A while ago, I was sent the beautiful book Modern Flavours of Arabia by Suzanne Husseini.
Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, Suzanne’s family emigrated to Canada when she was just 4, and started a new life there. Suzanne’s mother continued to create the Arabic dishes of the Middle East, and although Suzanne learned many other cuisines, it was Arabic cuisine she loved most strongly and which she has shared in her first book.
The book is filled with Suzanne’s versions of a range of traditional recipes, plus modern dishes with an Arabic twist. She conjures up the Middle East kitchen with ingredients that have, thankfully, become much easier for global cooks to find in their local shops – cardamom and rose, pistachios and dates, chickpeas and bulgur and many more.
She kindly gave me the interview below to share with my readers.
Firstly, congratulations on your beautiful book and thank you for giving this interview to Kavey Eats.
You explain in your introduction that your family emigrated to Canada when you were very young. Where did you emigrate from and do you have any memories of your birth country from before the move? Were there things you and your family particularly missed (other than people)?
My parents were living in Kuwait at the time when we emigrated to Canada. My parents are both of Palestinian origin. My parents decided to start a new life in a new country with 4 small children. I was the eldest. I know my young mother was barely 24. Of course this move was very exciting for us as children but it was most challenging for my mother. She left family, friends, and special memories. We arrived around Christmas time in Canada . The cold and snow was quite a novelty for us but it made my mother even more homesick for the warm surroundings she grew up in.
She always mentioned how much she missed certain fresh ingredients, typical Middle eastern supplies and after tasting many fruits declared that they were ‘tasteless’. She made the best of this situation and reconnected us with our roots by cooking the most amazing meals that always brought us comfort and joy on the coldest of days.
You mention that you found a way to make friends with curious classmates through the exotic (for them) foods that your mother made for your lunch box, and when they visited your home. Was it that easy, or was the food a way to open the avenues of communication, in contrast to some of the harder and crueller experiences of being an immigrant?
When I was taking my strange sandwiches to school I was about 7 years old. I think the fact that I was so young and innocent and really didn’t see what all the fuss was about…. So when they teased me about my food choices and made fun of my heritage it didn’t affect me as much as it would of if I was older where you become truly sensitive to cruel remarks. I overcame all that by inviting my class mates to my home often and bringing foods like Falafel to school to share with them.
As a child , I didn’t realize or was aware how powerful the act of feeding people can be. It did indeed open the channels of communication for me. My classmates accepted me and my differences and understood this very profound message. Food is love. I have always and still do take every opportunity to seek understanding by feeding my friends. It is the perfect recipe to forge new friendships and promote peace, love and understanding one plate at a time.
My parents came to the UK from India before I was born. Mum certainly cooked lots of wonderful Indian food during our childhood, but also learned to make British classics, as well as international dishes from China, Greece, Italy, France… Did you have a similarly multi-faceted exposure to food, or did your mum tend to stick more closely to the cuisine of her home? Did you always embrace Arabian cuisine, or did you find yourself drawn to it more as you got older?
My mother made her own Arabic/Pitta bread from scratch. She made Falafel when people still didn’t know what it is. She would shop for the freshest fruits in season to make her own jam. Homemade yoghurt was a staple in our home. She delighted us with homemade traditional Arabic desserts. She drew from her memory and made mostly Arabic inspired meals that she knew best. I fell in love with Arabic cuisine from day one. As I got older , I experimented with other foods but always was drawn to the familiar flavors of the Mediterranean and I would find that in Italian, Greek and Southern French Food particularly.
Many immigrant families will be familiar with the challenge of recreating traditional dishes without access to all the usual ingredients. How did your mum cope with this issue? Were there many recipes she had to adapt during your childhood?
If she couldn’t find it she would improvise and make her own version of a dish and make it as close to the original as possible. I think her godsend was discovering Italian and Indian supermarkets that would carry herbs like basil, coriander and spices. She would make a trip to the farmer’s markets that were frequented by the Italian community and find vegetables like tomatoes, lemons, parsley in abundance.
Of course there were items that she just couldn’t find and she would rely on new friends traveling back to the Middle East to bring her some unique supplies.
Are there any tips you have for readers who might find it difficult to find some of the specialist ingredients?
Really the ingredients that I have used throughout my book are easily found in anyone’s supermarket. Now that Middle Eastern Grocers are common it’s not hard to find the once considered exotic ingredients like Tahini, Pomegranate Molasses, Zaatar, Sumac, and Grape vine leaves.
Many items can be substituted like spinach instead of swiss chard for instance or if purslane is difficult then watercress is a good choice.
I notice that both your father and yourself describe yourself as Arabian rather than from a specific country? Is this because you don’t really identify with one country in particular, or because you prefer to rise above the divisions and differences of nationality in favour of wider cultural and regional similarities?
My parents are both very proud of their Palestinian heritage which is a part of the larger Arabian picture. When you refer to yourself as ‘Arabian’ means you share a language, a culture, the hospitality, a history, a story that is common to all people of Arabic origin regardless which country they come from. The divisions are only on the map. We grew up in a household where my family showed us how to be proud of our Arabic heritage and celebrate it. We also grew up loving everyone regardless of their differences be it religion, color, or nationality. I will always be thankful for parents who instilled in their children such values.
I am proud to say that my dining table is not only laden with food but is always graced by the presence of dear colorful friends from all corners of the world.
You explain that your recipes are not intended to be a “historical account of Arabic cooking” but a collection of recipes you grew up with, influenced by what you’ve learned during your years of cooking and teaching since. How close are the recipes in Modern Flavours of Arabia to what one might find in the kitchens of the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East? Would you describe them as fairly traditional or more of a personal and modern interpretation of Arabic food?
All of my recipes are certainly Arabic in one way or another. I have all the traditional dishes that have become common to all like Hummus, Tabbouli, Baba Ghanouje which are not my personal creations. But I do add a little of this and a dab of that. I re introduce a traditional that’s been made one way forever and give it a makeover. In my modern interpretations I do try to maintain the integrity of the dish. My aim is to respect it , be authentic and only change something if I feel it is complimentary. So as you must know by now , I’m not a fan of fusion food where you bring two opposing food cultures to collide to create or distort a dish for sake of being ‘new’.
My food represents mostly the flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean as it is the most varied and by shear history and geography has evolved into one of the most amazing cuisines of the world. That also includes North Africa, the Gulf and the neighboring countries of the Middle East who naturally influenced this diverse and sophisticated food culture.
Was it hard to narrow down the recipes in your repertoire to the number you needed for the book or did you know instinctively which ones must be included?
I had many more recipes to share but my publisher at the time advised me to cut back so the book wouldn’t be too big. So I had to make the difficult choice of deciding which ones would make the cut for the time being. I am cooking up a second book now and a lot of those recipes will make make an appearance.
Were there recipes you chose not to include because your audience might not appreciate them, or because they might struggle to find the ingredients?
Not at all, all the recipes are accessible and have been tested on many good friends who love to eat them and with their encouragement I decided to include them. When I’m cooking , I go through the same process as everyone else. I go to shop for my ingredients and get inspired to cook that way. I don’t have any secret location where I buy certain thing. It’s all home cook friendly.
Which is your favourite recipe in the book, either because you love the dish, or have a personal memory associated with it?
I love all of the recipes which is why they all made it to be part of my book. The cover photo depicts my Arugula Salad with Roasted Aubergines and a Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Dressing. That is one of my favorites… The peppery Arugula leaves are complimented by the sweet buttery aubergine, the bite of the onions and the delightful crunch of the pine nuts. The pomegranate dressing pulls it all together.
What is next for you? Another book, or another project? Can you tell us about it?
As I mentioned earlier I am working on a new book with a collection of new recipes.
I am working on a new special TV cooking show highlighting the beautiful Arabian cuisine that I adore.
I have begun my cooking classes again to keen students wanting to unlock the mysteries of Middle Eastern cuisine.
This summer my ‘modern flavors of Arabia’ will be launched in Canada and the US. I am very excited to be on tour cooking , signing books and sharing my food and stories with everyone.
Kavey Eats received a review copy of Modern Flavours of Arabia.