Silvena Rowe is the Bulgarian chef charting the Ottoman Empire's influence on Eastern Mediterranean food with her new book Purple Citrus And Sweet Perfume. She shares her outlook on Arab cuisine by rustling up a few recipes in Lydia Slater's kitchen. Silvena Rowe, the TV chef and author whose recipes have been declared irresistible by no less a culinary wizard than Heston Blumenthal, is hunting through my fridge for some yoghurt when she finds a pot of apricot flavour. It says something for her experimental take on Arabic cuisine that she momentarily considers mixing it into a baba ghanoush.
She has driven to my London home in her silver Porsche to cook from Purple Citrus And Sweet Perfume, a cookery book that promises to do for Eastern Mediterranean cuisine what Madonna did for flat caps. "The trouble with most Arabic cuisine is that it's so brown," she says, chopping a huge bunch of coriander into a bowl of minced veal and chopped prawns. "If you go into a typical restaurant, every-thing is beige, brown or red - where are the lovely greens or pinks? The Arabic world is so colourful, it's strange it doesn't translate into the food."
As you might guess from her book's title, colour is important to Rowe. A vibrant person herself - she's 183cm tall, with a shock of white-blonde hair and bright blue eyes - her recipes are equally eye-catching. Deep green vegetable soup is accessorised with a vibrant pink rose cream; there is a wonderful salad of pink grapefruit, avocado and pomegranate scattered with the orange flowers of nasturtium, and the same jewel-like pomegranate seeds add a luscious colour clash to a dish of sliced tomatoes with sumac.
"That salad is Viagra on a plate," says Rowe, in the sort of "Russian spy" accent that you hear in early James Bond films, "an amazing, mind-blowing combination. "Appetite is stimulated by all the senses, and that means smell and sight as well as taste. In the days of the sultans they understood that. "They used to spray amazing flower fragrances at their banquets so that the guests would eat and eat."
In its heyday, Ottoman cuisine was famous all over the world. The empire covered Athens, Budapest, Sarajevo, Sofia, Beirut, Damscus, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Cairo, and the greatest chefs and culinary traditions were cherry-picked for the rulers. The Topkapi Palace in Constantinople (Istanbul) employed 1,300 staff in its kitchens, and hundreds of cooks, all experts in different dishes, who were expected to feed up to 10,000 people a day. Seventeen speciality chefs fed the Sultan alone, and his dishes were brought in covered and sealed with ribbon to prevent them being poisoned on their way in from the kitchen.
But these days our concept of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is limited to a collection of favourite dishes: hummus, tabbouleh, falafels, borek? It is a situation that Rowe is determined to change. Her quest to rediscover it has its roots in her own ancestry. Her father, Ilhan Lautliev, was Turkish - "his ancestors worked in the court of Ataturk" - and her mother is Bulgarian. "My parents met in Bulgaria and my father decided to stay there."
Rowe was born and brought up in Plovdiv, which is just 500km from Istanbul and was once part of the Ottoman Empire. During the Communist era, however, this Ottoman influence was deeply resented. She recalls how people used to spit at her father in the street and call him a "dirty Turk". Despite this endemic racism, he became the editor of Bulgaria's main national newspaper, then the director of the National Library, which he computerised. As a result, he has the distinction of being the first Bulgarian to have made it into Who's Who.
Alongside his other accomplishments, it was he who gave Rowe her love of food and cooking. "He was brilliant at making something out of nothing," she says. "I remember he would make little schnitzels in a white sauce which tasted so delicious, and I don't know how he did it considering that we didn't even have stock." She recalls his poached eggs with the same intensity as Proust did his first bite of a madeleine.
As a result, she grew up into "a very greedy little girl", she says. "When we went on holiday, I wrote postcards to people and I'd always talk about what we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner rather than what we were doing or the weather." Her father's roving eye also enabled her to indulge her gastronomic passions further: whenever she spotted him on the high street flirting with a glamorous passer-by, she would demand a particular snack of toast, topped with veal and cheddar as the price of her silence.
And in her book she recalls the annual ordeal of Christmas when her grandmother would prepare a special walnut baklava, then leave it to mature for two weeks. One year, unable to resist its allure, she would pop into the larder every morning to pull a little piece from the middle, with the result that when it was uncovered as the meal's piece de resistance, it was riddled with holes. "Gasps and horrified expressions?All eyes turned to me."
Rowe remained an eater rather than a cook until she came to London in the mid-1980s, having met and married Malcolm Rowe, a English wine merchant, specialising in Bulgarian wine. Giving dinner parties for her friends, she discovered her innate talent for putting ingredients together. "I was always having people round and even those who didn't like me would come for the food." Subsequently, she worked at the well-known foodie café Books For Cooks, in west London, then began cooking as a private chef. Among her clients were A-listers such as Claudia Schiffer, Tina Turner, Cher and Princess Michael of Kent, but the toughest to please was the TV presenter Ruby Wax. "We fell out big-time," says Rowe, whose personality is at least as ebullient as Wax's. "She couldn't be excited and moved by food. And she was always promising me that I'd hit the big time but nothing ever happened."
Turner, on the other hand, was "wonderful and very elegant, a very warm, smiling, incredible woman." Eventually Rowed tired of private chef work - "the salary is nothing and the hours are terrible" - and began to spread her culinary wings. She wrote a regular column for the Guardian newspaper, worked for several years as executive chef for the Baltic Group of restaurants in London, and became a regular on the ª a Saturday-morning cookery show on the BBC. Her first cookery book, Feasts, an exploration of East European cooking (another neglected cuisine close to her heart) won the prestigious Glenfiddich Award.
She followed it up with another book on the cuisines of Estonia and Latvia. "Then I thought, I make far more food with tahini, cumin, za'atar and sumac than with beetroot and dill, and my favourite food is stuffed vine leaves with tomato and feta. Actually, Arabic cuisine is much closer to my heart." After creating the 'delicatezze' range of meze-style dishes for the Waitrose supermarket chain, she has spent the past two years travelling around Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon researching her book. "I'm sure I have Syrian blood in me somewhere," she says. "When I discovered Damascus, I thought it was the greatest place I'd ever seen. I have a real pang every time I leave."
The time is ripe for a rediscovery of this "forgotten" Mediterranean cuisine, she says. "It can be just as healthy as better-known Mediterranean cuisines like Italian and Greek because it's based around the same olive oil, nuts and seeds." What it lacks, she says, is a 21st-century update. "You can eat wonderfully in Damascus, but you'll find the same dishes on every menu - fattoush, kibbeh, shawarma. Everything is traditional. But the younger generation likes Western flavours too, and they also want dishes to be lighter because they don't want to be the size of their ancestors. So the best solution is to mix the two cuisines."
Old favourites are updated with inventive use of herbs and spices: like the kebabs she has made for me today, with king prawns chopped up into the veal, along with cinnamon, chilli flakes, parsley and coriander. "It's a kind of Eastern Mediterranean surf n' turf," she says. "The idea is that the prawns look like little rubies speckled through the meat." (It's absolutely delicious, juicy and rich, and the baba ghanoush is wonderfully smoky, though I'm glad the apricot yogurt wasn't used?)
Lamb kofte are given a subtle flavour and delicate crunch with the use of pistachio, cloves and cinnamon, and to achieve a light, silky texture for her hummus, she uses ice-cubes and bicarbonate of soda. Other hummus recipes are made with Jerusalem artichoke or avocado in place of chickpeas. There are also echoes of her East European roots in dishes like beetroot tzatziki. "Everything is light, colourful, modernised," she says. "For instance, instead of borek made from ordinary potato I've used sweet potato with onion seeds and seven spices, which is much lighter.
Baklava, too, has been altered to suit modern tastes with the addition of fruit and a corresponding reduction in the use of sugar. Her favourite vanilla and orange baklava is only served in a particular Istanbul cafe, and when she asked for the recipe, they refused to give it to her. Undaunted, she went back and ate the baklava repeatedly, analysing the ingredients before coming up with her own version. She's also taken today's rushed modern lifestyles into account. "I've simplified the dishes by removing the time-consuming element. None of us have time to be in the kitchen all day."
The reaction to her book has been overwhelmingly positive and she is now working on a follow-up, to be called Orient Express. Meanwhile, she is about to launch her first standalone restaurant, Quince, in London's Mayfair Hotel. But her big dream is to launch an Ottoman café chain in the Middle East. "I'd do amazing breakfasts with Arabic breads and pastries, pancakes with luscious thick honeys, yogurts, various labnehs, homemade jams, nuts?that kind of thing," she says. "I think people would love it. You've got great Indian, Chinese, Thai and Arabic cuisine but no mélange. I like to think I'd bridge that gap."
Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume, by Silvena Rowe (Hutchinson) is available from Magrudys