I was fortunate recently to talk with Sawsan Abu Farha, prolific creator of the food blog Chef in Disguise. Always thrilled to meet someone as charmed as I am by food’s power to bring people together, I was doubly excited about interviewing someone familiar with foods and cooking styles that I’ve had few opportunities to experiment with in my own kitchen. Chef in Disguise delivers on its promise of “easy authentic Middle Eastern recipes and much more” in a lively way that has earned an enthusiastic new follower in me, and after this interview touching on subjects from the internet’s dearth of authentic Arabic recipes to the secret recipe club of which she is an active member, no doubt in many of you as well.
Flavorful World: Tell us about your most recent restaurant experience that inspired an update to an existing one of your recipes.
Sawsan Abu Farha: I have recently moved from Jordan to Ras Al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates. The gulf cuisine is quite different from that of the Levant. It focuses on rice, meat and spices while in the Levant the focus is on fresh herbs, olive oil and vegetables. Our favorite restaurant here in Ras Al Khaimah is called “madfoon al siddeh.” It specializes in rice dishes. Although all of their dishes are basically rice, meat and spices but they use amazing spice blends that make each dish a totally new and unique experience. Although I already have quite a few rice pilafs and rice based recipes on my blog, their take on them made me rethink my recipe collection. I plan on adding a few “gulf-inspired” rice dishes to the blog as soon as I perfect the recipes
FW: What is the most significant thing you’ve learned about global cuisine since starting Chef In Disguise? How has it affected your cooking methods?
SAF: I think the most significant thing that I have learned is that there are more things that bring us together as humans than those which set us apart. Every cuisine uses food to comfort, to celebrate, to remember. As a result I try to communicate that in my posts and recipes: the human element, the cultural and the emotional connections that makes you smile when you think of your mother’s cookies or your grandmother’s soup.
FW: Create a 3-course meal (appetizer, a main course, and a dessert) with each course native to a different region of the Middle East, and all three sharing a common ingredient of your choice.
SAF: Since summer is almost over and we are heading into fall, I’ll go with pumpkins.
Candied Pumpkin is a Turkish recipe, Pumpkin with Lentils and Tomato Sauce is Palestinian, and the Pumpkin Soup is a recipe you find in many middle eastern countries but I got it from a Lebanese friend. It was her family’s recipe.
FW: August 29th was National More Herbs, Less Salt Day. Tell us four fresh herbs that you consider to be staples in your kitchen? What is one herb that you have not used much but look forward to experimenting with in the future, and why?
SAF: I love fresh herbs! Every spring I plant some mint, rosemary and oregano in pots that I keep by my kitchen window. Those three along with parsley are staples in my kitchen. You see, I try my best to eat a salad every day and fresh herbs go a long way to keeping my salads from becoming boring. I also use these herbs frequently in my cooking and baking.
As for the herb that I have not used much, it has to be dill. Growing up my mum never used dill,I only started experimenting with it after I started my blog. I love its unique flavor note and would like to explore using it more.
FW: What is your favorite thing about being a member of the Secret Recipe Club?
SAF: I can’t really pin point one thing, there are really quite a few things I like about this club. The fact that the members come from different countries and different backgrounds. Each blog tells a story about their writer’s unique experience. So each month I get a chance to explore a new country, a new cuisine, and a new story.
Added to that, I think of the secret recipe club as my chance to try recipes that have been on my (must try list). If I have to choose a recipe and make it, then I’ll choose something new and have fun with it. Last but not least, I love the anticipation and the surprise element, whose blog will I get this month, who got mine, what did they make and what did they think of it.
FW: You mention that part of what drove you to create Chef In Disguise was what you perceived as a certain lack of authentic, “insider’s” views of Arabic cuisine whenever you searched for recipes online. Do you think this lack has been reduced at all since you started your blog? Why or why not?
SAF: I think the lack is still there. Despite the fact that there is a huge number of Arabic sites dedicated to cooking and baking, they sadly only provide their content in Arabic. We need more blogs and websites that write about the Arabic cuisine in other languages. You also have to keep in mind that the Arabic cuisine is composed of multiple sub cuisines. The Levant, the gulf, The Egyptian-Sudanese,the Moroccan and the West African. One blog or a few can’t cover all that or substitute for the lack of authentic recipes in all of these categories.
FW: You cite Italian and Mexican cuisines as personal favorites. What attracts you to each of these cuisines? What is your favorite comfort food in each respective field, and why?
SAF: In the Italian cuisine, I love the use of herbs and fresh ingredients. I think of Italian food and I can almost smell the basil and taste the juicy tomatoes. If I have to name my favorite Italian comfort food,I’d rather give you a list! but if I need to choose just one, it has to be focaccia with rosemary and sea-salt. The smell of it baking in the oven alone is heavenly.
As for Mexican food, I love the bold flavors. Everything is intense, the colors, the spices, the flavor combinations.
My favorite Mexican recipe is guacamole, I love the combination of creamy avocados, juicy tomatoes, and the sweet sharpness of the onions.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
SAF: “The Middle Eastern, a Food Adventure”
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
SAF: I have quite a few hobbies that compete with cooking: reading, photography, drawing and doing crafts.
*Note to readers: The Chef in Disguise is as active online as she is in the kitchen. You can follow her continuing culinary process of creation, experimentation, and her secret recipe club exploits via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and Instagram. Something exciting and delicious-looking is always cooking, so be sure to follow along as she serves up greatness we can all taste.