The Dubai TV chef and culinary teacher Suzanne Husseini has built a career around cooking. With a new book ready to hit the shelves, she explains why home-cooked Arab cuisine is central to the culture of the region and is one of life's simple pleasures.
Poetry and passion in the kitchen
It should have been a fun outing, but Suzanne Husseini, then eight, was worried sick as her family drove to their favourite park in Ottawa. "Why couldn't we just bring hot dogs and hamburgers to barbecue like other families? We were going to be a joke," she remembers thinking. Instead, her mother had made and packed maqlouba, a layered rice dish.
But this particular Sunday, camped in her family's usual spot, another immigrant clan was cooking up vats of sauce, pesto and pasta. "I looked at those people celebrating their culture and having a ball. They had pots bigger than our pots!" Husseini says, laughing, adding that the two families - one Italian, hers Palestinian - ended up sharing their food that afternoon. "I never again stressed about taking a pot to a park. Now I celebrate my cuisine every day and in every way I can. Arabic food is just so ... wow!"
Husseini, a Dubai TV chef and cooking teacher, shares that celebration in her new cookbook, When Suzanne Cooks: Modern Flavours of Arabia, due in December. (The Arabic edition follows early in the new year.) With 90 recipes for breakfast, mezze (Husseini defines mezze as "a collection of everything your heart desires"), lunch, dinner and dessert, When Suzanne Cooks is a feast of luscious photographs, personal stories and divine recipes. It's the culmination of years of cooking, tasting, reading, teaching and more cooking.
"All the recipes I've made for years," says Husseini, placing a mountain of date, orange and cardamom scones before me. "It's all up here." She taps her head.
Translating those dishes - some from her mother's own table - into book form has been a challenge, she admits. "I've been editing out of my mind for the past few months, working to make the recipes sound not too complicated."
Even her husband, Ahmed, got pulled into the process. "I dragged him into the kitchen with me. He was my secretary, writing as I cooked and baked. Then he got tired and my son took over. Writing is... " she laughs again. "Well, I'd rather be cooking!"
Although Husseini didn't actually learn to cook at her mother's elbow - "the desire, the learning, came when I was older" - she watched her mother "like a hawk". When Suzanne Cooks, dedicated to both her parents, was written "to honour my mother, her love, her cooking for us".
The book is also dedicated to another inspiration in Husseini's life: Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, who died two years ago. "I long for my mother's bread, my mother's coffee, her touch," Husseini quotes from one of Darwish's most beloved poems, My Mother. She wears those lines on a pendant her children gave her.
"And really, what can be better?" she asks. "The best dish you ever had in your life was probably at your mother's table. It's love you're eating."
Carrying culinary traditions forward is a responsibility, she believes. "Here in the Gulf, many people rely on cooks and hired help to prepare their food. 'I can afford, I can afford,' some locals say. But your food, your culture can live on only if you're cooking it. What is culture? Keeping connected to your music, language and, most profoundly, your food."
Not that Husseini is a purist. "My mother raises her eyebrows sometimes at how I serve some of the classics." Case in point: the yummy scones disappearing from my plate. "A British classic with an Arabian twist," explains Husseini. "Who says it all has to be Arabic? For instance, tabbouleh goes great with meat. Why serve it as mezze only?"
Husseini is as passionate speaking to a crowd as she is one-on-one. At last spring's Abu Dhabi Book Fair she galvanised crowds at the show kitchen, all burners blazing as she whipped up pots of Arabic goodness. She made us laugh and made us hungry - I can still taste the dates stuffed with ricotta, nutmeg and pistachios.
"I love to teach," she says. "Dough, for example, can be finicky. My friends will say, 'But it didn't turn out like yours did.' 'Come on over,' I'll say. 'We'll make it together.' There in the kitchen they can get the feel of it. Food is a sensual experience. You're smelling, tasting, touching, listening. It's not rocket science!"
And if it still doesn't come out quite right, try again, she encourages. "I had so many flops in my mother's kitchen. You learn from the experience and it will be better next time. Besides," she says, "why should perfection be your goal? The hotels are there for that. Home cooking is for comfort and joy, with all the crooked edges."
Those real-life edges are captured in the natural-light photos for When Suzanne Cooks, taken by Petrina Tinslay, the Australian food photographer. The dishes - from shish barak to stuffed, roasted chicken - look as if they were cooked by a real person in a real kitchen and shot on her real patio. The team worked for 16 days, with Husseini cooking eight dishes a day.
"We ate our way through the pages," she says.
As will readers of When Suzanne Cooks.
When Suzanne Cooks: Modern Flavours Of Arabia, from Motivate Publishing, will be launched on December 9 at Bloomingdale's in Dubai.
Denise Roig is the author of "Butter Cream: A Year In A Montreal Pastry School"
Cauliflower fritters with yogurt & mint dip
One of Suzanne Husseini's fondest memories is of coming home from school to a mountain of these fritters on the table. (Adapted from When Suzanne Cooks by Suzanne Husseini.)
1 large cauliflower head, cut into small florets
1 medium onion, grated
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup fresh coriander, chopped
2 tsp cumin
2 tbsp plain flour
4 tbsp rice flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp baking soda
Peanut oil for frying
Yogurt/mint dip 250g full-fat plain yogurt; 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped; salt to taste
Method Place the cauliflower florets in a steamer basket and steam, covered, over medium-high heat until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove and cool completely. Over a colander, use your hands to squeeze out the water. Then place the florets in a clean, thick kitchen towel and squeeze really hard to get rid of any remaining moisture. (This step will ensure crisp, not soggy, fritters.) In a large bowl, beat the eggs, then add the onions, garlic, cumin, parsley, cilantro and both flours. Salt and pepper to taste. Tumble in the cauliflower and mix well. Stir in the baking soda. Heat oil in a large skillet. Using a measuring tablespoon, carefully drop in dollops of the batter. Cook for 2 minutes on each side until crispy golden and cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to remove the fritters and layer them on paper towels. For the dip: mix the yogurt and fresh mint in a small bowl and season with salt. Serve on the side.
Yield Three dozen
Six Arabic cookbooks
We all get into a cooking rut, admits Suzanne Husseini. 'That's why cookbooks are so wonderful. Sometimes just looking through a cookbook, at a photo, will get you into the kitchen. What a dull world it would be if we only stuck with what we know.' Here are three of Husseini's favourite Arabic cookbooks, followed by three of mine
THE LEBANESE COOKBOOK by Hussein Dekmak (Hippocrene Books, 2007). Traditional, home-style cooking with a focus on fresh, simple ingredients.
FLAVOURS OF MOROCCO Delicious Recipes from North Africa by Ghillie Basan (Ryland, Peters & Small Ltd, 2008). Authentic recipes beautifully photographed on location in Morocco, with essays scattered between the dishes explaining the cultural traditions behind the recipes.
FEAST BAZAAR India, Morocco, Syria by Barry Vera (Murdoch Books, 2008). The English-born chef Vera gets to the heart of these three cuisines in this accompaniment to his acclaimed food/travel TV series, Feast.
ARABESQUE A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon by Claudia Roden (Knopf, 2006). Roden, a leading authority on Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, reworks the classics, making them easier for today's home cook.
FEAST FROM THE MIDEAST by Faye Levy (HarperCollins, 2003). 250 time-honoured recipes brought into the 21st-century kitchen by a food columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
MIDDLE EASTERN HOME COOKING by Tess Mallos (Lansdowne Publishing, 2002). Regional recipes with a comprehensive introduction to Middle Eastern cuisine, utensils, ingredients and cooking techniques.