One of the best things about food is how it invokes memories. Whether it's by smell, sight or taste. I love that the smell of raw bread dough reminds me of Friday morning trips to bakeries with my dad to get the weekend manaeesh. Or how the taste of Thousand Island Dressing will remind me of the poolside salad bar at The Club in Abu Dhabi and how when they first opened, my best friend would convince me we should share one but as time went on, we just started ordering our own because they were that good.
I have a very distinct memory of "bolognese" sauce in Abu Dhabi being very different to how my mum would make it. It was spicier, not in a chilli way but in a fragrant way. Mum would stick to the Italian way of making it, jujing up jars of "Italian" pasta sauce with extra onions and garlic and mushrooms. But Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis who made the other ragu that we ate as children, always added spices: cumin, turmeric, paprika... and it made it something wholly different, definitely not Italian, but just as more-ish.
One particular instance of this makeshift ragu sauce was when an aunt (Reem or Nadia, I'm not sure which. My brain clearly just wanted to remember the food) picked my brother and I up from school and made us "spaghetti bolognese" for dinner because mum had said how much we liked it. It was not Mum's bolognese, and I can't remember if we liked it then or not. But I have been trying to recreate it sporadically since I started cooking fifteen years ago. And now I think I've cracked it. It may not be exactly the recipe my aunt used but the part of memory that recognises flavour is very, very happy.
This recipe serves 6-8 people.
Arabic spiced beef ragu
2 red onions, finely diced
25g garlic, minced
80g mushrooms (optional), sliced
500g beef mince
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp Middle Eastern 7 spice
1 tbsp tomato puree
400g tinned chopped tomatoes
500g spaghetti or pasta of choice
Olive oil for frying
Salt to taste
In a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, drizzle in about 2-3 tbsp olive oil and fry off the onions. Don't do a flash fry, give them at least 5-10 minutes of proper cooking to get nice and soft and glossy, stirring intermittently so that they don't burn and stick.
Add the garlic and fry until it is soft and fragrant, this shouldn't take long. Add the mushrooms and cook them down until they have a good colour on them and have reduced in size. Add in the beef and fry it all off until it is completely cooked and some of the "juice" evaporates.
Add the tomato puree and stir it in, cooking it off for a few minutes until the beef takes on a darker colour. Stir in the spices and cook for a further minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and a tin's worth of water. Stir everything together and season with a little salt. Bring to a boil and simmer gently with the lid on for at least an hour. If you can manage it, 3 hours gives best results.
When you're almost ready to serve, boil enough water for the pasta, salt the water and add the pasta to it. Cook according to packet instructions or until it is about a minute away from being done. Taste the ragu and add more seasoning if you need it.
When you're ready, using a slotted spoon or a spaghetti scoop, move the pasta into the pot of ragu, letting the excess water, drip into the sauce pot for extra silkiness. Gently stir the pasta and sauce together until it is all evenly mixed, this can take as long as 5 minutes depending on the type of pasta you use, don't rush it.
Serve up your big bowl of comfort with some grand padano and chilli sauce on the side.