Where's all our local Arabic cuisine?
TV chef Suzanne Husseini has called for chefs in the Middle East to offer diners more traditional Arabic fare.
Speaking exclusively to Caterer Middle East, Husseini — presenter of the popular cooking show Sohbe Taibe, shown on the Arabic Food Network — explained: “What I’m sad about is that in the Middle East itself, chefs and cooks or Arabic origin tend not to celebrate this cuisine.
“I hate to sound negative, but that’s the tendency. If you tune in on television and watch a chef of Arabic origin, there seems to be a tendency to cook things that are not Arabic.
“There seems to be this idea that if you’re good and skilful and know how to cook, you should be making béchamel sauces, soufflé, crème brulée,” she continued.
“It’s like we believe to prove your worth as a great cook, these are the dishes you should make.
“And yes, it’s wonderful to be able to make a crème brulée; but if you ignore Arabic food, then you’re ruling out the very dishes that are actually the root for a lot of international cuisines,” she pointed out.
Husseini agreed that this preference for creating predominantly European dishes could be attributed to the fact that most of the region's chefs were western-trained.
“The culinary schools [that most of the region’s chefs have attended] teach established ways of cooking, such as French or Italian methods, because they have been well-documented and they can teach the principles behind cooking.
“But just because you learn a French technique, what’s wrong with incorporating that with traditional ingredients? What’s wrong with making a crème brulee, for instance, which is French; but changing the flavour of the custard to make it Middle Eastern,” she questioned.
“This is what I try to do; I change the flavours but use well-known techniques.
“So I’d encourage new young chefs to open up their minds and experiment with the same techniques they’ve been taught, but use them to enhance, optimise and upgrade the dish to something that is really Arabic.
“And I don’t mean to destroy tradition,” Husseini added.
“I am a great believer in tradition too; a lot of dishes stand the test of time because they are great.
“But there’s nothing wrong with presenting something differently. There are new ways, you just have to be creative.”
Husseini is about to start filming for two new cooking shows — one to be shown in Arabic, one in English — geared towards “demystifying” Arabic cusine.
“Who knows why [Arabic food] hasn’t taken off in the way that other cuisines have, but I really believe that it could be as big as French or Italian, because there is enough great food in our culture to appeal to a variety of consumers,’ she said.
“So far, all international cuisines seem to be represented and championed by all sorts of chefs on television; but our cuisine is really under-represented. And I want to help push Arabic cuisine so it gets the recognition it deserves.”
According to Husseini, TV chefs and food-related programmes have done “a great job in introducing the general public to different flavours and ideas”.
“They’ve made it fashionable to be interested in food, new ingredients, home cooking, international flavours, seasonal produce and so on — and have as a result done the industry a great service,” she said.
For more from Suzanne Husseini, see the next issue of Caterer Middle East.