When Proust wrote about his Madeleine, he was talking about how a pastry could bring back memories, smells, and impressions of days gone by.
It can safely be said, Proust was right.
I come from a Lebanese family exiled in Europe because of the Lebanese Civil War, and food has always been the tenuous yet unbreakable bond that links us to our roots. My grandmother made it a point to hang on to Lebanese cooking traditions even in the small French town she was living in—not as a way of reclaiming her identity, but rather because of the comfort she derived from making familiar dishes, dishes that re-created her home in Ashrafieh, filling her French house with their warmth. Our family traditions were not confined to recipes and dishes; traditions even shaped how we ate. On Fridays, for example, as a traditional Christian family, we would not eat meat. Instead, my teta would whip up her divine siyyadiyeh, a dish of rice and fish, or her mujaddarah, a mix of onions, rice, lentils and cumin, or her famous ejjeh, a sort of Arab frittata. Sitting at the kitchen table, munching on the kellage (grilled cheese in Lebanese bread) she had made to calm my growing-child appetite while I waited for lunch, I would stare at her, transfixed, observing as she added a little flour and milk to the eggs to make them fluffy, perfumed the mixture with parsley and fried it in small portions, the plate next to her slowly overflowing with ejjeh while the bag she used to make homemade labneh hung on the kitchen faucet, turning ordinary yoghurt into a delightful creamy cheese, dripping occasionally into her pristine sink.
Growing up in a family consisting of four sisters, their families and a grandmother, my only living grandparent, the kitchen was, more often than not, the beating heart of the house. My parents, aunts and relatives would gather around the table to feed us and comment on Lebanon’s latest news. Although the conversations were not necessarily cheerful or optimistic, to me these lunches and dinners constitute nothing but happy memories—my father patiently mashing boiled potatoes, mint, bulghur and olive oil just for me, knowing my fondness for that dish, while cursing politicians. I would methodically and quietly empty my plate, not with a fork and knife, but correctly with Lebanese bread, for mashed potatoes with bulghur simply cannot be eaten with cutlery.
Around the kitchen table, my family often spoke of the difficulty of finding good Lebanese bread in a small French town: for as long as I can remember, our groceries came from the supermarket, from the Algerian grocer that stocked Lebanese bread and spices and from the Turkish shop, the only place where we could ask for bemieh and be understood. Coffee was a special treat in itself: in the absence of Cafe Najjar, my mother would go to the coffee bean roaster and ask for a specific mix of mocha beans that was then ground finely to resemble Turkish coffee. I cannot count the times I saw my mother come home disappointed because “The Algerian grocer had not received Lebanese bread.”
Re-creating a home through food clearly takes some creativity, a little help from other members of the diaspora, and a lot of work.
Growing up, the kitchen was a place to eat, to share, to bond, to argue and talk, but first and foremost, to learn by watching, watching my father’s expert hands knead the meat for the kebbe until it became soft and would melt in your mouth, or watching my mother measure the rice and vermicelli to make rez bil shaayriyeh. These dishes were familiar and “normal” to me; I thought everyone in my class knew what kafta was, but I slowly realised that my classmates mistook Lebanese bread for crepes and that, no, not many of my friends knew what kafta was. I was just as surprised when I went over to friends’ houses and tasted dishes such as rabbit and braised endives that my mother had probably never cooked or touched. But I’d pick fattouch over braised endives any day. When I would come back home and inform my mother what I had eaten, she would sometimes frown. Over time she passed some of her food aversions on to me. After hearing that I had eaten roasted pork, she exclaimed: “Ya! I never cook pork meat. It has no taste except the taste of fat!” To this day, I have never bought, let alone cooked, pork.
It didn’t take more than a plane ride to travel from the kitchen in France to the kitchen in Lebanon, where I properly met my father’s family and, most importantly, my aunt who still spent half the year in the Bekaa Valley. I discovered cousins, uncles and aunts, all laughing in the tiny kitchen of the family house overlooking the breathtaking Litani River, where we spent some of our weekends. The odour of grilled meat blended with the sweet aroma of ripe figs, pomegranates and peaches from the orchard, while conversations unfolded in the kitchen and the mounds of tabbouleh rose. Each of the cousins was allocated a special spot from where they chopped the parsley, squeezed the lemons or just gave out orders on how the food should be prepared, behaving like self-appointed experts on marinating shish taouk. You’d think they all had PhDs in advanced Lebanese cooking and, of course, each had a drastically different way of doing things. “Too many cooks spoil the dish” would say my mother, diplomatically removing herself from the gastronomic conference and taking her labneh and dried-mint sandwich to the terrace to play cards with other prudent guests.
The kitchen in the Bekaa did not stop at its four walls: it encompassed nature itself, the whole garden and orchard, our fruit, vegetable and aromatic herb market. My aunt introduced me to the healing properties of certain herbs and the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, explaining how fresh anise decoction could tame a stomach ache and how apricots were one of the best sources of potassium. As I walked with her and her sister among the different trees, she would talk of the different ways of making mouneh (preserving food for winter), drying olives and figs and making raisins. Thanks to her, I’ve learnt to recognise different trees, to pick figs without letting them ooze latex, or white milk, and to cook with what we had just handpicked. To this day, my aunt’s kitchen continues to produce traditional dishes very few people still make, whether at home or in restaurants: kebbet laktine (a vegetarian kebbe made with pumpkin) fried hindbe (chicory) or shish barak (dumplings stuffed with meat and served with a warm yoghurt sauce).
In Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, I learned how to make different dishes, recipes that were shared with me by men and women who evidently loved good food and through it their lands, people who shared with me little drops of love. After all these years hopping from one kitchen to the next, I ultimately learned that cooking was a labour of love above all else, and a glorious celebration of life.
In my Swiss kitchen, I experiment, trying to replicate the recipe for shorbet frik, taught to me by Tata Monia whom I met in Tunis during my travels. I also make my mother’s stuffed chicken, listening as she reminds me yet again to add sweet pepper and allspice.
Edited by Stephanie Watt.