'To Cook Together is to Love and Remember'
Date: 
October 31, 2022

Foods and culinary practices tie us to our homelands. They offer cultural knowledge to new generations, while sharpening the nostalgia for those of us living in the diaspora. A meal is a way to preserve intergenerational memory.

To cook is to love and remember our histories. Our cooking practices cannot be separated from the labors of memory involved in passing down recipes from one generation to the next. I have never written down any recipe that I learned from my mom or grandmother, but my hand and heart (and taste buds) know the steps and do all the work.

I used to work at a small Levantine bakery in Southern California, specializing in making manakeesh. I remember when, on an early Sunday morning, my coworker, Nala* and I were making makdous (oil-cured eggplant) together. It was my first time — she was guiding me.

As we stuffed each eggplant with filling, she stopped and handed me a whole jar of makdous.

“Nourhan, smell.” I did as I was told.

“Nourhan, this smells exactly like what my mom and I used to make back in the blad (Arabic for homeland— here, it refers to Palestine).” She then began to tell me about how she and her sisters would make makdous with their mother. She told me how, whenever she makes the stuffing for the makdous, andher eyes start to burn from the spiciness, She remembers how her mom would gently wash her face, and how it’s this same sensation now that lets her know that the stuffing is ready. She also told me how they would make dozens of jars of makdous to distribute to their neighbors, who would offer them pickled olives, figs, taboon, or almonds in return.

 

The making of makdous. Photo courtsey of Nourhan Abdellatif.

 

Food, culture, memory, nostalgia and oral transmission of knowledge are inextricable.

As Nala walked me through each step of making the dish, she recalled her own memories; she was both remembering Palestine, while passing down a tradition. This is cultural survival in motion.

I am not Palestinian. I am Egyptian, and, as an outsider looking in, this experience turned makdous into a dish of love. When I make makdous now, using Nala’s recipe, I think about her and her siblings sitting in a circle with their mom. I think about her mother’s gentle touch; I think about her neighbors, about community. This intimate reproduction of Palestinian cuisine and sharing of recipes adds to the Palestinian collective memory, while connecting the rest of us to Palestine.

This past Ramadan, Nala and I met again to cook together. She taught me how to make kunafa Na’meh. We were joined by co-workers from the bakery, in a sweet act of communion. We started making the dough and, as we were mixing the semolina, the flour, the salt, and the ghee together, I asked Nala if she remembers the first time she had kunafa.

“No I don’t remember the first kunafa – who does? But to be honest, I didn’t like kunafa at all in any form until I got married and moved to America. Back home, I used to pick it apart, the cheese first and then the dough. When I moved here, I started liking it a lot. It has become one of my favorite desserts, my children’s too.”

 

The kunafa. Photo courtsey of Nourhan Abdellatif.

 

We continued mixing the dough together, trying to delicately balance the ghee and water so it would have the perfect consistency. I asked Nala why her taste buds changed once she moved.

“When I came here, everything was new. I came with my husband; I was pregnant and didn’t speak English… I wanted something that reminded me of home. So, I made Kunafa and I loved it, and I made mesakhan and I loved it, and I made mjdaraa and I loved it! All of the dishes that I hated in Palestine, I loved when I came here… and all of the dishes that I loved in Palestine, I loved even more here! And my children too, they love all the food I make for them. But they have never been to Palestine.”

Nala and I continued to make kunafa together, soaking the cheese, grinding the dough and sifting it, assembling kunafa, and finally heating it over the stove. She taught me all her tricks and I diligently followed along. This process wasn’t just one of acquiring cultural knowledge through food: it showed me how national foods help solidify diasporic identities. kunafa isn’t just the food itself; it's a cultural symbol, it's the memory of sharing it with family, it's the recollection of being back at home. Nala wanted to feel at home, so she made food that reminded her of home – cooking keeps memories alive.

As we took the first cheesy, sweet bites of the kunafa, Nala told me:“Next time you will teach me how to make Egyptian feteer meshaltet, and I will be the interviewer.”

*Nala is not her real name.

About The Author: 

Nourhan Abdellatif is a food enthusiast who is dedicated to transnational solidarity and direct action stemming from Palestine to her beloved Egypt to Turtle Island. She loves baking, reading, and cats. 

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