How one blog is helping to demystify Middle Eastern cooking
The Lebanese-American blogger Bethany Kehdy has been serving up tempting recipes and mouth-watering photos to an international audience on her food blog Dirty Kitchen Secrets (www.dirtykitchensecrets.com). Now, she wants to bring readers even closer to Lebanon with a documentary following her on a tasting tour of the country.
Launched in 2008, Dirty Kitchen Secrets (DKS) www.dirtykitchensecrets.com has become a well-known resource for Lebanese cuisine, with detailed descriptions of vital ingredients in Lebanese cooking, hundreds of traditional and original recipes, as well as photo and video guides demystifying dishes that often intimidate foodies inexperienced with Middle Eastern cooking methods.
Though the venture began as the online expansion of a word document where Kehdy stored her tried and true recipes, her efforts have borne a seasonal culinary tour of Lebanon and Europe's only conference for food bloggers, Food Blogger Connect.
According to Kehdy, she spent years saving her favourite recipes in a file titled "Dirty Kitchen", hoping to publish a cookbook someday.
"I'd never thought of publishing online, then I saw a food blog one day and realised what I could do," she said. "Within 24 hours, I had my own site running."
Though the blog focuses on Middle Eastern cuisine or recipes with a regional bent, Kehdy says she has loose criteria for what makes a post-worthy meal.
"If the meals taste good and I've eaten them enough times, it goes on the blog. And if it won't scare people off," she said, referring to the Levant's tendency to serve dishes made from sheep tongues.
"If I put that up no one would come back and read my blog again," she added. But Kehdy's cooking has won plenty of fans. The blog attracts between 10,000 to 60,000 readers a month.
Kehdy mixes traditional Lebanese fare with her own inspired recipes, and often includes anecdotes about growing up in Lebanon. During the Lebanese civil war, Kehdy's family moved to a farm in the mountains. Kehdy spent much of her childhood helping harvest fruits and vegetables, and chasing chickens around the yard. Kehdy says she learnt about cooking Middle Eastern cuisine from spending hours in the kitchen watching her grandmother, father and aunts prepare meals, pickling cucumbers and preserving stuffed eggplants known as batenjan makdous.
Kehdy worked as an operations manager at a grille and oyster bar in Hawaii before moving to the United Kingdom. She also spent time living in Miami, Montreal and Dubai, among other places.
It's likely her experiences abroad added to her interest in popularising Middle Eastern food among the mainstream, something she feels hasn't happened fully yet.
"It's cuisine that's rooted in civilisation, but because there is so little tourism in the area I think that has seriously inhibited its growth in the UK and the West. When you travel somewhere you take the food back with you, and you want to cook it at home," she said.
Lebanese cuisine can be intimidating at first glance - it's known for its labour-intensive preparations and a tradition of slow, lengthy cooking. But Kehdy has a knack for translating ambitious dishes and complex flavours into accessible, easy-to-follow recipes. Kehdy often tackles traditional Lebanese fares but also posts dishes that her "Middle Eastern friends can't get from their mums".
Dirty Kitchen Secrets reads like a conversation with a witty friend who can offer you the perfect Levantine dish for any occasion, from old-style kebbeh, made from a ground mixture of lamb and bulghur, to the enlivened twist, pan-fried courgette flowers stuffed with chilli and dill labneh. Despite courgettes being a mainstay of Middle Eastern cuisine, and a vegetable she often ate growing up on the farm, Kehdy notes in a blog post that she was first introduced to eating the flower during her late teens by her French stepmother.
Typically, the flowers are stuffed with mozzarella or ricotta before being fried in batter, but Kehdy's recipe mixes labneh, a tangy strained yogurt, with chilli and dill. The result is a crisp appetiser brought to life with drool-inducing photography.
"I do a lot of recipes that are unique and creative," she said. "But some things, like tabbouleh, it's going to be the same. I don't think you should mess with tabbouleh."
After years of bringing tasty Lebanese food to the West, Kehdy's second venture, a seven-day culinary journey called Taste Lebanon, is all about bringing western foodies to Lebanon. Last year, Kehdy hosted her first tasting tour, which showcases an intimate and honest look at Lebanon through its culinary heritage.
Kehdy takes guests from around the world on a week-long excursion through the different regions of Lebanon, where they visit homes of Lebanese farmers, producers and other culinary enthusiasts. Taste Lebanon features workshops on making mezzes or the process for making rose water - an essential aromatic addition to Lebanese cooking. (Visit www.tastelebanon.co.uk for more information).
A vital part of the trip, according to Kehdy, is a visit to Abu Kassem, the owner of Za'atar Zawtar. Kassem is one of the few farmers who has domesticated wild za'atar (thyme) plants, which is usually only collected in the wild. The dried spice known as za'atar is made from a mixture of thyme, sumac, salt and toasted sesame seeds. Kassem's fields are in southern Lebanon, a Hizbollah-controlled area that was a main staging ground for the war with Israel in the 1980s and again in 2006.
"We go down to the south, and everyone knows what the south is," said Kehdy, adding "and there's Abu Kassem, one of the friendliest people you could meet."
During the tour, Kehdy aims to dismantle misconceptions about Lebanon while serving up delicious food. "It's not about the two contrasts you see in the media of party haven and war-torn terrorist hot-bed," said Kehdy. "It's about really grasping what it is to be Lebanese, from across its religious sects and societal classes, our real day-to-day activities, thoughts, feelings."
Presently, a documentary following Kehdy and her next set of intrepid food aficionados is in the works. The forthcoming spring edition will be filmed by Batootta films, a Lebanese production house that created the Emmy Award-winning web series Shankaboot. With the support of the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, and MEA and Medco, and other as-yet-to-be found sponsors, contestant winners will be flown to Lebanon to be filmed as they traipse through the country's bakeries, mountain homes, fishing harbours and gourmet restaurants with Kehdy.
"I think it will be fascinating for the international audience to gain honest insight as they watch fellow citizens explore this mostly misconstrued country."
But, for her, the documentary and the tours have the same objective as her blog, simply "it's about getting out there and then getting to eat at the end."