“The excitement, romance and chaos of the cooking world were still mysterious, though intoxicating. I always felt a little off center, a little left behind, but always found my calling in cooking. I started experimenting by preparing dishes cooked in an empty tuna can over a self-made fire and then eating it.”
This is how my mother’s childhood diary begins. I read about her heart tugging memories and how she compiled her mother’s recipes. She writes about wanting to capture the colours, aromas, textures and tastes of my Teta’s (grandmother) dishes. This was in a book that was going to be a gift for the family for Christmas and I agreed to help her bring it to fruition.
The book project opened my eyes to my own fascination with cooking. It added meaning and flavour to the dishes that were passed down to me from my mother because of the beautiful stories they were associated with. I think of self-discovery and creativity every time I remake my mother’s tuna salad sandwich recipe: finely diced green peppers, celery, red onions and light mayo spread on toasted brown bread slices. I think of one of her quotes: “Taste is a culmination of an experience, a moment, a love, a person and it can never exist in the absolute, but rather in the soul.”
Another dish and activity that resonates with my mother’s upbringing is maamoul. A typical Middle Eastern biscuit, maamoul is made at special occasions such as Easter or Eid out of semolina flour filled with either dates, pistachios or walnuts. I wouldn’t dream of venturing into the making of maamoul without my mother’s involvement. I book the date with her months in advance to make sure she presides over the process as general, just as my great grandmother did for her.
My mother shows up at my kitchen with the ingredients that no-one is allowed to purchase except her. She makes sure the almonds, semolina flour and rose water are of the highest quality, and she brings with her my great grandmother’s tweezers, which are essential to leave pretty designs on the biscuits.
I follow her around the kitchen like a lost puppy, observing and taking notes. I taste every chance I get because her recipe is scribbled in a code that only she can decipher. The key to recreating it is through my taste buds.
My mother learned the maamoul code from my great grand mother, who was an ingenious maamoul maker. People used to say “you could pick her one maamoul from all the maamoul on offer.” Her maamoul stood out not only because of its syrupy rosewater emulsion, but because of its almond filling – a total departure from the expected. My mother still reminisces about her childhood, “the trays were filled with Easter delicacies arranged on the table, and some on the floor, awaiting to be sent to the baker in the late afternoon because the temperature in the ovens would have subsided by then, after the heated workload of the day.”
She makes sure that her maamoul looks exactly like her own Teta’s: slightly plump with rosewater nectar oozing outside every biscuit and forming a caramelized but chewy crust. She says, “it might have been offensive to the eye, but it was a feast to the taste buds!”