Ink on my Apron: Something old, something new
Palestinian cuisine is an aspect I had little, if no, prior exposure to so I counted myself as privileged to have been let in on some heirloom recipes that have stood the test of time.
Does one ever truly bid farewell to the place called home or do you carry traces of it wherever you go? This is a question I’ve been mulling over as I pack my suitcases, lining them carefully with sachets of dried rose petals and sumac – weighed out for me by my go-to Lebanese grocer – simultaneously grinding my own secret home blends and dry rubs. For weeks now, I have been trying to anticipate all the items that I think will tide me over the course of the next twelve months. These are to hold me in good stead for my version of the Middle Eastern mooneh or “pantry” as I embark on a new adventure and relocate to Chennai to teach a course in writing and editing to postgraduate journalism students.
A sense of ceremony has prevailed in the kitchen as I’ve devoted an entire day to this process, airing out jars and weighing out quantities of the freshest aromatics, which will be rationed out in varying proportions for potent spice mixes that will soon take their pride of place in my matchbox of a kitchen in a city that claimed me almost a decade ago.
I marvel at how oddly befitting this act is. Traditionally, this ritual of preparing, preserving, and pickling seasonal food was one that was relied upon by Arabs to see them through the harsh winter months when ingredients were hard to come by. My stash is one that I imagine I will reach out to when I long for a taste of home and miss the smothering nuances of a culture and cuisine that is second nature. Having said that, these are the only “indulgences” I allow myself as someone who has always embraced the joys of cooking local. After all, there will be new markets to navigate; new vegetable vendors, fishmongers, and butchers to win over; and new hole-in-the-wall specialty supermarkets to stumble across.
Filling for chicken musakhan rolls
Life, I have come to realise, is cyclical and nostalgia is a sentiment best reserved for the less adventurous. I’ve left home on three different occasions since I was 19 and each phase has reiterated the truth of this fact. A few years ago, I’d have gone to great pains with a nostalgic list of places I’d like to visit and eat at for old time’s sake, but the world is getting increasingly smaller.
It hits you when you find yourself seated at a table at of one of the many pavement restaurants on Edgeware Road in London, eating arayes so good that it makes you feel guilty for being able to switch loyalties from your favourite Damascene roadside eatery in Dubai. It’s the sense of wonder you allow yourself while pecking at a dainty macaron in a Parisian-inspired café in Mumbai and soaking in your surroundings, you realise that these chaps could teach the French a thing or two about nailing the shabby chic look.
Making chicken musakhan rolls
My stints abroad have also, across the board, left me amazed at just how pliable the new breed of global citizen really is. One can be sucked as effortlessly into the deep all-consuming underbelly of the London tube - inconspicuous behind a literary paperback - as one can be thrown headfirst into the madness of a darshini complete with the clanging of stainless steel tumblers and thalis.
Finished musakhan rolls
So what do we, this free-spirited generation of nomads, look for then if not for these old-fashioned anchoring notions of home. Are we so eager in our quest to shrug off binding ties to any one place that we miss out on something altogether? I’d like to believe otherwise, and that we enrich ourselves with experiences that will outlive the extra weight we resist hauling in our suitcases.
Maftoul being cooked
In my case, I could think of no better note on which to leave Dubai other than a hands-on cooking class with seasoned Middle Eastern home cook and Instagram influencer Maisaa Meqdadi who runs a cooking school out of her charming kitchen. It’s notoriously difficult to score a space at one of her sessions and I’ve been trying to do so for months, but my stars seemed to align just in time for my departure.
Over the course of three hours and surrounded by five other equally passionate and eager students, I am initiated into a world that has been curated to offer snatches of Maisaa’s own life replete with rich anecdotes of leisurely Sunday lunches that feature maftoul – the elaborate hand-rolled burghul and wheat flour dish that we will learn how to prepare from scratch. Workarounds and shortcuts are frowned upon – this is a woman who prides herself on creating everything right from her chicken stock starter to tomato puree, which boasts a redness of such depth that one begins to question any other variety you’ve ever laid eyes on.
We work in groups with surprising ease and familiarity, exchanging stories of the places we’ve lived in and flavours that have defined our palates and cooking sensibilities. Maisaa has a respect for food that borders on reverence and we sit in silence as she tells us how she has an annual consignment of extra virgin olive oil shipped to her straight from her friend’s farm in Palestine.
Walnut mutabak (sweet)
Palestinian cuisine is an aspect I had little if no, prior exposure to so I counted myself as privileged to have been let in on some heirloom recipes that have stood the test of time at Maisaa’s own family table. And so armed with some of her fiercely guarded handwritten recipes that are passed on with an unspoken element of trust, I leave Dubai with a little something old, something new, something borrowed, and something not-quite blue.
All photographs courtesy of Jehan Nizar.
Jehan Nizar is a lifestyle features writer and food blogger at www.inkonmyapron.com.