Why the Palestinian-born celebrity chef is the face of modern Arabic food
Until a few years ago, Suzanne Husseini made her living teaching cookery classes. But after being snapped up by a local TV station and given her own show, she has combined charisma, culinary pragmatism and passion to become one of the most recognisable chefs in the region. To coincide with the launch of her new book, When Suzanne Cooks, she tellsTime Out about her passion for Middle Eastern cuisine and how she’s made traditional dishes her own.
‘I had the good fortune of having a mother who was a wonderful cook, and she was my source of inspiration. I say this to everyone who asks me who it was that made me tick. I also had the good fortune of having a mother who allowed me to cook in the kitchen – not all mothers will do that! They’re queens of their kitchen. But my mother let me make a mess. Those experiences, as long ago as they were, make me a better cook today, because I was allowed to learn. That’s why I cook with no fear – if I make a mistake, so what? I fix it next time.’
Evolution of Arabic cuisine ‘The beauty of Arabic cuisine is that it’s traditional – it’s passed on from generation to generation and things don’t change that much. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it’s obviously worked for hundreds of years, so who am I to come and mess it all up? I wouldn’t dream of that. Instead, I take a traditional dish that I grew up with and I might add a little something to it.
‘For instance, I make okra stew – one of the dishes that my mother always raises her eyebrows at. I make it in the same way she does, but I’ve discovered that when I add orange zest it really enhances the coriander and the tomato. That citrus gives it a really nice, bright taste. My mother used to squeeze lemon into this stew, but I found it was sour, so I just got rid of the sour and put in the orange zest to get that citrusy flavour.’
Making a dish her own ‘I believe that certain dishes have their place in history; they were made because of the ingredients that were accessible at the time. [Sometimes] Arabic food can be really heavy, so I’m inspired to change dishes because I want to make them light. I want to eat this kind of food, but it’s just too heavy the way I’ve eaten it traditionally, so I’ll think of a way to lighten it up. I know cooking techniques that aren’t necessarily Arabic, so I’ll use French techniques on Arabic ingredients. I reinterpret a dish and I make it mine.’
Cultural crossover ‘I’ve taken [Arabic food] a step further in that I love to present Arabic food because I love it so much. I want to showcase it in different ways. So, if I cook a meal for my friends, I might prepare a roast chicken, which is not traditionally Arabic, but I make Arabic side dishes to go with it, and they go perfectly well. The other day I was making a scone – a typical British scone – and I thought: I want to own this scone… so I added nutmeg, cardamom, dates and orange zest – very exotic flavours to an otherwise bland, buttery pastry, but it works.
‘Food is fair game. If it complements the dish, why not? I don’t have to make an all-Arabic meal, particularly this part of the world. We have similar ingredients and cooking techniques [to Mediterranean countries] – you’ll find similar dishes in Italy and Southern France… we were civilisations that went into one another’s countries and stayed there. We sat at the crossroads of the spice trade. Of course we’re going to borrow and give. That’s what I think makes this cuisine so special.
A meal to try ‘Mou’sakhan is a traditional Palestinian dish, made on large loaves of flatbread, featuring caramelised onions and a really nice ingredient called sumac – a tart spice. I’ve taken this dish and done away with the flatbread, because I want to make it more attainable for people. I want them to eat it for lunch – I don’t want people to be turned off by it. So I’ve created a traditional pastry tart, to which I add black pepper to give it a little zing. I prepare the caramelised onions in the traditional way, with sumac, then I roast a chicken, slice it and serve it on top. I’d serve this for lunch or light dinner.'
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Bahir keldany Jan 12, 2011 12:52 pm
I also like mixing some traditional food from various countries. You get at the end very rich flavors. try for instance The some salmon slices with tabbouleh instead of the regular "salmon salad"
ozan opsin Jan 11, 2011 10:14 am
Marhaba.Today,it is the first time I am hearing you about yourself.It is good that celebrity and famous chef becoming from the Arabic countries like chef Ramzi from Lebanon,you from Filistin...
I am Turkish and resident both in UAE and Turkey.I have been interested in Lebaneese and Filistin cousine since 1995 because of my Arabic friends from London studentship times.
Although I am interior architect,my another business is food.I have restaurant and used to give cooking classes.I love cooking,my passion.
At 2005 one Turkish channel invited me to cook at TV show.I told them that I wanted show Arabic cousine because Turkish people has not info about this couisine,just they know it kabab culture ,which we have as well.
The show time was limited with 30 minutes,I wanted to show someting quick and easy alos represent its culture.... So decided to prepare to dish which is Mou'sakhan and tabboule.I cooked it,, was great,the people had idea about your culture and taste.The studio was 3 floor down of general management floor.During cooking,GM came to stage because of extraordinary smell at upstairs.He tasted and got the recepie from me for his wife.
I was very happy to show something which is foreign to my citiziens.
What a bad coincidence is ,while I was on the cooking show,the news came on the screen about Yaseer Arafat death.This situation was impressed me a lot.
If you come one day to Turkey,or need anything from here,please let me know.I will be happy to meet with you and share our common couisne culture since Ottamans.
Here it is my Mou'sakhan memory.I would like to share with you and reading public.
Marwan Hawa Jan 09, 2011 04:42 am
Fantastic, anyway i like Suzanne`s stuff.
Thanks Oliver again :)
Nadia Jan 07, 2011 07:51 pm
Fantastic article. I absolutely adore Arabic food and this looks like a fabulous book. Great going Suzanne! I look forward to attending one of your demos around Dubai someday!