With the current political climate, cooking and baking can sometimes feel like a trivial pursuit. Luckily lots of fellow food bloggers across North America have been busy this winter finding creative ways to highlight food’s power to connect, comfort, and speak loudly in times of crisis. One of these initiatives was the #immigrantfood campaign started by celebrity chef David Chang (of Momofuku fame) and widely adopted by the food blogging community, which Kelsey and I found immensely inspiring. 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd generation immigrants from all over the world (but especially the U.S.) shared recipes from or inspired by their homeland, using the hashtag to create a community of pride and support. Amazingly, the campaign really underlined how much of our Western food culture is already influenced by other cultures. Several websites, including the New York Times, also published lists of recipes from the seven banned nations as a show of solidarity.
To show our support for and solidarity with the movement, Kelsey and I reached out to a fellow Vancouver food blogger who we’ve admired for a long time – Abdallah El Chami of The Dallah Menu. Dallah’s recipes are inspired by his Lebanese/Saudi heritage and marry the best parts of traditional Middle Eastern cooking with Western influences in surprising (and delicious) ways. Take these Baklava Pancakes, for instance, or Halloumi Fries, or the recipe for sesame pistachio cookies below. Dallah has a knack for making the familiar feel exciting and different, and the exciting and different feel familiar, which is something I think we can all agree is a necessary talent to have around these days. Talking on the phone last week, he shared his own immigrant story with us and discussed how his family food heritage has contributed to his own cooking practice.
Check out a condensed version of our conversation below!
S: What is the Dallah Menu about? Why did you start this blog?
D: Well it all started because I was cooking a lot as a hobby. It’s always something that I’ve been really interested in. I started when I was a teenager and would do it on and off throughout the years. It was always something that, when I was doing it, my attention was always with the food. So, throughout the years I was dabbling in so many different types of food until I finally realized that I really wanted to concentrate on something that’s from my roots. When I started working more on Lebanese food and Middle Eastern food, people were really interested in those flavours and those techniques and the different types of food that come from the Middle East. So, I honestly started the blog to mostly catalog for myself, to get the practice of really writing stuff down after I tested it and placing it somewhere that I have access to, and at the same time giving people access to it too, so they can try something new that might not be like every other recipe on the internet.
S: Cool. And are you from Lebanon then?
D: Yes. So I was born in Saudi Arabia, but both my parents are Lebanese. And then I grew up between the Middle East and Canada.
S: Ok, neat. Can you tell me a little bit about your immigrant story?
D: So, after I was born in Saudi Arabia – my parents had been there because they left Lebanon during the civil war, probably in the 1980s – a year and a bit after that, the Gulf War had begun. So, they had to leave again. And they went over to Oregon where my mom’s brothers were. And they [the U.S.] wouldn’t allow us to stay under refugee status, so we actually had to get into a van and drive up to Vancouver where my parents knew someone who knew someone that was settling in Vancouver. We got to the border and my parents had to convince them to give us refugee status because we couldn’t go back to Saudi Arabia and we couldn’t go back to Lebanon. And they ended up allowing us to stay, which is very topical for what’s going on right now [laughs].
S: Yeah, totally! Wow. So is there much of a difference between Lebanese food and Saudi Arabian food?
D: We share a lot, but there are instances where you’ll start seeing differences because most Saudi Arabian food – now they borrow a lot from the rest of the Middle East – but a lot of it was nomadic food. So a lot of goat or lamb, a lot of rice dishes, things that are made in very big quantities to feed large camps of people.
S: Ok. And Lebanese food is not like that?
D: It’s a little different. It’s closer to the style of Spanish dining, I would say. So, similar to a tapas, Lebanese food has what they call a “mezze”. There’s a lot of small dishes on a table that come before whatever the main dish would be. So usually you’ll see things like hummus, salad, stuffed grape leaves, pickles, breads and then eventually you’ll reach grilled meats or grains or different kinds of food that are the main course, which comes after all the finger food.
S: Oh yeah. So delicious. So obviously your family and your roots have a big influence on your cooking. What are some of your favourite recipes from your childhood?
D: Huh, that’s a good question. To be honest, it’s hard to pick one or two things that stand out, but there are the typical things that resonate a lot with the Western world, like hummus was always a table favourite. And when my mom made shawarma at home, that was always a big day. There’s even a dish that’s more Saudi than it is Middle Eastern and it’s called kabsah, which is sort of a big rice pilaf with tomatoes and carrots and onions and roasted chicken or marinated lamb that sits on top and that’s one of those big Saudi Arabian dishes that’s shared throughout the country. But it’s something that has become borrowed throughout the Middle East.
S: That sounds good. And how do you work with those recipes to make them new again? I notice on your blog, for example, the apple walnut baklava. That’s not the traditional baklava.
D: Right. I tend to stay away from the word “fusion” just because it is very played out and it’s getting a certain connotation. But I think, naturally, food has always evolved through travel, through trying something new. With a lot of traditional Arab food there’s always just the way to make it. So, I’ll take something that’s traditional and it could be as simple as thinking maybe it could be plated differently to trying to take things from both cultures that I share and putting them together.
The baklava was as simple as baklava being the sweet that’s served after dinner that’s common to me. What is something in the Western world that’s so typical to be served at the end of dinner? Pie. And one of my favourite pies is an apple pie. I started thinking, I’ve never heard of fruit being inside of a baklava even though they both share the same characteristics – sugar, cinnamon, some sort of flaky dough. They share a lot of the same characteristics, yet they’ve never met before. So how do I try and meld them and see if it works?
When I put them together, it was just taking a baklava and giving it a mild addition of the apples that get baked into it and it was great to see the reaction of people on both sides – people who have had baklava before who are used to it and people who are more used to apple pie – watching them discover this new combination.
S: Yeah, I want to try it! [laughing]. This is kind of a cliche question, but what part of blogging do you like the most?
D: My favourite part about the whole thing is what sort of outcomes come from it, whether it’s conversations or meeting people or starting a new project – all that kind of stuff. And really helping people discover that food because, really, through all of this – my goal was never to be a full-time blogger or a full-time food stylist or food photographer. It was really “How can I gather as much skill in this facet of food as possible to eventually take me somewhere else?”
I’ve been able to connect with many people all over the world because of food blogging. There’s someone who I had never met in real life who was connecting with me from Mexico and she just really liked the aesthetic of the food and the type of food that I was doing and she would ask me questions. We just knew each other from social media and blogging. Then I had a pop up that happened to be at the same time that she was visiting Vancouver and she got to come and actually try the food and we met in person and it was just a really cool experience to create a relationship through food across the world.
S: Oh yeah that’s so amazing. So are you a chef right now?
D: No. I have such an odd path because the goal for me was never to be a day-to-day chef. If it was for me to open my own place, then I would love to. But it’s hard – and I’ve seen it because I have a lot of friends in the industry – being a chef for someone else because your creativity almost gets put into a box. I’ve always been in the tech industry. I’ve worked for a lot of startups and social media companies, and right now I’m working part-time for a company called Foodee, which matches a little bit of what I do. They deliver food to businesses from local restaurants. So I try to find things that match my interests until I find the right space.
S: Right, cool. Ok, final question. What is your favourite recipe that you’ve created for the blog?
D: Hmm, that’s an interesting one. Again, I have such a hard time ranking things, but I created a recipe for a blog called Eat Grain and it was a mujadra recipe. It’s a typical Lebanese lentils and rice dish, very homey. But it’s such a healthy thing to eat and something you can eat every day. I remember Shira, who owns that blog, she posted it on Eat Grain’s blog and her personal blog and she was just really happy with it. For me, that’s how I would see something being my favourite recipe. It’s not necessarily how it tastes to me, but how many people can share that.
S: Ok, ok. What is a recipe that you’ve struggled to perfect, that maybe – I don’t know – haunts you?
D: [laughing] I’m currently developing a baklava popsicle. So, it’s so difficult because when you have things that include freezing and keeping things at a certain temperature when you’re creating the base and all that kind of stuff there’s so many variables that require a lot of time. So you can’t just fix it on the fly. It’s just like baking. Like once you’re in there, you’re in there. Once it’s in the oven, it’s in. So it’s been a challenge because it’s a popsicle where the inside needs to stay crunchy and the outside is a walnut ice cream that is milk based. So I’ve done it about four times now and only nailed it once. Trying to replicate it has been quite the endeavour.
S: [laughing] I can imagine. It sounds good though.
The recipe for Sesame Pistachio Cookies below has been reprinted here with permission. Visit the Dallah Menu for the original!
- 1 and 1/4 Cups Powdered Sugar
- 3 Cups flour
- 1 Tsp Baking Powder
- 2 Eggs
- 1 Cup of Butter
- 2 Tsp Vanilla
- 2 Tsp Lemon Juice
- 1 Cup Pistachios - Chopped
- 1 Cup Sesame seeds
- Pinch of Salt
- Rose Syrup (Optional)
- Cut up the butter into small cubes and allow them to soften at room temp.
- Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside.
- Use separate bowl to combine the butter and sugar into a cream using a hand mixer (alternatively you can use a food processor).
- And one egg at a time and beat them into the mix.
- Add Vanilla.
- Add Lemon Juice.
- Continue to mix till everything is incorporated.
- Begin to slowly add the flour mixture while mixing, just till everything is combined.
- Once combined, take the dough in your hand and work it into a smooth ball.
- Set it aside in the fridge for an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Place the chopped pistachios and sesame seeds each in a shallow bowl.
- Line a baking tray with parchment paper.
- Take pieces of the dough and roll into small bowls that you will flatten out into about 2 inch diameter discs.
- Once you make a disc place it on the pistachios and pat down a little to get some to stick.
- Flip the disc and pat it down in the sesame seeds (I like to roll the edges in it too to get full coverage).
- Place the disc on the tray.
- Depending on if you'd like the cookies to be a bit sweeter you can put a layer of rose syrup (recipe coming soon, honey is a good substitute.) on the top before baking. It adds a sweetness and a gloss to the top of the cookie.
- Place the tray in the oven and baking for 15 minutes - at that point check if the bottoms are golden brown.
- If they are done, place them on a rack to cool for 5-10 minutes.
- Serve with tea or coffee.