My family’s women were preoccupied with food and cooking.
Lebanon was the crossroads of civilization and it’s cuisine reflected it. My mother and grandmother’s culinary repertoire was mostly Levantine with hints of Greek, Egyptian, Iraqi and Armenian. There were no written recipes or records, files or cookbooks, yet there were endless conversations about the latest failures and successes in the kitchen. The spontaneous barrage of questions, detailed comparisons of methods and styles between friends and relatives would lead you to believe that this close-knit community was about to produce a thesis on comparative cookery.
The women I knew were immersed in complex relationships of subliminal competition or undisclosed complicity. Pride bordered on arrogance, admiration was only a diplomatic façade, and praise was a cover for envy. However, it would have been unthinkable not to share one’s tips and secrets. Recipes were handed down from mother to daughter and, each generation, by virtue of marriage, would gain some hints of new culinary influences. Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Lebanese cuisines were similar but had nuances that only the experienced cook could decipher. As I recall, Aleppine and Armenian cuisines were highly regarded and sought after. If you were lucky enough to either marry or befriend someone with either of those backgrounds, then you had it made!
Over the last few decades of wars and revolutions, my family and friends moved to different continents seeking safety and stability. With the upheaval, we clung to memories of togetherness around the table. We longed to re-invent the experience in our own new homes and the countries we’d adopted. We were westernized, but our heritage and culture was still to be found in our kitchens, in our pantries and at the table.
By the time my generation had their own kitchens, we already had a few Middle-Eastern cookbooks for reference and a couple of decades later we witnessed an explosion of books, blogs, and an entire Food Network—who would have thought!
When I began cooking in my (so-called) “kitchen” on the Upper West side of New York City, we only had a landline (phone). The raging civil war back home made it difficult to get through to my mother, but it was still my only life line. I would call her long-distance from NYC to Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Cyprus, to grill her on ingredients and methods. It helped that I grew up eating the stuff; I knew what it should taste like. I kept a notebook, cooked religiously and followed tradition to a T. I had no children then and had time to impress and compete with—yes I inherited that sense of competition— friends who, like me, were homesick, and yearned for their mama’s cooking.
Between gifts and purchases, I acquired a decent cookbook collection. And although I have embraced many new cuisines, I still seek more Middle-Eastern books than any others—I am still perfecting variations on a theme, so to speak.
In the late seventies, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food was my favorite. Her book helped me overcome the feelings of exile and yearning I experienced at the time. She made complex recipes accessible, and often mentioned regional spins on certain dishes. It was a relief in contrast to my mother’s long-distance vague garble of instruction that lacked precision and clarity. Ms. Roden’s introduction to the book describes the history, origins and influences of the cuisine which tells an interesting story. The New Book of Middle Eastern Food has excellent reviews. It is a revised and improved version of her first publication. I will undoubtedly buy it on Amazon along with a newer copy of the first book to replace my stained, shredded and yellow pages held together with layers of aging tape.
An excellent comprehensive new-comer is The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage. It is big, thick and probably intimidating to the novice. But it is clear and well organized. Instruction is slightly inconsistent at times—sorry Phaidon (publisher). It is, however a good addition to any library with its beautiful photographs of Lebanon.
Another impressive and thorough coverage of fine Lebanese recipes is Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Chef Kamal Al-Faqih. It has step by step instruction and photographs that could turn you into a professional, if you are so inclined. Finally, I must mention and recommend Mary Laird Hamady’s Lebanese Mountain Cooking (first published in 1987 by David R. Gordine). I find it uncomplicated, earthy and easy to grasp. It also has sparse but evocative and helpful illustrations by Jana Fothergill.
My life changed with the birth of my daughters. My cooking changed too. Time and energy were considerably compromised, especially when holding down a full-time job on top of everything else. Forever adapting my family meals to our changing lifestyle, I took shortcuts and taught myself tricks. Whether in re-adapting old recipes or experimenting with new cuisines, my kitchen remains a meeting place that upholds traditions (with a twist) while remaining open to innovation. A place where my daughters learn, experiment and practice, where new bonds are fused, wider circles of friends are formed and cookery continues to be an exciting adventure.