She’s Dressed in a fitted deep purple shirt with matching lilac eyeshadow and 4 inch cork wedges. She’s got the ripe figure I expect on a female chef. I know now why they call her the Nigella Lawson of the Arab world. But would she be flattered or offended? She’s definitely got enough personality not to be compared with others, but Nigella Lawson’s not exactly chopped liver – maybe she’s OK with it.

I’m at the Dubai Ladies Club at a cooking demo with Suzanne Husseini. Lesieur are sponsoring the event, and I’m looking forward to the goodie bag at the end, but Suzanne also promises to make us leave with a word or two in Arabic. She speaks with a perfect Canadian accent, then prattles in French to Marianne from Leisieur. And as she welcomes us she chips into Arabic then chops back to English, sometimes so seamlessly it takes a moment to realise that she’s speaking a different language. And when the women in abayas giggle, I do too, because her body language is so descriptive that I can understand. I think I could learn a language quickly if it was entirely taught to me thus.

Her first recipe is introduced with the phrase “I don’t work with recipes”. And she tells us to put things in or not put them in. I feel more comfortable when she chops a green apple like I do – not like a ninja chef, and mixes the salad (salata) with her bare hands. For a moment I’m in my own kitchen. And when she asks if anyone would like to try the dressing straight out of the mortar, I find myself jumping to my feet and yelling “Me, me!”. The dressing is jeyyid – good. Garlic, lemon juice, lemon and orange rind, other bits and pieces, and bips roman – pomegranate molasses. She scatters pomegranate seeds over the salad at the end, saying they are the “jewlery” – but when we taste the salad, it’s more than that – their fragrant sweetness is integral to the mix.

Couza is next – Courgette fritters. She chops the courgette rather than grating it, because she doesn’t want to release too much moisture. She asks how much chilli we want in the mix, but then ignores the requests of “More, more!”, knowing that the lowest common threshold must be served, because we all taste every dish.  She says “Let’s start with 4 eggs, and see how that goes. We can add more later.” I like her style – she is texturally in touch with her recipe, and encourages us to be too. To me the mix looks quite dry, but she assures us it’s perfect. And when she tastes the finished product she smiles triumphantly and says “No comment!” She serves them with nah nah – mint, and labneh – yoghurt, which she has mixed with Labni – a thick yoghurt achieved by straining the moisture out through cheesecloth.

Next is tarragon (tarrahon, with a guttural ‘h’) chicken salad. She breaks apart pieces of roasted chicken breasts and reminisces about her old kitchen and the stories shared with her friends. “Yalla yalla!” she says, I think it means go, or let’s move on. She mixes mayonnaise and yoghurt together for the dressing, and adds conversation about the confusing and different dialects of Arabic. Laban in Egypt is milk, here it is haleeb. Two Egyptian ladies are now standing at the back, nodding and smiling, and everybody else is leaning forward in their chairs. “Nobody’s bored?” she checks – we are running overtime, but nobody seems to notice. We are all entranced and inspired. Some chatter, but it is all about food. Filfil she says, pepper. a’assal is honey, and crumbling a little flaked sea salt, she states in staccato, nitfi a pinch.

She finishes with pistachio and rosewater crepes stuffed with a ricotta mix and glossy ripe strawberries. She flips the crepe like a pro, and then apologises; she regrets she had to prepare some earlier, we are too many and she has only one pan. And so before we leave they are given to us, drizzled with rose syrup and bescattered with pretty green pistachios. I didn’t realise it was on a paper plate until there was nothing left on it – such a grand little treat it was.

We parted after everyone posed for photos with her, taking with us our fat full bellies, a goody bag of ingredients, a burning desire to buy her new book, and at least seven new words in Arabic.

Halas!

Find more information about Suzanne Husseini here. There are recipies on the site, but you should buy her book – it’s international food with a nitfi of Arabia in every recipe. I dare you to dislike it.

14 thoughts on “shukran ‘ala ‘wnak lii fiil’arabiyya”

  1. Thanks for posting up about it Sarah! I really wanted to go but couldn't cause of a class conflict 🙁 but it's awesome to see your account of it here. Totally gonna try and get my hands on her book too!

  2. First of all I want to say that I really enjoyed reading this, your writing style is beautiful!I remember watching a show called "Sohbe Taybeh" (if literally translated, it means: 'Delicious/Sweet Friendship') where Suzanne Husseini would cook and discuss different topics with her friends. She always cooked wonderful and authentic Middle Eastern food which I loved.Thanks for blogging about this! 🙂

  3. sarah… so well written enjoyed reading your piece on ms. husseini! she is a bit like nigella, i used to watch her on food channel here. all the food sound delicious particularly the crepes, so did you make them at home?

  4. Great stuff Sarah, I'm an avid follower of Suzanne and have been following her ever since I first met her in Aug last year. Got her book too during it's launch – check me out in Hello Magazine (issue 269 Jan 2011!) at Bloomingdales! It's THE book to get. Ever since then I can't stop buying Arabic/Middle Eastern cookbooks! She totally changed my views on ME cuisine. Now I can't get enough of it!!!

  5. Fantastic post Sarah!! We Arabs love Suzanne so much. She makes us proud by always making it a matter to preserve our traditional foods and introducing them to non-Arabs. I really wish I could have attended this session, consider yourself very lucky! I picked up her book last month and can't stop raving about it to all my girlfriends. (it's true, she totally does like like an Arab Nigella Lawson!!)

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