How did the journey into food come about?
After having my first child, my mum came to visit and with her she brought a suitcase full of recipes, handwritten ones of my favourite foods. I had always refused to cook and was totally opposed to even learning. My mum, as mothers are, really wanted to teach me. But she eventually gave up.
Four months after she left, I decided to do a cupboard clean-up and found the suitcase. Inside I found files sorted into menu sections, one for salads, one for mains, one for desserts... Mum had put in little handwritten notes too: “this is the recipe you always asked me to make for your birthday”, “this is your favourite pasta version”, “this is your aunt’s recipe because you like it better than the one I make”. The next thing I knew, I had spent four full hours reading recipes, feeling nostalgic, homesick and smiling, laughing and even crying.
Those four hours changed my life forever. I thought people had to know about this, people had to understand the true meaning of food and cooking, beyond just eating and preparing food… and I made it my mission to do just that.
You’ve said you resisted cooking initially as you thought of it as conforming to a gender role — could you elaborate?
At that time, and at that younger age, it seemed to me that cooking was the women’s role at home. It was more like a gender role rather than a choice. I was always one who had big dreams, very career oriented, and wanted to be a working woman all along. As I grew older and, I like to think, also wiser, I understood that I too was confining myself to a role or a stereotype of “a free woman is not the cooking kind”. Understanding that and realising that freedom was life-changing and that is when I let go of my anti-cooking attitude and completely embraced it.
What formed the inspiration for your book Plated Heirlooms?
Plated Heirlooms is a complete resource documenting Palestinian cuisine, both the recipes and the culture that gave birth to the recipes. The inspiration is based on my belief that cuisine is a mirror reflecting culture and identity and I wrote the whole book to showcase that. I also delve into the notion of how food unifies us as human beings, because while the book is about Palestinian cuisine and culture, it is universally applicable and relative.
Which chefs form your inspirations?
I am always open to exploring everything new, and keep a look out always for new chefs and also look closely into cuisines and culture. So I truly enjoy the Roux brother’s story and approach to cuisine. Rick Stein is a mesmerising story teller, you can almost feel his emotions as he narrates, and Italian Michelin Chef Cera is an embodiment of an “emotional cook”, you can almost feel his thoughts and emotions as you eat his food. Basque Chef Arzak is an amazing story, character, overall experience. The great Feran Adria is a must study for any cuisine-oriented chef to see the modern transition of our interaction with food.
That said, my grandmother, my mother and all the great older women still cooking with their hands, heart and soul are my complete inspiration, not just in cuisine but in life really.
What 3 top food tips do you swear by?
• Ingredients. Use only top-quality. Opt for the freshest; nature is the best creator.
• Simplicity. Don’t interfere too much.
• Heart. Understand the food, understand the story behind the dish, look for the people who first cooked it, try to imagine their lives.
What are some of the misconceptions you’ve often seen around Middle Eastern food?
There are so many really. That Arabic food is only Lebanese food — so untrue, in fact Lebanese cuisine is very highly influenced by neighbouring countries.
That Middle Eastern food is mostly influenced by Turkish/Ottoman cuisine — it is the other way around in fact. Most people have no idea that the single most influential Middle Eastern cuisine is in fact historical Iraqi cuisine.
That Middle Eastern cuisine is mainly grills — yes most restaurants choose that food type from a merely business perspective, however, the overlooked stews are the majority of the cuisine and the most cooked foods in the Middle East!
What’s your favourite place to dine at here?
We are truly blessed here with the abundant variety of restaurants and good food options. Also I am friends with most of the chefs in town and so it is again very hard for me to be non-biased here!
Do you think places like the Farmer’s Market are vital to help build a sense of community?
Oh yes, definitely. I remember when I first accidentally stumbled upon the farmer’s market at Souk Al Bahar. At that time it was just a couple of tables with not much to show really. Even so I could not believe that a desert was able to grow! This is the inspiration behind my whole line of products. I created it to truly support the local organic farmers. These markets and communities have witnessed growth, formed from farmers and growers, to producers and artisans to even foodies… all there to support the farmers. So yes I definitely feel part of a community and know that most farmer’s market fans and regulars feel the same too. All very passionate about this community, its growth and its continuation…
How has the Instagram generation of food influenced your work?
Platforms like Instagram are an instant and easy interaction between businesses and their potential customers. While back in the day you would have to conduct a market research and hold many events to get this feedback you can now just get the information instantly. What I do in general is not necessarily influenced by trends. I have always been one to start conversations about the least trending of foods, the traditional, historical and cultural stuff, when not so long ago people wanted to be on the other side, all talking about modern cuisine, new food and health trends... So platforms like Instagram help me see where people’s interests are at.
Plated Heirlooms is available on Souq.com for Dh180.