Written by William Dobson
Bethany Kehdy is a former Miss Lebanon turned recipe developer, food and travel writer and photographer. Having been born in Houston to a Lebanese father and American mother, she grew up on an eclectic farm on her ancestral land in the mountains of Lebanon where her family retreated during the Civil War. Now based in Devon, she is passionate about promoting the wonderful food heritage of her homeland and runs the wonderful website Dirty Kitchen Secrets as well as Taste Lebanon, a seven day culinary tour around the country. Here she tells us about what makes her tick, her childhood in Lebanon and what the country’s cuisine means to her.
SUGAR STREET REVIEW: How does one go from a former Miss Lebanon and representative at the Miss World Contest to being a food writer based in Devon? It seems a somewhat incongruous move!
BETHANY KEHDY: Probably, if we try to make everything fit into boxes or categories. But, those that know me well, will know that my life has been “congruously” incongruous. In fact, during Miss Lebanon I was known for inviting the girls over for dinner parties where I would spend days slaving in the kitchen prior to.
SSR: What are your most vivid memories of growing up in Lebanon?
BK: Times when I grew up on the farm in Baskinta, running through the orchards, picking cherries, apples, moulding cheese, or visiting the butcher with my grandmother in the city, watching that basket of produce come up the balcony in Ashrafieh as the street vendor hollered his produce for the day. So many memories, in fact my memories seem to be predominantly in relation to food.
SSR: Has the fact that you spent time growing up in rural Lebanon had a profound influence on your cooking? Is there a huge difference between the food in the different regions of the country?
BK: I wouldn’t say it’s profound, but it’s varied or regional. For example: We all eat m’jadarra but every household makes m’jadarra differently; some make it red (hamra) which is preferred in the South while brown lentils are more in Mount Lebanon, you also find recipes with a different rice to burghul ratio or lentil to rice ratio and onwards; a simple dish as this can be as varied as the religious sects in Lebanon.
SSR: I think smell is the most evocative of the senses. What is your favourite kitchen smell? Why?
BK: Oh my, can you beat the smell of garlic and onions as they simmer in butter? It’s the sign that a magnificent tabkha (home-cooked dish) is about to grace one’s taste buds. A simple apple pie baking in the oven is quite a sensational and memorable smell, too. Hmmm, I could still go on…
SSR:You are clearly a healthy eater but what is your biggest guilty food pleasure?
BK: I eat healthy, in the sense that I eat traditionally; steering away (as much as possible) from processed, sugar and craftly-marketed foods. Don’t misjudge me though, my food sings with butter and olive oil. Really one guilty pleasure? The universal trio, I love crisps, popcorn dripping with truffled butter and chocolate. Oh let’s not forget fries and fried chicken and…
SSR: As someone who has travelled the world, what is it that makes you want to write about Lebanese food in particular? Is it purely because it’s your area of expertise, is it because you think it’s the best, or is it something deeper than that e.g. because it brings you closer to your roots and heritage?
BK: I appreciate each cuisine in its own right, but my enjoyment for highlighting Middle Eastern cuisine naturally derives from feeling closer to home as many recipes conjure up special memories. I find that Middle Eastern cuisine and culture is too often overshadowed, and sharing our food culture has been a treasured avenue for me, finally allowing me to express myself and shed a more honest light about our culture.
SSR: What impact do you think the Lebanese situation of civil war and general unrest has had to the food culture of the nation, on both a personal and a more general level? Do you think that the Lebanese appreciate food to a greater extent than we do here as a result?
BK: The Civil War had an effect on agriculture and crop production. While the Lebanese are proud of their food, loudly singing its praises, the lack of government finance and tragic instability affected our food culture in particular by creating a massive exodus from the rural areas where a lot of our great food traditions are rooted. It was also hard given the limited avenues for famers to showcase their produce to city-dwellers. Then there is the ethnic and religious divide which put certain variation of dishes into obscurity. Finally, there is the universal issue of globalisation. For the most part, my generation doesn’t think cooking at home is cool or worthwhile. It’s rare to find people who appreciate the art of cooking unless it’s their grandmother or mother or even housekeeper who’s cooking it. But I still believe that we still appreciate food in general more so than in the UK because I think we’ve spent far less time being globalised and food is very much an innate part of our lives and cultures. I know that our parents and previous generations truly appreciate food, its traditions and I personally grew up surrounded by this.
Thankfully over the last 7 years or so, succesful movements have sprouted up in Lebanon which focus on reconnecting the Lebanese with their native cuisine. Like many parts of the world, I think it’s a great time for food revival.
SSR: How did you start ‘Taste Lebanon’ and can you explain the concept and inspiration behind the venture?
BK: I was on holiday in Antigua, by the pool, with girlfriends, and the thought just came to me: “holidays in Lebanon that revolved around food”. The response was sheer enthusiasm and within weeks of returning I was compelled to run my first tour. Taste Lebanon is a manifestation of my constant urge (ever since the time I stepped foot back on US soil at the age of 10) to show people the true colours of Lebanon and the Middle East. Every nation has its pros and cons and I’m compelled to highlight ours exactly as they are.
SSR: What would be your last supper?
BK: Oh goodness, too grand to list here! Who really knows when I’ve got so many amazing dishes still to discover, I suppose I only truly answer this once I reach my last supper!