Appreciating Arab Cuisine: A Conversation With May Bsisu

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of hosting an event at National Geographic Auditorium in Washington, DC, with the lovely, learned and gracious cuisine expert May Bsisu. Our event focused on the tastes and traditions of cuisine throughout the Arab world, based on Bsisu’s exquisite book, The Arab Table. As part of my preparation, I spoke with Bsisu about her book and about the role of food in her life and in Arab culture. Like her life and work, our conversation proved a fascinating introduction to a rich and complex culinary tradition about which I knew almost nothing. I heartily recommend her book, and as a small sample of its riches, present here some excerpts from our talk.

DG: You started your book with the word “Tafadalo.” What does that mean?

MB: Tafadalo is one of my favorite words.

It is used in many different ways: When you open your home door to receive a guest, you say, “Tafadalo.” When you offer a guest a cup of coffee or juice, you say, “Tafadalo.” Tafadalo means welcome and indicates a long tradition of Arab hospitality. For many it particularly means delicious food is on the table and it is time to eat!

In Arabic, Tafadalo also means “do me the honor.” It is an offering and an invitation. In Arab and Arab-American homes, welcoming others, especially guests, is an essential courtesy and an expression of hospitality.

Why did you write The Arab Table?I always believed that food is much more than what is on a plate. The Arab Tableoffers my vision of the food of the Arab world as well as how the food is connected to the soil and soul of the people in that region. I also wrote this book to preserve the culture and food traditions for my children and grandchildren.

When you first moved to the United States and started thinking about writing The Arab Table, I am sure that there were many reasons that influenced your decision. Can you tell me about this?

I will tell you the story of my family, and how food helped us become part of a new community where we were strangers. We came to the United States in 1991 after the Gulf War. At that time we were living in Kuwait, and my husband decided that we should move to a stable country where we could raise our three boys without worries of wars and uncertainty, so we moved to Northern Kentucky. Why Northern Kentucky? Well, my husband had invested in a company there and he thought that Northern Kentucky would be a good base to start our new life.

Our three boys attended Beechwood School, in Fort Mitchell. As you can imagine, it was a difficult transition for them and us. Northern Kentucky is a small and tightly knit community and it is very difficult for a new family not originally from there, and who speak with an accent, to be easily accepted. The boys joined the school’s football team, and we started meeting other parents.

I soon found out that there was one thing in common among all of us: food. So I started joining with the football mothers to take food to football gatherings, picnics, bus trips and other school activities. I started with meat pies, which are basically dough and ground beef, and are the closest thing to pizza. I prepared hummus as a dip with pita chips, then one time I took fried kebbehand the boys on the football team loved them and called them mini-footballs. I also prepared and shared baklawa,making the filling with pecans rather than walnuts so they would have a familiar flavor.

Food broke the barrier between us and the community we were living in, people started asking us questions about the food, and mothers started asking about my recipes. Our house became the place where kids would come and know that they would always find something good to eat… We became part of the community and made some wonderful friends.

What part of the world does The Arab Tablecover?

The Arab world consists of 22 different countries and covers a great geographic span of different terrains and climates. In square miles, it is around 1.4 times the area of the United States.

It was the Arab lands of the eastern Mediterranean where humans first organized into a settled form of society, cultivating grain, domesticating many varieties of livestock, and beginning a non-nomadic lifestyle, establishing villages, towns and cities across the region that promoted diverse skills and occupations. In such a setting, rich and complex societies were established. It was in this same area that the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, originated and in time spread to all the corners of the world.

Your book illustrates the remarkable range of Arab cuisine. Can you tell us about this aspect of your work?

Yes, my book covers the cuisine and food, customs and traditions of many countries in the Arab world. In most cases, you will find that the cuisine of one particular country reflects the produce of that land as well as many years of food development particular to that location. However, all of the countries that are covered in my book are influenced by the foods of neighboring regions, so there is a process of “food exchange” continuously going on.

Common to all Arab cooking is the use of ingredients such as lamb, rice, olive oil and bread. But there are certain ingredients and cooking methods that are more strongly present in one region than another. For example, in Iraq there is a wider use of sesame oil and in Morocco, a greater use of mint and fruits in their cooking; in Egypt, they make extensive use of legumes and grains, while in Lebanon they use fresh vegetables and raw meat as in the preparation of kubeh neyeh(steak tartare). Yemen is one of the most geographically varied of the Arab countries. A long coastal plane lies alongside its southern rim, while its highlands mark the interior and the desert stretches across the eastern region towards the Arabian Peninsula. So, a typical Yemeni meal will be reflective of the varied geography of the country and will typically include a variety of fish, meat, chicken, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage.

As far as the variety of cooking methods, in Lebanon, for example, it is mostly quick cooking reflective of the abundance of fresh ingredients, including vegetables and meats. This reminds me of a recent visit toLebanon. A friend of mine invited me with other friends to her hometown, Zahleh, which is about 55 miles west of Beirut. On our way we stopped by the small city of Chtura in the Bikaa valley. Chtura is well known in Lebanon for its fresh and abundant dairy products. So we stopped there for a breakfast of fresh baked bread, labneh(strained yogurt) with olives, olive oil, fresh white cheese and locally grown cucumbers.

After breakfast we continued on our way to Zahleh. When we arrived there, our host first took us to a butcher shop to pick the meat she needed to make kibbehas well as meat for the safiha(meat pies). After adding fresh spices, we sent the safiha fresh meat directly to the baker. We then stopped at the vegetable market and bought some eggplants and these were also sent to the baker for roasting. We took the kibbeh meat to my friend’s home and started making the kibbeh. Lunch was soon ready. We all sat down and enjoyed a lunch of freshly made kibbeh, salads, roasted eggplant dip, and oven-hot meat pies. That is the traditional preparation of a meal in Lebanon. Fresh ingredients are readily available and food preparation is geared towards that fact.

In the Arab Gulf countries, slow cooking and the extensive use of spices is more common. In Syria, the cooking is labor intensive as most of their food includes the coring and stuffing of vegetables and elaborate meat dishes. In Palestine they have similar foods to Syria and Lebanon, but with an extensive range of savory pastries and sweets. In Tunisia and Morocco, their cooking methods rely on the tajin(earthenware pot) method of cooking.

In your book you link food to the occasions in which it is served. Can you elaborate on this?

Food is what brings people together, love is revealed over food, families gather at the food table. Important events are marked by the food served on that occasion. A wedding table will have a huge selection of food including 4 or 5 large trays of different meats and rice.

The arrival of a baby is marked by the preparation of a caraway and anise seed pudding called mugli that is also beneficial for the health of the new mother.

Nowhere is food more significant than in the observance of religious traditions. I will talk in detail about one of those events: the celebration of the Eid al Adha at the end of pilgrimage. On this occasion, the extended family gets together over a feast of many plates. The first day of the Eid starts with visiting relatives from both sides of the family to exchange holiday wishes and partake in the delicious sweets they always offer. In large families this takes some detailed planning. During the second day it is your turn to receive visitors and offer sweets. However the big event is the feast that is usually offered by the head of the family, and as many family members as the home can accommodate are invited.

On the table, appetizers and salads are presented first, followed by selections of stews. Normally a whole lamb is roasted and presented in the middle of the table on a large tray on top of rice colored with saffron and mixed with delicious spices and ground meat and roasted nuts. Then after drinking mint tea or Arabic coffee, the guests mingle and talk, waiting for the sweets. This normally comes in the form of kunafa, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet syrup that has its origins from the town of Nablus in Palestine. Other sweets and fresh fruits are also presented.

The food served at Eid, as on other Islamic occasions, depends on the time of the year (for the Islamic holidays, the lunar year is observed, so the timing of the celebration varies from year to year) and on the region. But for the most part the above ritual is followed.

Some of the 188 recipes in your book come from family members. Who had the most influence on your cooking, and how did you learn to cook?

My family is the primary source of the recipes and the traditions that I present in The Arab Table. The family members who most influenced me were my grandmother, who allowed me to be with her in the kitchen at a very young age, and my father, who loved food and took me with him during family vacations to many different restaurants and introduced me to a great variety of tastes and ingredients.

When I got married, I was unprepared for cooking and did not know how or where to begin. My husband, Aref, had no idea that I did not know how to cook, and I certainly was not about to tell him. So, together with my grandmother, we hatched a plot. Every day she sent to our home some food she had prepared for us. I actually got away with this for several weeks, but ultimately my husband uncovered our little plot, so my grandmother started to tutor me over the phone. I was terribly unsure of myself, but I was willing to learn.

Then a wonderful thing started to happen. I began to discover an enormous sense of self-satisfaction in making food that other people liked. I found that I was looking forward to entertaining. I even started on my own to experiment with recipes others gave me.

Later, as my skills and interest grew, I sought training from professionals, first in Arab cuisine and later in classical French cookery. This broad education allowed me to re-examine traditional Arab foods with a fresh outlook. I felt freer to experiment with unconventional combinations of food, honoring the rich traditions of the Arab cuisine while not being encumbered by them.

What would you most like readers to take away from your book?

To my mind, above all, food is a cultural experience. There is a large social good to be derived from the study of a different culture. I would like to inspire people to cook recipes from different countries and while they are doing that to imagine the geography of that country, because that tells us how the people live their lives.

We grow in understanding and tolerance when we experience another culture. And what better door to step through than in the most pleasant social experience of eating together?

I would also like to give people a reason to gather more around the table. This is the time when people connect, share, work through their problems, get to know their kids. Food is the essence of our lives.

So if my book gives people one more reason to do that, then I’ve dome some good in the world.

And finally, I truly believe that food is love. Food brings us together. When we eat together we learn more about each other. When we eat the food of a culture we take in the history of the people, their geography, their climate, their stories, their world-view – and we do this in such a pleasurable way that it’s impossible not to deepen our appreciation of each other.


For more information about The Arab Table, and to order a copy, click here.