BEIRUT: There is no surer way to start an argument with someone than by suggesting you know how to cook their local dish better than they do. Across the world, each country, each region, often each city, has their own way of doing things.
The Arab world is no exception. Certain combinations are sacrosanct – fledgling chefs and culinary interlopers should proceed with caution before daring to reinterpret the honeyed knafeh cake of the Palestinian city of Nablus, or north Lebanon’s hat-shaped kibbeh Zghortawiyeh.
Nevertheless, Kehdy, a Lebanese-American chef and food writer, is among a small but growing number of chefs dragging centuries-old food into the world of 30-minute cookbooks and TV dinners.
As a result, “The Jewelled Kitchen,” Kehdy’s first cookbook, is a mish-mash of the familiar old favorites and more controversial creations.
“More than once,” she writes in the introduction, “I have come up against relatives who have challenged the most minuscule alteration I have made to a dish, outraged by the fact that I dared to call it by the same name.”
“‘This is not how you make moghrabieh!’ ‘No, no, you cannot put cumin in kibbeh! What, are you crazy?’”
But for cooks, reinvention is the name of the game. In this respect, greats such as Claudia Rhoden, Greg Malouf (“my biggest inspiration ... his outside the box, creative Middle Eastern cooking really resonates with me,” Kehdy says) and Yotam Ottolenghi are way ahead of the curve.
She follows in their path, taking from the region’s rich gastronomic history and updating with personal touches that to a purist’s mind would be thoroughly unconventional.
Tuna tartare with chermoula, for example, was inspired by her time living in Hawaii.
“I was thinking of including a Moroccan fish cake recipe,” explains Kehdy. “It’s an interpretation of Poke [a Pacific raw fish dish] but it utilizes only local ingredients to the Moroccan repertoire, and so it’s not really a fusion recipe as one might think.”
Her chermoula, a North African rub for meats and fish that varies from household to household, is a mix inherited from her father. Along with the unorthodox, there is also a sense of well-worn recipes passed down orally in the kitchen, amid a clutter of bowls, splatterings of oil and a mess of spices.
Born in Houston, Texas, to an American mother and a Lebanese father, she spent her childhood eating off the land in the foothills of Mount Sannine and her early adolescence queuing up at Taco Bells and Wendy’s. Her later teen years saw her return to Lebanon in the 1990s before moving stateside again during her 20s. Now in her 30s, she lives in England with her British husband.
For Kehdy, the constant throughout her travels was the food she grew up with and constantly sought to recreate: “Is it weird to say that sometimes it’s been my only friend?”
Yet being apart from the rituals of the Middle Eastern kitchen allowed her to branch out and throw things together that might otherwise have eliciteda “haram” from a disapproving relative.
Shawarma, for example, is one of those Arab delights that is famous the world over. Fig jam, too, is a staple in countries where figs grow like apples. Duck shawarma paired with fig jam, however, is a mouthwatering and New York-inspired combination with a twist.
Likewise, Kehdy suggests using arak – an aniseed liqueur more for drinking than cooking – to marinate mussels, a far from traditional marriage.
Some of the updates to classics are just pure sense, such as more green vegetables in otherwise carbohydrate-heavy and stodgy North African dishes.
However, many of the Persian dishes have been used as jumping-off points for something that sounds quite different. The traditional egg cake – known as kuku or ejjeh – features, but becomes an altogether more accessible-sounding mixed greens frittata, albeit with the addition of the Persian spice mix advieh.
Fesunjun, a popular stew, becomes braised duck legs served with a chutney of the ingredients that normally comprise the meal’s sauce.
“It might irk some purist Iranians,” Kehdy remarks, “but frankly the ingredients and flavors are exactly the same – I just chose to keep texture in the final dishes.”
“The Jewelled Kitchen” is available now in bookshops and online at Amazon.com.