Ghillie Basan has worn a number of different hats ranging from English teacher, restaurant critic, food journalist, travel writer, cookbook author and culinary teacher. Her numerous cookbooks on diverse world cuisines have received international acclaim, and to date she's written five titles on Moroccan cooking alone: Modern Moroccan, Tagine: Spicy Stews from Morocco, Moroccan Food and Cooking, Moroccan: A Culinary Journey of Discovery, and Flavours of Morocco: Delicious Recipes from North Africa.
A woman who clearly relishes privacy – Ghillie lives in a remote outpost of the Scottish highlands where she offers cooking classes – she is surprisingly engaging and open when pried a bit by the media, as her interview with About.com shows.
About.com: I’ve read that you attended boarding school while growing up, and had an earlier career as an investigative journalist. Both seem worlds away from culinary pursuits. How did food and cooking become passions?
Ghillie Basan: According to my parents I became interested in food at 10 months old when aboard the Empress of England on our way to live in the States. I shunned baby food for cocktail canapés, olives and stuffed anchovies! And from that moment my interest in food never waned as I traveled in Africa as a child and in the Middle East as an adult, dining on local delicacies such as sautéed termites, barbecued snake, and grilled bulls’ testes.
If you love food you inevitably want to cook too and when I was eight years old in Kenya, my mother took me to the house of a lovely, round lady called Bunty who had no daughters but several sons, so she ran cookery classes for girls and taught us how to bake and prepare simple dishes. Again, according to my parents, I would come home and reproduce the dishes in the kitchen without a recipe, often improvising due to lack of ingredients in the house.
As I seemed so keen on cooking my parents put my name down for the Cordon Bleu School in London which I dutifully attended in my gap year but, although it gave me a useful qualification, I didn’t really enjoy it as the methods were too rigid and the food too French and stylized for my taste. I really only got to cook and write about the kind of food I enjoy once I was working as a journalist in the Middle East as I fell into food and travel writing and became well-versed in Turkish food, the subject of my first book, which was just a joy as I traveled the length and breadth of the country spending time with women in the villages, cooking and eating!
About.com: Although you’ve developed expertise with a number of different cuisines, five of your cookbooks are devoted to Moroccan cooking. What’s the story behind your interest in Moroccan food?
GB: I first went to Morocco in my gap year, so I was on a budget staying in shabby accommodation and eating very cheaply, but I loved the aromas and colours as so much of it reminded me of my childhood in East Africa. Once I was at university in Edinburgh, I would often recreate Moroccan dishes and tastes for dinner parties and shooting lodges that I catered for to make a little money for traveling in the holidays, but it wasn’t until I specifically went there to research a book that I got behind the food and into the culture, all of which I found fascinating as there is such a mix of African tribal and Middle Eastern traditions, so it was a bit like coming full circle for me. Also French is one of the languages I speak and I understand some Arabic, particularly when referring to food, so I was able to spend time with people and chat away.
About.com: Is food the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Morocco, or is there something else about the country and culture that inspires you?
GB: Food plays a big part because I tend to travel on my stomach - I can find the ugliest, dingiest place attractive and memorable if I have discovered something tasty there! But, aside from the food, Morocco is one of those countries, like Turkey and parts of India, where the culture is vibrant and colourful and the landscape is breathtaking. If you can converse in one of the languages (French, Arabic or Berber), it is also a very friendly part of the world and I find it easy traveling there with young children.
About.com: You run small, private cooking classes from your home. Tell me what a typical Moroccan cooking class is like. Do you tailor a workshop to your students, or follow some set menus?
GB: My workshops are very relaxed and informal – some people describe them as therapeutic – and we never work from recipes or menus. I do tailor workshops to fit people’s needs or desires when asked, otherwise I plan a series of dishes that I think people will enjoy. It’s all very hands-on – no complicated equipment, just knives and mortar and pestles – and everybody prepares and cooks at least 3 dishes. Generally I run Turkish or Moroccan workshops, or a combination of the two, Southeast Asian, and Spice workshops, which would include Indian, Malaysian, Middle Eastern dishes combined with some of my own creations. We’ll do some traditional dishes as well my own adaptations as the whole point of the workshops is to make people feel comfortable with ingredients and methods and to learn to be adaptable. At the end of all the cooking, we all sit down and tuck into the feast with a bottle of wine – very civilized!
About.com: What do you consider essential to the kitchen for someone who’s just beginning to experiment with Moroccan recipes?
GB: No matter which culture you are experimenting with, I would always recommend a good-sized mortar and pestle because it makes such a difference to the texture and taste of ground spices, herbs or nuts. Obviously for Moroccan cooking it helps to have a tagine (the traditional earthenware pots with the conical lids) but it is not essential as a heavy-bottomed casserole pot works perfectly well. For stocking the kitchen with essential ingredients for Moroccan cooking, you need lots of fresh ginger (gingerroot), garlic, coriander (cilantro), chillies (chiles), cumin seeds and preserved lemons.