A love letter to Belazu Beldi Preserved Lemons
I've never followed a recipe.
Before I left home at 18, I'd done little more than boil eggs and fry bacon. Then I moved to China, where I couldn't read the writing on the packaging, let alone any recipes that used them. I was also earning pittance meaning I couldn't eat out for every meal, even if I wanted to.
So, I learnt to cook by smell. I'd buy a packet of some unknown seasoning, crack it open and give it a whiff. I'd then try and figure out which other packets of unknown substances it would go with, by smell. I made some disasters, for sure. So salty, it burnt my tongue, or so spicy it made me hack and cough. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, using nothing more than my nose, an electric hotplate and a rice cooker, I was cooking some truly amazing food - and every last one was an original creation.
I've been back in my home country for years now, but I still refuse to cook any other way. I don't measure with scales but with emotion. I don't use recipes other than to get inspired by new ingredients to pair. I do, occasionally, still cook uneatable abominations, but that's a price I'm willing to pay for the fever dream, mad scientist joy I find in creating weird new flavours that surprise and delight.
Despite this attitude, I've actually long been afraid of the oven. In China, I had a wok and that's all I needed. Sure, you can burn the food, but you see it burning, so fate is in your hands. I always heard people say things like "put it in for 40 minutes at 200 degrees" and the like. Far too exact and scientific for my 'mess around and find out' approach.
That is, until I was given a jar of Belazu Beldi Preserved Lemons - teeny tiny lemons that smell amazing but taste like sulfuric acid. If you pan fry them, they'll still be bitter and disgusting by the time your food is cooked. You could fry them separately, but then a lot of the flavours you're trying to bring out will be lost. Can't go under it, can't go over it, have to go through it.
What followed can only be described as a culinary seizure. I went to the supermarket with only a vague plan to make something that included my lemons. I left with 600 grams of chicken thighs, an aubergine, a courgette, a potato, a dozen dried dates, a packet of whole chestnuts, rocket, garlic and a tin of chopped tomatoes.
I chopped and parboiled the potato and covered the bottom of my Pyrex dish with rocket and some potato noodles I had lying around. I then threw all my ingredients, chopped, into the dish together, including my beloved lemons and some walnuts I found at the back of the cupboard. I poured the tomatoes into a bowl and mixed with dried herbs, dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and Tabasco. Poured that over my food and covered it in tin foil. I then bunged it in the oven at 200 degrees for about an hour, taking the foil off in the last 15 minutes to let the top get all crispy.
Eugh, it was amazing. I cooked enough for an army and divvied the leftovers into old takeaway tubs which I lived off for a week. The lemons were still very sour, for sure, but the bitterness was gone, and besides, I like strong flavours. They infused the chicken with lemony goodness and I ate them whole along with everything else.
All this to say, thank you, Belazu Beldi. You kickstarted my new love affair with the oven. You taught me that it takes time to draw the flavours out of certain foods and that oven cooking need not be the exacting science cookbooks and food blogs make it out to be.
And if you, dear reader, are currently shaking your fists at the screen and shouting "but how much soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and Tabasco did you use?", I have only this to say. Throw out your scales, your measuring cups and your crippling self-doubt. Take a breath, sniff the ingredients, and measure by emotion.