Today we’re thrilled to bring you an interview with one of the preeminent cookbook authors of Middle Eastern cuisine: Salma Hage! Salma is Lebanese, a James Beard-nominated author who currently lives in London. She’s joined us to tell us a bit about her life, how food unites us, and share a recipe from her latest cookbook, The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook. It’s one of the best books on Middle Eastern vegetarian cuisine we’ve seen, full of colorful, delicious recipes that we can’t wait to test out. The one we tried, this za’atar spiced butternut squash soup, was an instant favorite in our house. Even our 6-month old son Larson loved it!
Sonja: Tell us about growing up in Lebanon. What are a few of the foods you made growing up that you look back on with the most nostalgia?
Salma: My earliest memories of my family kitchen in northern Lebanon and of watching my grandmother closely, trying to learn as many recipes as I possibly could. I also remember first realizing how much I loved cooking when I was just 9-years old. I made my father a dish called m’juderah (cooked lentils and rice smothered in crispy fried onions). He said: “My darling, that is delicious, you are such a lovely cook”. I am not sure how truthful he was being at the time, but I believed him and there began my love of cooking. I cook from these fond memories still today.
Growing up, cooking was a communal activity–it brought people together. That sense of spreading love through feeding people has never left me.
Sonja: Growing up you ate mostly vegetarian–then after decades of cooking with meat, you returned to cooking more vegetarian again. What prompted the change?
Salma: Yes, eating vegetarian food is largely how I ate as a child growing up in a tiny village, in the mountains of Lebanon. The climate was ideal for growing delicious fruit and vegetables. Meat was something we could rarely afford. In the last few years my family has become vegetarian out of choice, and I have started to re-visit a lot of the recipes I used to cook as a child. My son and grandson are passionate vegetarians and today I cook largely for them. They inspire me tremendously. I am the eldest of twelve siblings so I often did most of the cooking for everyone as a child so my mother could take care of my brothers and sisters. Apple hamlet was a very small village and cooking was a communal activity–it brought people together. That sense of spreading love through feeding people has never left me.
Sonja: We are huge fans of Middle Eastern cuisine. What are a few recipes you’d suggest for home cooks just starting to experience Middle Eastern cuisine?
Salma: First I would recommend to arm yourself with some great Middle Eastern staples such as za’atar (a thyme and sesame seed seasoning) which can be added to almost any vegetable dish, along with sumac (a crushed berry spice) that adds a real kick to simple roast vegetables and soups. They are both great in stews too and sprinkled on almost anything and everything.
Buy pomegranates: they are a wonderful addition to any salad and can really transform a simple dish into something quite exotic. They are not only pretty to look at but add a very unique sweet/sour taste. For desserts, have a good stock of flavored waters in such as rose water or orange blossom. They can give most cakes or cookies a hint of the Middle East.
My traditional recipe suggestions would be to start with something such as Kibbeh. My ‘Nan’s Kibbeh’ is a spicy, sweet version that dates back generations in my family and is still a firm favorite. We have it almost every weekend to this day. ‘Grandma’s eggplant dip’ is a dish I have been cooking for 60 years; it gives real insight into how the simplest of ingredients make something quite wonderful. The eggplant is scorched over an open flame to bring out the flavor, which gives the dip a unique smoky taste.
There are also a few traditional lesser known Middle Eastern dishes that could be a great for home cooks new to this cuisine. Harisa (not to be mistaken with harissa, the Tunisian hot chili paste) is a celebratory barley dish often cooked on days of religious significance, in a huge cauldron at a village gathering. In my book, I have a version for home cooks that is very straightforward. Also, Mograbieh, also known as Israeli, pearl, or giant couscous. The version in the book is smothered in a fresh herb dressing. Recipes such as these are not yet well-known, but very reflective of how we eat in the Middle East.
There are always great challenges that come with being a first generation immigrant in any country.
Sonja: You moved to London from Lebanon. When was this, and what prompted the move? In London, did you ever experience any difference in treatment based on your ethnicity?
Salma: We moved in 1967, exactly 50 years ago. All of my family left Lebanon around this time, since politically it had become a difficult world to live in. At that point I had moved to Tripoli in Lebanon because it had more work opportunities, but with the bigger city came more disruption. It became a unsafe place to raise a family. My aunt and uncle invited us to come and live with them in London as a bit of a safe haven for a short time. We had to borrow the money for the airfare and had no idea where we were going or what we would do when we got there. During out first few years in London, I was so homesick I would take myself to the airport and sit there hoping to hear Lebanese people speak to remind me of home. I found adapting to the language extremely hard. I would work two jobs to take care of my family while trying to learn English in the evenings. After we saved up enough money for our first house in London, we immediately took in lodgers to help us pay our way.
We were always very sociable and so integrated with people in our community very quickly. However, there are always great challenges that come with being a first generation immigrant in any country. I was very honored to this year be included in The Immigrant Cookbook. It is wonderful what diversity of skills and cultures immigrants bring, particularly to places such as London and New York, which makes things like Brexit and Trump so devastating.
Food is such a simple thing, but it has the power to move hearts.
Sonja: In America recently, tensions based on race and ethnicity are high. How can experiencing different food cultures continue to bring us together?
Salma: Food is such a simple thing, but it has the power to move hearts. When we eat cuisine from other cultures, it puts us in a place of empathy for how others live. It gives us some insight into their history, the cultures that have shaped their food choices, and how they live their lives. I find it fascinating that you can take something as simple as a potato and dependent upon whether it has been boiled, roasted, deep fried, baked in cheese, sliced, cooked whole, crumbled, burnt, sprinkled in mint, or doused in yogurt–it will open your eyes to learning about another culture and their adoption of traditions throughout their own history. It gives you an insight into their taste buds and into what makes them tick. Food brings people together. It gives you that sense of place and of family; of home. It is strong enough to create unity and warmth between two worlds that would be otherwise remain so alien.
A huge thank you to Salma for sharing these beautiful words and recipe!
Photo credit Amit LennonPrint
- 1 medium butternut squash, peeled and diced
- 3 carrots, peeled and diced
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups vegetable broth
- 4 tablespoons za’atar, plus extra to garnish, homemade (below) or purchase online)
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame sweeds
- Sea salt and pepper
- Greek yogurt, to serve (optional)
- Flatbread, to serve
- Preheat the oven to 400F.
- Put the squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes in a large bowl and toss with the olive oil, cumin, and 1 teaspoon black pepper.
- Spread them out onto a baking sheet in a single layer and roast for 30 to 40 minutes, or until soft and yielding.
- Transfer the roasted vegetables to a large saucepan over medium heat and add the vegetable broth (stock). Use an immersion (stick) blender to puree until smooth. (Alternatively, combine everything in a food processor and puree.) Add more broth if necessary, until you get a creamy soup consistency. Add the za’atar, salt and pepper to taste, and stir well.
- Serve hot with a sprinkling of za’atar, toasted sesame seeds, and yogurt if desired. Serve with flatbread.
Reprinted with permission from The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook by Salma Hage
- 7 tablespoons fresh thyme, stems removed
- 2 tablespoons dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
- 3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
- 2 teaspoons sumac
- Sea salt to taste
- Preheat the oven to 300F.
- Spread the fresh thyme leaves on a baking sheet and dry in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the leaves crumble easily. Let cool.
- Crumble the thyme with your fingers. Add it to the mortar with the dried thyme, marjoram, sumac, and sea salt and crush with the pestle. Grind until it is very fine, smooth and almost veering towards as moist as it can be without being damp. Then add the sesame seeds and stir before using.
Reprinted with permission from The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook by Salma Hage
More with Za’atar: Homemade Za’atar Pita Chips
More Butternut Squash Soup: Lentil and Butternut Squash Soup with Chard | Simple Butternut Squash Soup | Indian-Spiced Butternut Squash Soup with Crispy Quinoa
Did you make this recipe?
If you make this za’atar-spiced butternut squash soup, we’d love to hear how it turned out. Leave a comment below or share a picture on Instagram and mention @acouplecooks.
This recipe is…
Vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, dairy-free, and gluten-free.
About the Authors
Cookbook Author and writer
Sonja Overhiser is author and recipe developer of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the “best vegetarian cookbooks” by Epicurious, and a recipe developer and healthy & sustainable food advocate behind the award-nominated food blog A Couple Cooks.
Cookbook Author and photographer
Alex Overhiser is photographer and recipe developer of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the “best new cookbooks” by Bon Appetit, and a recipe developer, photographer, and technical expert at A Couple Cooks.