There has too much that has been said about loss, about death, about coming to terms with the gravity of the situation, about moving on, about honoring a person’s memory, about taking what they taught you and making them proud of you even if they couldn’t physically be there.
But for me, that particular realization would come four years later, while standing in a too-small kitchen in an apartment I share with two girls who had been complete strangers only a few months ago, on one Monday afternoon, tossing spices, onions, and parsley into a bowl containing about half a kilo of minced beef.
That was about three weeks ago and I was making kafta, which is relatively unheard of in the Netherlands though widely available back where I’m from.
Kafta is one of the reasons I can never be a vegetarian. One of the staples of Lebanese cuisine, I’ve grown up eating this meat in several, but equally delicious forms: grilled on skewers, cooked or baked with potatoes in tomato sauce, as meatballs with yogurt, and perhaps my most favorite: arayes(sandwiches): a thin layer of the meat placed between two flaps of pita bread and toasted.
What made the whole dish even more special to me- and my family- was the fact that it was one of the many products of my grandfather’s labor of love.
As a butcher, he spent many hours working to provide the neighborhood where his shop was located, as well as friends and family, with their meat. And his kafta was always the highlight: as though some secret ingredient was tossed in that just amplified all the goodness.
To be honest, growing up, I didn’t care much for the technicalities. The smell of raw meat was, and continues to be to some extent, repulsive to me and the image of a cow’s carcass hanging in the shop’s window- unhygienic as I would later come to know- was enough to make me turn away in shock. In my mind, the butcher and my grandfather were two separate people.
One would give me my food, the other would give me love, attention, and instill a set of values that I continue to live by.
When my grandfather passed away, and after the shock had settled in, an unspoken vow was formed, at least in my mind, that we would never completely come close to recreating one of the things he did best nor would we ever find a blend that came close to it.
This was when I began to realize that the two people I had long since separated were actually one. As we kept looking for kafta that had at least a semblance of taste in it- because some were really inedible or unchewable- I often found myself feeling like I was betraying his memory.
But truly, it took me until two days before the four anniversary of his death to come to an understanding of why the kafta could not be replicated.
I had been craving kafta insanely, seeing as that I had not had it since leaving Beirut, and after consulting many online cooking resources and deciding my cooking abilities could handle such a task, I set out to get all the ingredients and spend time in that room they like to call a kitchen.
I worked gradually and delicately, trying to throw in the right mix of spices to the finely chopped onions and parsley before introducing the beef.
There was something oddly therapeutic about kneading the meat until the other material was evenly distributed. Like I said, I was working delicately, afraid that if I would mess this up, I’d disappoint both myself and my grandpa. Often, I would stop to laugh at how incredulous this situation was: had I never decided to live abroad, I would have never been forced to do this.
Perhaps even forced is a wrong word.
I wanted to do this. I wanted to know why for years on end we associated this whole process with jeddo. I wanted to discover why it tasted so differently from all the other kinds I tried. I wanted to make him proud of me, even in his death, though I already knew I didn’t even have to do anything, that I had done enough.
Slowly, the chunk of meat became smaller balls, suitable to be cooked in tomato sauce- yet, I was still unsure if I had did this right. So I did the only logical thing, I made a small aarouset kafta, anxiety filling me as I waited for the bread to toast up just the way I liked it.
And guess what?
It tasted exactly the same as I remembered.
That’s when the realization hit me. The missing ingredient, the one that made it come together, wasn’t a spice or the way the onions were cut up, not even the meat quality.
It was love.
He had loved us deeply, going to lengths just to see us happy and smiling and he was proud of even the smallest thing we did. And one of his ways of showing that was rewarding us through what he did for a living.
And my little experiment had succeeded because I was working towards honoring him and his memory, that while spending that hour or so in the kitchen, I felt he was there, that my attempt was also an attempt at returning his love in some weird karmic way.
Honestly? It was one of the proudest moments of recent history- and I may have teared up just a bit when I gobbled up the final product.