Last week, Ahmad returned from his parents’ home armed with enough shish barak and vermicelli rice to feed a family of four over a few days. He was also visibly upset. The dish of meat stuffed dumplings cooked in goat yoghurt is one of our favorites but it takes almost forever to get done- much like almost all of the signature plates in the Lebanese /Palestinian cuisine.
So my mother-in-law probably had spent a whole morning preparing something we hadn’t asked her for, which made Ahmad angry as he didn’t want her to tire herself. Then again, it can be quite hard convincing that generation that they don’t need to put in that much effort for a meal.
The shish barak proved to be a life-saver the next day after we got stuck in traffic and arrived home an hour and a half later than usual. But I should also mention that there’s an additional bunch of uncooked dumplings in my freezer right now with an accompanying recipe, of many many steps, just waiting to be made.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to doing that, as this is a stark contrast from what we usually prepare in our home: dishes that usually take no more than 30 minutes from prep to service, and generate the least amount of dirty dishes to do after. After all, as much as I love cooking, I have a day job and cannot spend time that is dedicated to rest to re-creating Lebanese food classics.
But to most people in our social circles, that food is described as “dry,” which irks me more than saying my food is under-seasoned or a particular flavor combination just didn’t do it. Almost every conversation about food, even with people in our own age group, ends with them describing what we enjoy as dry and boring- that we will eventually tire of them and return to form. I guess people think that all we ever eat is breaded chicken and french fries (something which I’m not too crazy about to begin with).
After years and years of consuming classic stews involving braised meat (always too chewy to enjoy) and the classic side of vermicelli rice (which is banned in our household), I don’t crave them nor have I ever felt that our diet is lacking. In all the time that I’ve been in charge of my own kitchen, I have only made a traditional stew once- and that was because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it if I wanted to. Hey, I can make caramel without burning myself and the kitchen , so how hard can it be to work with some vegetables?
I love the variability of our current food setup. One day I’ll make a curry, the next a stir fry, then some Italian, or maybe my favorite Kabse. I’ll even throw in something French-inspired before switching to the less-time consuming Lebanese food like kafta in any of its forms. I might even end the week with some comforting Mexican combos. And if I’m too tired to cook? Well, there’s no shortage of places to eat out. Or I’ll just call one of our mothers and see what they’ve prepared.
In recent years, I’ve allowed myself to try new flavors, experiment with different recipes, and go beyond the classic repertoire that my mom, grandmother, and mother in law prefer. That’s not to say that I don’t love the food that I’ve been brought up on- I just don’t see the point of doing nothing else because “Western” food lacks flavor or isn’t as nutritious, as the common thought goes. After all, if the internet has taught me anything, it’s that there’s something for everyone out there- you just have to look for it. Thus labeling all those cuisines as not appetizing or filling-enough becomes uncalled for.
We never go hungry or even dislike the final product. I even get frustrated if I have to eat non-homemade food for more than a day. We just keep trying and trying until we find what we like and that becomes part of our unique signature dishes- ones to always fall back on and use to impress guests.
And of course, give me a full day with nothing to do and someone to help me with the dishes after, and I’ll gladly try making stuffed vine leaves or kibbe. I love food and cooking way too much so I would consider myself a failure if I didn’t at least learn.
But please, don’t try to sell me on stews. That’s not going to happen.