Until a few years ago, Suzanne Husseini made her living teaching cookery classes. But after being snapped up by a local TV station and given her own show, she has combined charisma, culinary pragmatism and passion to become one of the most recognisable chefs in the region. To coincide with the launch of her new book, When Suzanne Cooks, she tellsTime Out about her passion for Middle Eastern cuisine and how she’s made traditional dishes her own.
‘I had the good fortune of having a mother who was a wonderful cook, and she was my source of inspiration. I say this to everyone who asks me who it was that made me tick. I also had the good fortune of having a mother who allowed me to cook in the kitchen – not all mothers will do that! They’re queens of their kitchen. But my mother let me make a mess. Those experiences, as long ago as they were, make me a better cook today, because I was allowed to learn. That’s why I cook with no fear – if I make a mistake, so what? I fix it next time.’
Evolution of Arabic cuisine
‘The beauty of Arabic cuisine is that it’s traditional – it’s passed on from generation to generation and things don’t change that much. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it’s obviously worked for hundreds of years, so who am I to come and mess it all up? I wouldn’t dream of that. Instead, I take a traditional dish that I grew up with and I might add a little something to it.
‘For instance, I make okra stew – one of the dishes that my mother always raises her eyebrows at. I make it in the same way she does, but I’ve discovered that when I add orange zest it really enhances the coriander and the tomato. That citrus gives it a really nice, bright taste. My mother used to squeeze lemon into this stew, but I found it was sour, so I just got rid of the sour and put in the orange zest to get that citrusy flavour.’
Making a dish her own
‘I believe that certain dishes have their place in history; they were made because of the ingredients that were accessible at the time. [Sometimes] Arabic food can be really heavy, so I’m inspired to change dishes because I want to make them light. I want to eat this kind of food, but it’s just too heavy the way I’ve eaten it traditionally, so I’ll think of a way to lighten it up. I know cooking techniques that aren’t necessarily Arabic, so I’ll use French techniques on Arabic ingredients. I reinterpret a dish and I make it mine.’
‘I’ve taken [Arabic food] a step further in that I love to present Arabic food because I love it so much. I want to showcase it in different ways. So, if I cook a meal for my friends, I might prepare a roast chicken, which is not traditionally Arabic, but I make Arabic side dishes to go with it, and they go perfectly well. The other day I was making a scone – a typical British scone – and I thought: I want to own this scone… so I added nutmeg, cardamom, dates and orange zest – very exotic flavours to an otherwise bland, buttery pastry, but it works.
‘Food is fair game. If it complements the dish, why not? I don’t have to make an all-Arabic meal, particularly this part of the world. We have similar ingredients and cooking techniques [to Mediterranean countries] – you’ll find similar dishes in Italy and Southern France… we were civilisations that went into one another’s countries and stayed there. We sat at the crossroads of the spice trade. Of course we’re going to borrow and give. That’s what I think makes this cuisine so special.
A meal to try
‘Mou’sakhan is a traditional Palestinian dish, made on large loaves of flatbread, featuring caramelised onions and a really nice ingredient called sumac – a tart spice. I’ve taken this dish and done away with the flatbread, because I want to make it more attainable for people. I want them to eat it for lunch – I don’t want people to be turned off by it. So I’ve created a traditional pastry tart, to which I add black pepper to give it a little zing. I prepare the caramelised onions in the traditional way, with sumac, then I roast a chicken, slice it and serve it on top. I’d serve this for lunch or light dinner.'