Salma: First I would recommend to arm yourself with some great Middle Eastern staples such as za’atar (a thyme and sesame seed seasoning) which can be added to almost any vegetable dish, along with sumac (a crushed berry spice) that adds a real kick to simple roast vegetables and soups. They are both great in stews too and sprinkled on almost anything and everything.
Buy pomegranates: they are a wonderful addition to any salad and can really transform a simple dish into something quite exotic. They are not only pretty to look at but add a very unique sweet/sour taste. For desserts, have a good stock of flavored waters in such as rose water or orange blossom. They can give most cakes or cookies a hint of the Middle East.
My traditional recipe suggestions would be to start with something such as Kibbeh. My ‘Nan’s Kibbeh’ is a spicy, sweet version that dates back generations in my family and is still a firm favorite. We have it almost every weekend to this day. ‘Grandma’s eggplant dip’ is a dish I have been cooking for 60 years; it gives real insight into how the simplest of ingredients make something quite wonderful. The eggplant is scorched over an open flame to bring out the flavor, which gives the dip a unique smoky taste.
There are also a few traditional lesser known Middle Eastern dishes that could be a great for home cooks new to this cuisine. Harisa (not to be mistaken with harissa, the Tunisian hot chili paste) is a celebratory barley dish often cooked on days of religious significance, in a huge cauldron at a village gathering. In my book, I have a version for home cooks that is very straightforward. Also, Mograbieh, also known as Israeli, pearl, or giant couscous. The version in the book is smothered in a fresh herb dressing. Recipes such as these are not yet well-known, but very reflective of how we eat in the Middle East.
Sonja: You moved to London from Lebanon. When was this, and what prompted the move? In London, did you ever experience any difference in treatment based on your ethnicity?
Salma: We moved in 1967, exactly 50 years ago. All of my family left Lebanon around this time, since politically it had become a difficult world to live in. At that point I had moved to Tripoli in Lebanon because it had more work opportunities, but with the bigger city came more disruption. It became a unsafe place to raise a family. My aunt and uncle invited us to come and live with them in London as a bit of a safe haven for a short time. We had to borrow the money for the airfare and had no idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. During out first few years in London, I was so homesick I would take myself to the airport and sit there hoping to hear Lebanese people speak to remind me of home. I found adapting to the language extremely hard. I would work two jobs to take care of my family while trying to learn English in the evenings. After we saved up enough money for our first house in London, we immediately took in lodgers to help us pay our way.
We were always very sociable and so integrated with people in our community very quickly. However, there are always great challenges that come with being a first generation immigrant in any country. I was very honored to this year be included in The Immigrant Cookbook. It is wonderful what diversity of skills and cultures immigrants bring, particularly to places such as London and New York, which makes things like Brexit and Trump so devastating.