Years ago, when we lived in France, during one break at college, a friend who had lived and travelled through Paris and knew it intimately offered to take us on a personalised tour. For dinner, she tooks us to a wonderful, tiny little restaurant in the Marais - the jewish and gay district of Paris. The Marais has a mysterious air redolent with atmosphere, with tiny, jewel-like little shops selling unexpected fashions, flickering candles in store windows, narrow cobbled streets and the feeling that around each blind street corner, you'll discover something unique.
There are tiny little restaurants, some in the middle of pocket-handkerchief sized squares, with tables set under green umbrellas, and some holes in the wall, with tantalizing aromas wafting into the crowded streets. The one we went to was run by a jewish couple in their sixties, bursting at the seams with diners. We crowded around one of the few empty tables left and ordered from the selection of lebanese cuisine - felafel, stuffed into pita pockets with Turkish salad of grilled eggplant with onions and lettuce and roasted tomatoes, drizzled with the most incredible sauce, which had a secret recipe known only to the owners of the restaurant...
The food was terrific, and the restaurant had photos of the owners with several Hollywood stars who apparently always make a beeline for this place - Uma Thurman, Johnny Depp, Richard Gere, among others...But what made the place a must-visit time after time was the sauce. It would have made soggy cabbage taste good, so amazingly flavourful was it. You could buy some, if you whinged in front of the owner, and I promptly did so. Even at home, with none of the fixings available to me, this sauce was wonderful drizzled over a baguette with cheese on top or with crackers, tangy, spicy, pungent with garlic in the best way...
I had to find a way to make the sauce, I thought. I experimented over the years but nothing quite tasted or even smelled the same. I had a tiny amount of the original sauce frozen and put away so I could take it out to compare with the ones I experimented with at home. No go...and so I eventually gave up, while hanging on to the frozen cube and moved on to other food experiments. Until last week, when, quite suddenly, inspiration hit me while reading a recipe for harissa. No, the sauce wasn't harissa nor Ranjaka but some elements seemed familiar and I decided to give it one more bash...
And this time I have succeeded. Eureka! Eureka! ( No, I am not running around the city naked from my bath!) How did I do it?
First, I roasted a good, ripe avocado-sized red bell pepper and two tomatoes.
While the vegetables were roasting, I got out my brass mortar and pestle and ground half a tablespoon of cumin seeds into smithereens, with a rollicking dash and smash.
I minced up a handful of coriander leaves.
We pulled out 5 garlic cloves and peeled them and smashed them down with the flat of the knife.
When the pepper and tomatoes were nicely browned, I popped them into a ziplock bag to cool down. They peel easily that way and you don't waste any of the juice.
Once they were peeled and the peppers de-seeded, I blended everything together in my small blender ( yes, we lost half the sauce because it dribbled, at first, and then frankly flew out of the blender to plaster itself all over the kitchen), with a dash of chilli flakes ( from the many packets generously handed out with home delivered pizza from pizza hut and carefully preserved for such uses by me) and salt. I added a drizzle of lime juice from half a lime, and 1/4th cup of good virgin olive oil.
It smells just like the oroginal, and if my tastebuds haven't lost their memory ( okay, I'm not going to dip into the frozen cube of sauce - it's five years old), it taste just like that one too.
Funny eh? I thought the recipe was going to be much more complicated and arcane, and I bet when you're reading the recipe you're thinking -gee, that's an easy one. Wonder why it took her five years to figure it out. Well, I did say on one of my blogs that I was a late bloomer!
So here is the secret, decoded for you. Enjoy. I will post pictures as soon as I get our slightly temperamental camera to work! PS. Go easy on the lime juice if the tomatoes are on the sour side.