Eton War – A Lebanese Take on a Traditional Mess

A celebration of what is truly good about Summer, Eton Mess is the ultimate expression of the season in a jumbled mess of ripe, intensely red fruit and richly satisfying milkiness. Strawberries and cream with crunchy meringues in between. It doesn’t get much better than that.

This one however, is not an Eton Mess, but rather a Lebanese take on British tradition. And since the Lebanese are prone to turning a mess into something much more serious, I’ve decided to call this invention an Eton War.

In my opinion, the ingredient that replaces cream in this recipe is going to become one of the hottest items in the kitchen’s repertoire in the years to come, once western chefs are switched on to it – at which point, sadly, it will stop being thought of as a traditional Middle-Eastern ingredient, and the world will think it’s a molecular gastronomist’s invention. The ingredient is called natef, and it rocks. It is made by boiling soapwort which extracts its saponin content, and then by whipping the liquid which foams up into a cloud of whiteness. The foam is neutral in flavour and can be given sweetness by using a heavy sugar syrup. This is gently added to the mixture as you continue whipping, like you would with an Italian meringue. The mixture becomes glossy and velvety as the sugar syrup is added. The texture that results is unlike anything you’ve ever tried. It’s thicker and silkier than cream, more luscious and truly unique. A sweet, delicious shaving cream is the closest description I can give you.

To continue with the theme, I macerated the strawberries in orange blossom water and used pistachio meringues – pistachios are traditionally paired with natef in a dessert called karabij halabiyyeh. The result is different to an Eton Mess, but equally as crave inducing.

Soapwort can be found at traditional Chinese herbalists. For more detail on natef, including step-by-step instructions on how to perform this miraculous transformation, read Anissa Helou’s post here.

8 Responses to “Eton War – A Lebanese Take on a Traditional Mess”

  1. Jobe says:

    Nice one. Really interesting post and recipe.

    3 questions.

    1. At the herbalists, is it called soapwart or something else?

    2. How strong is the hold of it? I’m thinking of wider applications but what I have in mind (ie instead of sugar syrup maybe using a chocolate sauce, or maybe adding nuts to the syrup and whipping it together).

    3. You said it has a neutral taste. Do you think it would work with a savoury dish? Maybe instead of using the sugar syrup you could use a thick jus or something like that and get a pleasing result?

  2. Moya says:

    And the fat content of the soapwort??? Could you have a revolution on your hands in a no fat cream substitute?
    Moya´s last [type] ..Gentlemen! Gird your loins!

  3. A great post! I just don’t agree that Lebanese turn into war at the drop of a hat, although the facts lately point to that; the natef is wonderful, thanks for the tip on the Chinese herbalist carrying it, I will have to go there and play with it at home.
    tasteofbeirut´s last [type] ..Grape Molasses Debess Ennab

  4. Amanda says:

    Looks gorgeous and the idea of a no fat cream substitute is certainly revolutionary!

  5. Oh I agree with Moya & Amanda, summer is on the way!! A dessert which looks so creamy with no fat! My waistline thanks you.
    sara (Belly Rumbles)´s last [type] ..Belly Rumbles turns one

  6. Nancy Harris says:

    Your photography is so amazing. I had to stop and comment.

    I’ve never heard of natef but thanks for the introduction. I’d be curious to know how it taste.

    I love to discover new ingredients. Chinese Market here I come.
    Nancy Harris´s last [type] ..How producing for the web can fit into a filmmaking career

  7. Fouad says:

    Hi Jobe – The chinese are difficult when it comes to English names. I asked for it in Flemington and they had no clue I was asking about. My friend took some he already had and they knew what it was from its shape. I suggest you take a photo when you visit. The hold is strong, but the sugar makes it stronger, like an Italian meringue. I haven’t tried anything else. Let me know how you go finding it and if you have success using something else.

    Hi Moya, Amanda and Sara – Hehehehe It is fat free but still has loads of sugar, so you can’t over indulge. Let me know if you ever try it. You can buy the finished product from Lebanese patisseries.

    Hi Joumana – a bit of Lebanese spices there from me of course. I agree that we turn to war at a drop of a hat, but all the news I’ve heard recently isn’t too comforting…. I’d love to see a post on natef from you!

    Hi Nancy. Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I really appreciate it. Let me know how you go finding it.

  8. Jilbert says:

    thanks for the recipe. ive been whipping this up for some time given the easy access i have to soapwort here in HK. so that you guys know what to buy when you go down to chinatown at the dried food stores, you should ask for :

    石鹼草

    now obviously we cant all ready chinese :p so in cantonese its sek gaan chou or in mandarin its shi jian chao (you never know where the shop owner will be from so just print this out and take it down there)

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