They say it takes a village to raise a child. In the case of blogger, chef and author Bethany Kehdy, it was literally so. Having spent her childhood in the picturesque village of Baskinta in Lebanon where her father ran a dairy farm, Bethany grew up amidst apple orchards, vineyards and an extended family of accomplished cooks, each bequeathing her a culinary legacy she continues to treasure.
But, instead of holding on to the treasure-trove of traditional recipes, Bethany decided to decode and demystify them for her American and European friends who were either not very familiar with the cuisine or found it a little overwhelming. The process inspired her blog Dirty Kitchen Secrets, which over the years has become the go-to source for tried-and-tested Levantine recipes and her cookbooks The Jewelled Kitchen and The Jewelled Table.
Bethany, 38, talks to Friday Lite about her culinary journey and DAYMA, her new venture in Dubai.
When did you realise that cooking was not just a ritual but a way of expression for you?
Cooking the dishes of my childhood became necessary when I left Lebanon at the age of 22. It helped me stay rooted and connected in a place where, on arriving, I had no family or friends. I started documenting these recipes in a word document titled Dirty Kitchen Secrets to remember what I was doing and improve as I went along. Also, back then people were not familiar with Middle Eastern food. So I decided to channel my passion for my heritage and food by talking about them through a multi-dimensional and honest narrative.
Just like most cuisines, Levantine food too is influenced by a wide spectrum of cuisines. So how did you manage to define it without stepping on the toes of the purists?
This is a great question. I’ve definitely ruffled a few feathers, but I wouldn’t say they were necessarily those of purists. It’s important to be open-minded, to challenge ourselves and our biases and to be curious about history and regional variations. It’s easier for me to say tabouleh belongs to the Lebanese only and can only legitimately be made with parsley.
I won’t deny that I’ve fallen into this trap. However, if you skim the surface, you’ll find information that will open you to a whole new world revealing many variations and regional takes. We offer two regional variations on tabouleh on our DAYMA menu. So, I believe in having conversations rather than accepting the status quo.
You were an established blogger. What inspired you to get published?
While blogging about food, I used to joke about the idea of eventually writing a cookbook, one day, in my retirement. But I was approached by a publisher a couple of years after I launched my blog. The rest as they say is history.
What is your food philosophy?
My food philosophy is that one of the main ingredients in any food is nafas, or soul. If you don’t have nafas then no training in cookery schools can make your food delicious and memorable. Some of the best food I’ve had was prepared by cooks with no formal training, they just appreciate good food, respect the seasons and genuinely take pleasure in feeding people.
Do you follow food trends or prefer to sift through all that you observe to create your own?
I don’t care for food trends. I gain inspiration from ingredients themselves, studying their current and past use and their potential to be enjoyed in new ways. I also allow the seasons to inspire me. My curiosity finds me always sifting through historical texts looking for interesting or long-lost variations. I discover traditional dishes and techniques on my travels, which inspire me to think about adding small modifications that better represent me and today’s modern lifestyle.
What are your plans for DAYMA?
The food at DAYMA is not just unique, but represents what we do best. Passion always wins. At DAYMA, some dishes are inspired by the past, like the shatta prawn sambusek; others celebrate the tradition of leaning mostly on vegetables, so we offer a vegetarian sfiha made with aubergines and walnuts. In fact, over 70 per cent of the menu is effortlessly vegetarian because the cuisine lends well to this. It’s what makes it so balanced and healthy. We are also mindful of the ingredients we use, and sustainability is very important to us. I think consumers want to feel they are engaging in an experience that is both delicious, thoughtful and has put in some attention to details.
What are your favourite Eid Al Adha memories? Your favourite foods from the festival?
Eid automatically means an opportunity to spend quality time with loved ones and enjoy feasting together. A slow-cooked leg of lamb with freekeh, toasted nuts and a side of yogurt never disappoints.