How Food Creates An Unbreakable Connection Between Generations And Cultures
The masterly manipulation of the blade, in the hands of Sutoot, would always lead to instant death – for the poor parsley!!! It had to be cut with the finesse of a surgeon. After all, tabouleh was the Lebanese national salad and only the best would suffice for my Grandma and her admiring horde of children, grandchildren, friends and relatives. She was affectionately known as Sutoot by her grandchildren.
My Sutoot was a pioneer to this country. She migrated from a poor background in the hills of northern Lebanon. She was married and within a short time was on a boat bound for a distant land, Australia. The trip would take a month and she was seasick every day. Cooking was what kept her large family of ten children together. Her mealtime would everyday consist of all the family around the same wooden table I dined on, many years later.
The preparation of mesmeric Mediterranean meals and the enjoyment of such gastronomic delights, from my earliest memory, was a routine family tradition. We would be at my Sutoot’s on those scorching hot Australian summer days before midday, for a feast to ensue. I was naturally entwined with the powers of food, in connecting and enabling beautiful stories to be shared over these lunches. It was a comfortable space where elements of the past, present and beliefs could mesh together.
The chequered red and white tablecloth would gracefully cover the wooden table, with a colourful, wholesome buffet sitting above. Our eyes would dance blissfully over the attention and care that had gone into each plate. No one would begin to eat, until both my Sutoot and Aunty Myrna were seated, and the words “let’s start” were spoken.
While Middle Eastern food was predominantly enjoyed on most days, Sundays were unique from other days in my Sutoot’s Lebanese flavoured household, in that they were for a classic Australian baked lunch. Each week, we would be the lucky consumers of a simple Lebanese zesty and fresh garden salad, consisting of herbs straight from the garden. Baked pumpkin was reduced to its soft and tender flesh, matched perfectly with four overly sized hot oven-roasted chickens.
Everything was truly superb, though the memorable highlight of our Sunday lunch was my Sutoot’s creamy mashed potato. The dish melted like butter, was mouth watering, silky and smooth, as if straight out of Paris, made with the freshest of Australian ingredients. My Mum and I would frequently ask for the recipe. It was explained to a tee, though could never be replicated. I would savour every mouthful never wanting it to end, knowing very well that one day that I would try my best to replicate my Sutoot’s gorgeous recipes.
My obsession transcended through the weekdays too. “Are we going grocery shopping today?” I would ask my Mum at 3.00pm, as she’d pick my siblings and me up from primary school. It was ignited by the excitement that we’d sometimes visit my Sutoot after school on a weekday for dinner. My curiosity caused a natural urge to explore the beginnings of these meals in the local supermarket. There was always a unique vegetable or fragrant herb wafting in the wings.
As a young girl, I would admire my Sutoot and her effortless ability to prepare complex Lebanese dishes that turned out meticulously for her large and hungry family. Upon arrival we would be greeted with a strong and gripping scent of deliciousness, usually garlic, meandering through the air. There would be no need to visit a restaurant when you could enjoy deliciously homemade tabouleh, hummus, kafta, sambousek and cabbage rolls made by Sutoot, from the comfort of your family’s home. All of the entertaining occurred in the kitchen and the cultural relationships were all borne here too.
My fascination with Lebanese food began in the comfort of my Sutoot’s home, with flavours being replicated straight out of her village. Each bite was pure and utter joy, with a burst of something new every time. It was, for my siblings and me, incredibly difficult to critique or imagine an improved version of her recipes. However, my Sutoot and Aunty Myrna would almost always suggest that the food of art required more salt, a touch more lemon, or deeper caramelised onions.
The fondness that my family has for Australia, and simultaneously the acceptance of diverse expression in this country, has forged an unbreakable connection between Sydney, Australia and Barhalioun, Lebanon.
Senior high school days were driven by my enthusiasm for hospitality class. One day, my classmates and I arrived at the kitchen for class, with a scent of braised meat already twirling through the air. We didn’t know where it was coming from, as we were yet to commence cooking. Our wonderful hospitality teacher, Miss Gaskell, led us to the source of the smell on the stove at the back of the kitchen, and removed the lid guarding the contents of the pot.
We looked down at the end result of what had been cooking for some hours, slowly and gently. Vegetables, gravy, tender meat and herbs occupied the view. My classmates and I each had a spoonful. We were blissfully content, but hadn’t a clue of what we had just consumed. “This is kangaroo”, explained Miss Gaskell. It was an ingredient I found to be delicious, and until this point, foreign to my comfort zone. The diversity and removal of limitations on our palates was a regular occurrence, and humbling experience in this class. The seeds of my passion had further been sewn.
Life proceeded to move at an incredibly fast pace. High school turned into university, and then to work. Each day shifted into the next, with little time for anything in between. It was many years later, in the month of March 2020, when the Coronavirus pandemic presented my life with a lot more time to slow down and “smell the roses”!
To get back to enjoying Sunday family lunches is what we were internally craving. To begin sourcing the best quality Australian produce possible, with the glory of diverse specialty items in the mix, awakened our anticipatory palates. To resume learning about different cultures and experiencing in real life those flavours that had only been imagined, ignited the passion furthermore. To begin experiencing the diversity of flavours we are so thankfully able to experience in Australia, was a joy to behold.
I began to search through the delicate authentic Lebanese recipes of my Sutoot. My Aunty Myrna had carefully observed and learned from my Sutoot. She noted down the intricacies of her ways, from zucchini hollowing techniques to favoured product brands, and passed these delicately written recipes onto the next generation. These recipes have enabled us to maintain our connection with Lebanese food and provide us with the closest possible way of replicating my Sutoot’s effortlessly perfect flavours.
Creation of ‘koussa mahshi’ was a pursuit ready to be explored. A dish of hollowed out Lebanese zucchinis, stuffed with lean minced lamb, long grain rice and lots of spices, was bound to produce a fragrant aroma throughout the street and happy people in the home. The experience of transforming the product from its raw form to a presentable plate was vast. My dad would, early in the morning, visit his favourite local butcher to secure the best quality lean minced lamb. I would carefully pick fresh herbs of parsley and mint from our backyard, before watering them lavishly under the freshly awoken daylight to encourage their growth.
I’d had a one-on-one lesson with my Aunty Alma for the hollowing of the zucchinis. Too conservative and you won’t remove enough zucchini flesh, but too firm and you risk poking a hole through the skin, from which the filling would escape. It was a slow, humbling and steadying experience.
We sat around the table and only began to eat when everyone had been served and was present. A rich flavour of tomato and parsley lingered and continued to dance in my mouth before transporting me back in time to eating this exact dish prepared by my Sutoot. Remarks floated around the table such as ‘this is delicious’ and ‘this is nice Bec’. I couldn’t help but be a harsh critic of my own food. I believe more salt and depth of flavour was required, and I was certain my Sutoot would agree.
Though I learned rather quickly through my experiences of cooking for loved ones, you don’t do it for such remarks. Hours of preparation do not occur in spite of the fact that the end result will be demolished within minutes. My passion for food and ability to exert this allows me to feel truly connected to memories of my Sutoot, which is where my enjoyment lies.
The world of food is a graceful and pleasurable way to delve back in time, to escape to a destination yet to be visited, or to walk in the very shoes of those who came before us. The connection that food creates amongst our heritage, our place of residence and intersections between many other countries around the world, is phenomenal. Diversity and curiosity that exist within Australian society, have allowed me to deepen my knowledge of my Lebanese heritage and explore this integral essence of who I am.
A creative writing piece submitted for the SBS Emerging Writers Competition.