I can still picture her more than 40 years later, short and stout, and all dressed in black – a sign she was in mourning. She had come with her son to ask for my hand in marriage. I was barely 16 years old, and my plans for my future life did not include marriage.
My mother served them coffee and as the lady picked up her cup, she asked me what I wanted to do when I finished my studies. I triumphantly replied that I didn’t want to marry. Instead, I would move to Europe and become a writer. It was not the reply she expected, nor one that a well-brought up Lebanese girl would have uttered in those days, but I had been avidly reading the French existentialists, and had fallen completely under their influence. I don’t think she had even finished her coffee before she was dragging her son away. I was happy to see them leave, except that I then had to listen to my furious mother berate me about my bad manners.
All this to say that cooking was not on the cards as I plotted my future. I equated it with being domesticated and even though I adored good food and was constantly in the kitchen with my mother, grandmother, and aunt, I had no wish to emulate them. However, two unexpected events contrived to steer me towards the kitchen regardless of my intentions.
The first happened soon after I moved to London in the early 1970’s, where I lived with the man I thought I would love forever. He knew not to rely on me for his meals as I continued with my liberated stance, and when a friend arrived one evening and they decided to eat in, it fell on her to prepare dinner. She was blond and glamorous, and a good cook. I no longer remember what she prepared but he was impressed and I was miffed. So, to redress the balance, I decided to cook a Lebanese meal for our friends. In those days London was a culinary desert, and worse still, the Lebanese civil war meant there was no communication with my mother. Still, I had watched her prepare our meals so many times that I decided I could cook from memory. And I did, preparing hummus, tabbuleh, kibbeh bil-saniyeh and other dishes that may sound familiar now but were very uncommon then to my western friends. Everyone loved the food and I decided to take up cooking, although only to entertain and not on a daily basis.
The second event led to my taking up cooking professionally. It happened during dinner with my then literary agent – I had become an art consultant and collector soon after my move to London, and was planning to write a book on collecting – and a Lebanese friend when they started discussing cookbooks. As I listened to them, I thought I could write one on Lebanese food. There wasn’t really a good book on the subject, and certainly not one that offered user-friendly recipes to those unfamiliar with the cuisine, nor any background information on the historical or social context of the dishes. So, I nonchalantly said that I should write a book on Lebanese cuisine. The Lebanese friend quickly pointed out there was no need for one with Rayess’ being the bible but my agent liked the idea, saying she had been approached by a publisher looking for someone to write such a book.
Serendipity, except that what I thought would take me three months to write ended up taking nearly three years. Regardless, I enjoyed the research and the writing so much that I continued and finally became a writer, although not a novelist like Simone de Beauvoir!
What was interesting however is that as I became a food writer, I began to view cooking in a completely different light. Instead of an occupation that shackles women, I saw it as a means to get to know a country’s culture and its people. Recording recipes, I considered, was a way of preserving culinary lore. As an art dealer/consultant I traveled a lot but I moved in rarefied social circles. I did not really get to know the countries I visited, nor the people I met, the way I do when I travel for food. Wherever I go for my research now, I make friends across the board. Some people I am introduced to, but many others I simply meet on the street, in shops, or at restaurants. Sometimes I am the one to start the conversation, other times they are out of curiosity for my interest in their food. When I cook, whether it is familiar or new recipes, my interest in the dishes extends beyond how they are prepared. I try to find out their origin, which is not always easy, given that food studies is a recent development; how they vary from one country, or one region, to another, even in some cases from one family to another. This, I do by interviewing people and/or by scrutinizing cookbooks – I have amassed a collection of over 1500 volumes over the last 20 years.
There is so much still to learn and discover. My curiosity remains unabated even after having written 7 cookbooks and tested nearly 1000 recipes. And when I meet young women who, like me in the past, equate cooking with being domesticated, I try to explain that food is an essential part of their culture, and that by learning to prepare the dishes of their mothers and grandmothers, they contribute to the preservation of their own culinary heritage to pass on to the next generation.
Lubiyeh bil-zeyt is the first recipe I ever cooked. One night when I still lived in Beirut, my two older sisters and I decided to have a midnight feast while my parents and younger siblings slept. They chose to make a chocolate cake while I cooked my favorite dish: Lubiyeh bil-zeyt. The cake ended up in a cake fight, but the lubiyeh we ate, and it was remarkably like my mother’s. In fact, I saved some for her to taste and give me her seal of approval, which she did. At home, we always ate lubiyeh bil-zeyt by spreading the beans and sauce on a layer of pita bread. We then tore up the dry edges of the pita to scoop the beans. When we finished eating the beans, we rolled the bread soaked in the sauce around crisp wedges of onion and ate it like a sandwich. Lubiyeh bil-zeyt is very simple and quick to prepare. It is part of a group of vegetarian dishes cooked in olive oil (bil-zeyt means just that) that are served as part of a mezze spread, or in Christian communities for Lent, or on Fridays when they refrain from eating meat. This recipe serves 6.
400 g Helda beans, or fine French green beans
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves
1 x 400 g can cherry tomatoes, drained
1. Top, tail and, if necessary, string the beans. Then cut them on the slant in medium length pieces – if you are using the fine beans, you don’t need to cut them. Rinse under cold water. Set aside.
2. Put the olive oil, onion and garlic in a medium size saucepan. Place over a medium high heat and fry, stirring occasionally, until golden.
3. Add the beans, sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt and cook, covered, for a few minutes, stirring regularly, until the beans turn a glossy, bright green.
4. Add the tomatoes and salt to taste. Mix well and cover the pan. Let bubble for 20 minutes, or until the beans have softened, but not turned mushy, and the sauce is thickened. If the sauce is still a little liquid, uncover the pan and increase the heat to high. Let bubble for a few more minutes stirring very regularly until there is no excess liquid.
5. Serve warm or at room temperature with pita bread.