and flowers.
‘While I do use a lot of sweetness, I’m very careful. I use glazes, such as molasses on meat, lightly. And it is always a good sweetness, a fruity sweetness.”
How to bake a delicious sweet Middle Eastern cake
Pistachio yoghurt cake with white chocolate and cardamom frosting
For the cake:
200g pistachios, ground
1/2tsp ground cardamom
150g unsalted butter, cubed
225g self-raising flour
183g caster sugar
125ml thick yoghurt
For the frosting:
100g white chocolate, chopped
200g cream cheese
1/2tsp rose water
1tbsp icing sugar
1/4tsp ground cardamom
1-2 small edible roses, petals only
1tbsp icing sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 6. Butter and line a 20cm tin with baking paper. Blend the ground pistachios, cardamom, butter, flour and sugar. Tip into a bowl and combine with the eggs and yoghurt. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for one hour. Cover the cake with foil half way through cooking.
2. To make the frosting: Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, and allow to cool. In a separate bowl combine the cream cheese with the rose water, then add the cooled chocolate. Sift in the icing sugar and sprinkle in the ground cardamom. Mix well until a smooth cream.