How I turned cooking from a chore to a passion
It was around two and half years ago, on a sunny spring morning that I sat on my balcony in Beirut deshelling fresh fava beans. My mom calls me a perfectionist, and as much as I try to prove her wrong, that morning was a great example of my perfectionism getting the best of me. As a dietitian, and wife of one year, I was trying to do things right. Fresh and seasonal, full of nutrients, home-cooked with love – yes deshelling fava beans to make Riz B Fool ticked all the boxes. A slow hour later, a hungry husband waiting and hardly enough fava beans to make more than 2 portions, I realized how bad of an idea this was and thought: “Seriously, WHO HAS TIME?!” I always received and made sarcastic comments about my cooking and about being a great house wife (! أوف شو ست بيت شاطرة), and that day, I thought “rightfully so, it wasn’t a title I wanted anyway.”
Cooking didn’t seem to be my “thing,” at that time, it was a chore – something I had to do because, as a dietitian, as a wife, as a future mom, it is the “right thing” to do.
As we count down the days to start 2017, I can’t help but think of the change of heart I’ve had about cooking. This December, my husband and I prepared around 150 meals and sold them for a charity event, and oh how much we loved it. Today, preparing a meal is an experience that engages all of my senses, each dish is an exploration, a marriage and a story. It a process of changing dull and sometimes even poisonous ingredients, to a wonderful, delicious and nutritious creation. It is as close as this world comes to magic.
Here are four lessons I learned about cooking in 2016 that helped me find my path to a more enjoyable cooking experience. I hope you find inspiration in them:
Practice makes perfect
I managed to get through four years of living alone and studying for my nutrition and dietetics degree (ironically) without cooking and suddenly I found myself in the kitchen with everyone telling me “Cooking is easy.” Yes, cooking is not rocket science, but every time I cooked, it took me half a day and my kitchen turned into a disaster. And if you’ve ever lived in Beirut you would know, ordering any type of meal, even healthy “home cooked” food was as easy as pie. So really, the disadvantages of cooking were definitely outweighing the advantages at the time. Fast forward 2 years later after moving to London, I found myself in a job that involved A LOT of cooking. In fact, I was teaching 16-25 year olds from all over the world about easy, nutritious, budget friendly cooking. My learning curve was steep. I was cooking 2-3 times per day and most of the sessions involved cooking a meal I had never cooked before. A few months into this job I realized how much my lack of experience in the kitchen had made cooking a burden for me. I realized that yes, cooking can be easy, but just like everything else but we all need to go through a learning curve. I learned that the only way to get kitchen savvy is to get your hands dirty, make mistakes and to create a mess until you find your Zen in the kitchen. And a year and half later I was given the chance to showcase my cooking session to Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK labor party.
Check out who attended our founder’s @nadeenhaidar healthy cooking session in #london ! Jeremy Corbyn, a British politician, Leader of the Labour Party, Leader of the Opposition. He got involved in making delicious chickpea burgers and discussing the importance of adding more legumes to our diet 💁🏻 Did you know that chickpeas are 7500 years old, making them the oldest cultivated legume? You can read more details of his visit on @huffingtonpost @the.independent @telegraph and @guardian #takingovertheworldonehealthycookingsessionatatime #healthycooking #nutrition #dietitian #nutritionist #jeremycorbyn #britishlabourparty #vegetarianburger #politicsandfood #publichealthnutrition #london
It is okay to take shortcuts sometimes
Of course fresh and seasonal is better but if you’ve been on one of our supermarket tours you will know that canned or frozen is not that far off. Understanding that it doesn’t have to be wholegrain every time and it is okay to use ready-made broth once in a while made things a lot easier for me. I remember shadowing a colleague in London in my first week and she was showing and 21 year old girl how to make a healthier version of Mac n Cheese. She made the sauce with butter, reduced fat milk and cheese, added corn to it and used wholegrain pasta. A dietitian using butter in a dish? Yes, she discussed how quick it was to make this meal and the amount of fiber and nutrients that we added because of those simple swaps we had made. This meal was rich in fiber and much healthier than a supermarket Mac N Cheese and tasted delicious. That was one of those light-bulb moments for me. Cooking is complex and cannot be categorized into as “healthy” or “unhealthy”. I visualize recipes now on a spectrum where they can always be made “healthier” or “unhealthier.” Healthier cooking can add challenges and the more skilled you are, the easier it will be to overcome them. Taking shortcuts that might make a dish “unhealthier” is not the end of the world, especially when it is part of a process to upgrade your cooking skills.
Rules are made to be broken
The food scene in London is a reflection of the melting pot of cultures that it is. Just like people, dishes arrive to London and find freedom to explore with new elements. I remember the pleasure my taste buds experienced when trying a falafel-spinach sandwich and a piri-piri flavored hummus. Food in our culture is very much tied to our identity and many find it almost offensive to reimagine traditional dishes. Brown fava beans are to be had for only for breakfast or as a snack, but never for lunch. A tabbouleh cannot be rightfully called a tabbouleh if it didn’t involve hours of de-leafing and chopping parsley. 2016 taught me to question these guidelines and that allowed me to explore new ingredients. Have you tried adding ginger to our traditional pea stew? Sweet potato to our lahme bil siniyeh? Scotch Bonnet to the Syrian Mnazzalet Beitenjan? Zaatar to flavor chicken? Curry leaves to our lentil soup? Clams to Siyadiyeh? The list goes on and I am sure it will continue to grow. You may find more comfort outside your comfort zone. I definitely did. I am a very creative person and breaking these walls made the kitchen a realm of endless possibilities and my ever-growing spice rack the toolbox I needed to create my masterpieces.
Give meaning to your cooking
Food is far more profound than it may seem and whether you have a passion for economics, culture, history, chemistry, biology or any other discipline, exploring where ingredients come from and how they ended up in recipes can feed your curiosity. I loved learning about how cardamom, a spice native to India, ended up in traditional Swedish baking. It also tickled my curiosity to learn about how the chemical principle of boiling point elevation can be applied to making pasta, and how acids play a huge role in flavor balance in recipe development. I was amazed to learn why in our only cuisine, coriander is always cooked and how Mate (مَتّة) a traditional Argentinian drink became so famous in some parts of Syria and Lebanon. Cooking also became more meaningful because it was something my husband loved to do. Sharing his passion and spending endless hours in the kitchen with him brought cooking closer to my heart.
Reflecting and trying to understand why we don’t like doing something is an essential step to building a better relationship with the behavior we are trying to change. For me, in 2016, it was cooking. I asked myself: what does cooking mean to me? What made cooking a negative experience for me? How can I make it more positive? At the time, cooking seemed really backward, time-consuming and mundane. I always thought “my time is more valuable” than the hours I would need to spend in the kitchen de-leafing and de-seeding. The efforts of perfectly applying concepts of nutrition and food safety had masked the joy of cooking.
My path to happier cooking involved marrying an ultimate foodie, moving to a different continent, and teaching homeless people how to cook. What will yours involve?
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