Meet The Expert – Ghillie Basan

Meet the Expert

Please could you tell us about yourself?

For the majority of my working life I have worked as a freelance writer and broadcaster, with articles on the Middle East dating back to the early 1980s and books and radio commencing in the early 1990s.  Some of my books were the first of their kind, and have been a source of cultural information and inspiration for many chefs and food writers. Some of my early books were shortlisted for awards but, as everything revolves around social media nowadays and I don’t feel comfortable promoting myself, I don’t enter my books for awards.

More recently I have become part of the Scottish hospitality scene by opening the doors to my home in a remote glen in the Highlands, where I host people from all over the world to enjoy a unique experience of pairing food with whisky.  This latest venture came about because I almost lost my home three years ago. My mother had developed dementia and I had to drop everything to become her carer. When I hit rock bottom, I had to come up with a new idea to save a lifestyle I had singlehandedly created, and which was the mothership for both my business and my children. I had just begun to turn things around when Covid 19 dealt another threatening blow.

Why did you pursue a career in food?

Food has always been at the root of my interest and my travels. I grew up in East Africa, where I was immersed in the flavours of the Arab and Indian cultures, the African tribal customs and dishes, and the culinary mélange of different settlers. Growing, harvesting, cooking and eating was an exciting experience as a child and the combination of culture, food and traditions led me to a university degree in Social Anthropology. This was at the root of my early articles and books on food, as I tried to share rituals and traditions of the culinary cultures I spent time in – places like Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia – through the food.

What is your biggest achievement/lesson you have learnt?

I would have to say my biggest achievement has nothing to do with my career in food, as it is the raising of my children as a single parent on a shoestring, in a remote part of Scotland. And when I needed to travel somewhere to research and write a book, they just came with me. I gave them everything I could, as I realised they were the most important creation in my life and I only had one chance to get it right. I know I succeeded in doing that as my children now tell me and continuously thank me for such a wonderful childhood, for all the opportunities I have given them and for keeping our lives grounded and stable in a warm and loving home. To me, that is more important than any book, any award, any amount of money.

Along the way, the one lesson I learned was that I am hopeless in front of the camera – very happy behind it and very happy on radio – but I do not do well on video or TV.  My only TV appearance was a disaster with a touch of comedy, as I leant over the gas flame and burnt my boobs, but one never to be repeated. And to be honest, I like to be unknown. I am fundamentally a culinary hermit and value my solitude.

How do you use your favourite ingredient and why?

I don’t have one favourite ingredient – I have many as they come under the banner of spices!  In Scotland they have become my signature ingredients as I am often referred to as ‘the original spice girl’ or the ‘the spice queen’ and my brand is Spirit & Spice – the name of my hospitality business, my podcast and my latest book.  I find working with spices both dreamily relaxing and invigorating – the aromas from the roasting and grinding often transport me on journeys through my life, sunshine and rain, and the ensuing pleasure on the palate is worth taking the time to produce. I have a collection of mortar & pestles from around the world and all are used for different pastes and mixes so there is always a delightfully warm aroma of spices in my Highland kitchen.

How have you spent your time during lockdown?

Lockdown has not been that different to my usual existence in terms of isolation. I am used to being on my own for months on end. The difference has been having my adult children with me, so we have been enjoying an unusually long period together, which has just been a joy. Financially, however, lockdown has presented me with a new challenge as my hospitality business relies on groups and tourism. My self-employed status falls through all the government grant cracks so I am having to adapt once more and will be starting a small takeaway business from next month.  If there are a few things I have learned in my life, they are to cope on a low income, to never take things for granted, to be patient and to be able to adapt.

Could you share your favourite recipe?

Hot humus heaven

 I first had this dish in 1985 in a tiny village near Kars in the east of Turkey.  I remember every moment of that day and I have been writing about this delicious discovery ever since. I was travelling with a Turkish colleague who could speak Kurdish, as we were reporting in a region hit by rebel PKK groups in the dark of night. Our day had been tense, as we had driven by burnt out vehicles peppered with bullet holes, including two German-plated Volkswagen vans. We were aware that we were like sitting ducks and could be attacked at any moment. It was a night of big shadows and shooting stars with the sounds of livestock, wild dogs, and the occasional cry or scream, which could have been animal or human, so we decided to pick up a stranger walking along the road to increase our numbers. He was thankful that we could take him to his little village outside Kars as he had been worried that he might not get home, and he knew a way to get there avoiding any possible roadblocks. When we dropped him off at his house, he invited us in to have some tea and to meet his wife. And, as is so often the custom in that part of the world, the tea was accompanied with little dishes of hospitality and one of those dishes was this divine hot humus. I have never forgotten the moment that pureed chickpeas tasted so heavenly.

*(I have used the Turkish spelling of humus)

Serves 4-6

  • 2 x 400g cans of chickpeas, drained and thoroughly rinsed
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • roughly 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 tablespoons tahini
  • 6 tablespoons thick, creamy yogurt 
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2-3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1-2 teaspoons pul biber or Aleppo pepper

Preheat the oven to 400F/mark 6/200C

  1. Humus is much easier to make using an electric blender and you can get a smoother consistency than pounding it by hand. So, whiz together the chickpeas, cumin seeds, garlic, olive oil, and lemon to a thick paste. Add the tahini and continue to whiz until the mixture is really thick. Add the yogurt and whiz until the mixture has loosened a little and the texture is creamy. Season generously with salt and pepper and tip the mixture into an ovenproof dish.
  2. Roast the pine nuts in small pan until they begin to brown and emit a nutty aroma. Add the butter to the pine nuts in the pan and stir until it melts. Stir in the pul biber and spoon the melted butter and pine nuts over the humus. Pop the dish into the oven for about 25 minutes, until the humus has risen a little and most of the butter has been absorbed.
  3. Serve immediately – it is best when it is still hot and light in texture – with chunks of warm crusty loaf, or strips of toasted pitta bread.

Explore Ghillie Basan’s books and workshops

Ghillie’s cookery workshops based in the Scottish Highlands focus on traditional Middle Eastern cooking methods. Guests are invited to Ghillie’s kitchen to enjoy a relaxed day of cooking, feasting and drinking while learning about different spices and cultures.

Having spent time travelling across South East Asia, India and Africa and more, Ghillie has shared knowledge of different cultures and cuisines through her extensive food writing. Ghillie specialises in Middle Eastern recipes and has over 40 publications based on her culinary journeys throughout countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Turkey and Morocco.

Books are available in bookstores and online. Browse here:

  • Spirit & Spice
  • The Modern Tagine Cookbook
  • Saffron & Sumac
  • Mezze – Small Plates to Share
  • Classic Turkish Cookery
  • Flavours of the Morocco

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