Welcome to Daily Amuse-Bouche! Literally translated from French, the term “amuse-bouche” means “mouth amuser,” a bite-size appetizer served at the start of a meal to tickle the taste buds and whet the appetite. In this blog I hope to share with you interesting little bites and gulps of culinary inspiration as I come across them in my daily life.
What you are reading now is not so much my first official post as it is an introduction to the blog, and an explanation of what on earth makes me qualified to talk about food. I apologize in advance for the lengthy post, but I hope that some of you will be able to identify with my food experiences and enjoy reading about them here…
I am an accidental foodie. I didn’t grow up dreaming about one day becoming a chef, restauranteur, food critic, or even that mom who makes the best chocolate chip cookies ever. I ate -as we all do- because I knew that you needed food to survive, and because great food was always a big part of many family and social gatherings. Other than that, for much of my life, food occupied very little of my conscious existence. Of course I always enjoyed mealtimes with my family and friends, many of which were -and remain- loud, festive and abundant. But even during those occasions, I saw food as a secondary component of the event, a means to an end. I may have paused momentarily to admire how juicy those stuffed grape leaves were, or how rich and moist that chocolate cake tasted, but food ultimately seemed like a great excuse to get together. My young mind never considered -nor really cared- why, how, or in what ways food had that powerful, uniting draw.
I vividly remember how much I relished the moments when, as I child, I got to stand on a little stool and help one of my grandmothers pour ingredients into the cake mixer. I loved watching the tiny particles of flour, cocoa and sugar, droplets of vegetable oil, and blobs of egg yolks and butter disappear into oblivion to produce a new mixture that neither looked nor smelled like any of the original individual ingredients. Yet despite keenly enjoying the process, I never thought about it consciously. I simply followed my grandmother’s instructions meticulously, with the firm belief that if this was what Grandma’s time-treasured recipe said, then that was what we would do. I found gratification and a sense of accomplishment in making something that came out of the oven looking, smelling and tasting exactly the same way my grandmother always made it, but never took much of an interest in how it came to be that way. I never questioned what role each ingredient played in the batter (beyond the obvious that sugar made it sweet and oil made it moist), nor wondered what would happen if we changed the proportions of some of the ingredients or added something new. In fact, the latter never even registered as a possibility. Food is a big component of any Arab society, but “good food” has a very precise definition. Much emphasis is put on making food that tastes just right, and “right” is defined by tradition. The average Arab palate, particularly among older folk, is risk-averse; you find a recipe that works, usually one passed down through generations of women in your family, and you stick to it. If the food doesn’t taste like it should, it fails by default. Food is considered a timeless concept, not an evolving one, and tradition is considered paramount.
And so growing up, I was surrounded by the wonderful tastes and aromas of home cooking, most notably those emanating from my grandmothers’ kitchens, as my mom’s busy work schedule unfortunately left her with little time to spend in her own kitchen. Every meal my grandmothers prepared (and continue to do so until this day) was a true labor of love, and my taste buds quickly grew both very fond of, and very used to, those familiar and consistent flavors of my childhood. So much so, in fact, that my own palate became quite risk-averse and I came to be known as a “picky eater.” For years I rejected any kind of labaneh (strained yogurt, very popular in the Middle East as a spread for bread) except the type we had at home, refused to try anything that looked too unfamiliar, and generally had a far shorter list of foods I liked than foods I disliked.
So how, you might ask, did I become a self-identifying “foodie?” I think the answer partly has to do with growing up and developing the maturity, taste buds, and “stomach” to try unfamiliar foods. However, exposure to starkly different cuisines than the one I was so used to was the main contributor to my culinary “emancipation.” Experiences with Japanese, Chinese, Indian, French, and South American cuisines provided a large enough departure from my comfort zone that jolted me out of my limited (but delicious) culinary cocoon. As a child in Amman, I think it was easy enough to gravitate towards my paternal grandmother’s wara’a enab (stuffed grape leaves) or my maternal grandmother’s saniyet kuftah (a casserole-like dish of minced beef and potatoes, with tomato or tahini sauce) over anyone else’s, because everyone I knew cooked the same things, and the dishes were therefore immediately comparable. Juxtapose those dishes against tuna tartare, masala spices, or Kobe beef, however, and the game changes entirely. Those flavors were so different from the ones I knew so well, that I couldn’t even begin to compare them, and was therefore forced to judge them by their own merits rather than against Grandma’s version. More often than not, I liked what I saw (or rather, tasted). And so my food curiosity was awakened. While I continue to immensely enjoy my grandmothers’ comfortingly familiar (and, may I add, absolutely divine) dishes, I now also welcome twists and surprises in my food because they make it so much more interesting. As I explored the growing restaurant scene in my hometown at the time, then eventually moved away from home for university, and continued my travels since, I have discovered the joys of fusion cuisines (such New California and French-Asian), new ingredients (like quinoa, lychee and tapioca), and alternative cooking methods (my favorite and most recent discovery is cooking sous-vide – French for “under vaccuum” – where food is sealed in airtight bags and cooked in an immersion water bath for extended periods). The unusual is now (almost) as welcome on my plate as the dearly familiar.
I do not profess to be a food expert; I will happily admit to my amateur food-lover status. In this blog, I simply hope to share with you some of the key formative experiences that led me to become a foodie, in hopes that you may find them entertaining, informative, or familiar. The transformation from being largely indifferent about food to being borderline obsessed has been nothing short of life-changing, and I know I am not alone. So, as I go about life fawning over clever new kitchen gadgets, oohing about perfectly-ripe avocados at the supermarket, and hyperventilating about the exciting prospect of cooking Thanksgiving dinner in a few weeks’ time, I will share with you tidbits (and yes, I promise they will be shorter than this intro) about food-related experiences, discoveries or reflections, as well as interesting chefs, restaurants, recipes, cookbooks, ingredients, kitchen tools, and any other food-related ideas.
In good health,