Over the last few months I’ve shared several posts about the cookbook An Edible Mosaic. What really drew me to this project (and the cookbook) was how similar Faith’s story was to my own. I don’t know all the details of her relationship but there are plenty of parallels. We both met and married Middle Eastern men, learning to cook the cuisine they grew up with. We’ve both spent time in our husband’s countries and navigated the hurdles that go with cross-cultural relationships. To wrap up this project I decided to interview Faith to find out more about her journey with Middle Eastern food.
What was the first Middle Eastern/Syrian dish you learned to make?
Fried Kibbeh. My mother-in-law loves to tell the story of when she first showed me how to make this dish…she and I were working in the living room at a coffee table as we shaped the kibbeh, relaxed and chatting happily as best we could – remember, she speaks Arabic and I speak English, and although we both know a little of the other’s language, it is often times a challenge, but surprisingly we understand each other more than you might think! She formed one perfect torpedo-shaped kibbeh and after I saw her shape the first one, I joined right in. Of course my kibbeh wasn’t nearly as perfect looking as hers, but I soon improved and she said I was able to make kibbeh after seeing it made only once, which is something no one else that she has taught has been able to do. Here’s how she describes it: “I’ve tried to teach many Arabic women how to make Kibbeh Mekliyeh; it takes several times before they can do it, and some never even master it. Faith saw me make it once and the next time she made it herself. As we say in Arabic, laha nefus ala el ekel (literally meaning, she has breath that is good for food, which means she has a deep passion for cooking).”
It was an incredible feeling that night when we sat down to dinner and my mother-in-law pointed out to the family the kibbeh that I had made.
Why was it important to you to learn to make the foods of your husband’s country?
Wanting to make my hubby happy and to show him that it was important to me to be accepted into his family and culture played a huge role in my desire to learn to cook Middle Eastern food. Also, my hubby (Mike) is quite a picky eater in general (even when it comes to Middle Eastern foods), and I wanted to make sure that I’d be able to cook his favorite dishes outside of the Middle East when I didn’t have his mom there to guide me. Mike often talks about how growing up his mom would make one dish for the entire family and a separate dish just for him because of how picky he was. Once I started learning how to make Mike’s favorite dishes and eventually mastered them, he starting telling me all the time how he doesn’t have to miss his mom’s cooking because mine is every bit as good. Of course I give his mom the credit for this – she is the one who taught me, after all!
What kind of feedback did you get from his family and/or other people in the Syrian community about your cooking “their” food?
Syrians are an amazing group of people. They are warm, hospitable, funny, laid-back, caring, fiercely patriotic, proud of their culture, and humble all at the same time. Every time I’ve ever gone to Syria I’ve been impressed by this again and again. The Syrian people have been so genuinely kind to me, and have always shown great interest in me as a person, as well as in life in the U.S. and how it compares with life in Syria; no detail is spared in our conversations of culture. My authentic passion for their country, people, culture, and cuisine was a source of pride for them; they truly appreciated it and in turn reached out to me even more. Every question I asked about anything Syrian (food or not) was met with warm hospitality.
When I was learning to cook Syrian food they treated me as one of them, allowing me to work right alongside them, learning as I went and congratulating me on even the smallest of accomplishments. They were incredibly proud of the interest I took in their cuisine.
I’m a big believer in food diplomacy – that if you can get people to eat another person’s food it goes a long way to opening doors of conversation and understanding. Have you experienced this? Can you tell us about a situation where this happened?
During my time spent in the Middle East I wanted to show my in-laws that I was open to and accepting of their culture. I tried to keep an open mind about everything, especially food, since it’s something that’s such a huge part of their culture and they take great pride in it. This went a long way into helping me develop a wonderful relationship with my husband’s family. Every time I tried a new dish or found a new favorite, it made them immensely happy. Ironically, by the time Mike and I left the Middle East, I was eating a larger variety of Middle Eastern foods than he was since he’s such a picky eater (for example, he won’t touch eggplant but some of my favorite dishes are eggplant-based), and his mom would make certain dishes especially for me.
What is your favorite Syrian food?
Fried Eggplant with Garlic and Parsley Dressing, not only because it is incredibly delicious and a perfect example of Syrian cuisine its simplicity, but also because of the story around it.
A few years ago I was in Zabadani, a rural area north of Damascus in Syria. My husband and I were staying with his family in their country home for a few days, and another family had come to visit. Of course a feast was in order.
My mother-in-law and the other ladies were busy all day making a variety of many different dishes. Out of all the foods served that day, a very simple fried eggplant dish with garlic and parsley dressing was by far my favorite. I had tasted eggplant before, but this was the dish that made me fall in love with it, and it was at that moment when my mother-in-law realized that my husband and I truly were perfect for each other. You see, my hubby hates eggplant in any form and my mother-in-law has always hoped he’d marry someone who loves it!
As I sat there ignoring almost every other dish on the table and gushing about this simple eggplant dish, Sahar sat there beaming. Reliving that memory in my mind every time I eat this dish is what makes it so meaningful for me.
What’s your least favorite? (I won’t touch organs!)
I actually can’t think of something I don’t like! Surprisingly, even the few dishes that I didn’t like at first have now become favorites and are regularly made in my kitchen. I think the only reason I didn’t like them to begin with is because I didn’t grow up eating them…and some dishes come as quite a surprise the first time around! For example, Jute Mallow Soup, which has a slimy texture and earthy flavor that is brightened with garlic and lemon. Also, when I first tried Yogurt Soup its tangy flavor wasn’t a favorite of mine, but I have grown so accustomed to it that I now crave it if I go for a long time without having it.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I want to encourage people not to be intimidated just because a recipe, ingredient, or cooking method might be unfamiliar. For example, take my chicken shawarma recipe. I marinate chicken in a blend of seasonings and yogurt, and utilize a two-step cooking method that yields incredibly moist, flavorful chicken. I had an American cook tell me she was leery to use yogurt as a marinade for chicken, saying it sounded “weird” to her. (What she really meant was that she had never done it before and so she had no idea what to expect.) She ended up making the dish and not only has it become a favorite for her and her family, but it has also become a regular dinnertime staple. If you keep an open mind, you never know what new favorite you might discover.
Thank you so much Faith!
I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, An Edible Mosaic is a great cookbook for anyone who wants to cook Middle Eastern food. I found the recipes to be very authentic, and easy to follow. If you’re intimidated to try making this kind of food, this book will put you at ease. I enjoyed making several of these recipes that are not common in Morocco or found on the menu in Middle Eastern restaurants. Make sure you connect with Faith on her website, Facebook and Twitter to find many more recipes!