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Lucy Knight

Tasting the Middle East

From beauty pageants to the kitchen, food blogger Bethany Kehdy launches her first cookbook, 'The Jewelled Kitchen,' in Beirut this week.

Bethany Kehdy
Bethany Kehdy
Bethany Kehdy

As a contestant in the Miss Lebanon pageant Bethany Kehdy was known for her dinner parties. Now, her years of dedicated food blogging at Dirty Kitchen Secrets have produced a book of her new creations using traditional Middle Eastern ingredients.

 

NOW caught up with Kehdy this week in Beirut…

 

You grew up on a farm and clearly had an interest in food, but did you always want to be in the kitchen?

I was always comfortable in the kitchen but I didn’t think it would be an area I would be in for so long. If you’re Lebanese, cooking hasn’t really been seen as a profession, even in my family they couldn’t quite understand the switch I made from my office job to blogging about it. 

 

So, what happened? 

I wanted to be involved in the food industry. I had a bunch of recipes and started to blog them, under the name The Dirty Kitchen. Within a year it became an obsession. I was working in real estate but spending pretty much all of my time on the blog, at work too, so I thought, ‘I have to do this.’

 

You’ve been living in Devon, in the UK, for five years now, what changes have you seen in how Middle Eastern food is perceived there?

In the last couple of years it has become very trendy. Yotam Ottolenghi has a lot to do with that, with his stores and recipe books, but I think people are quite keen to know more. You see hummus everywhere now, Middle Eastern restaurants popping up [in London] outside of the Edgware Road, chains like Yalla Yalla. In Devon, not so much. 

 

There are still a lot people then who don’t know about Middle Eastern food?

I think it can be a bit difficult because a lot of the ingredients are not familiar. Everyone knows hummus, tabbouleh, falafel. I put it down to a lot of the ingredients not being readily available. 

 

What kind of ingredients? 

Freekeh for one. Kishk is a strange taste for people to pick up, and that’s one of the ones in the book, reworked because I’ve tested it on so many people. I made an Italian friend try it for breakfast, which was kind of a mistake – and so I adapted it to a point where people liked it.

 

Aleppo pepper, that’s not that easy to find in UK, it has that nice bit of heat on the tongue, enough that you can still taste the food.

 

How did you choose the recipes for your book?

My publisher asked me to write a book that divided the recipes by country and I said ‘no please don’t make me do this.’ You know food is a political thing in the Middle East. A basic example is ‘where do I put hummus?’ There was a lot of torment. Lebanese think they own a recipe, Syrians think they own a recipe, and so on. A lot of the identity is shared though, with variations in between. 

 

It’s taken two years and thankfully I didn’t have to divide it by region. I think if I was to do that it would be a decade long project involving the origins of the chickpea. 

 

Speaking of politics, have your culinary tours with Taste Lebanon born the brunt of regional unrest?

Yes. We’ve just had to cancel a tour, which would have started next week, and our Beirut Bites trips have had to be postponed. Even our food stylist who was meant to be here for the book launch couldn’t come. I work on the UK Foreign Office travel advisory, particularly as a lot of our business is from Europe and the US. 

 

The blog will obviously not be stopped though, what is the secret to a successful food blog?

You really have to love what you’re doing. You have to enjoy publishing recipes and not take it lightly that you’re publishing online. Don’t be stuffy but take it seriously.

 

Undoubtedly, your seriousness has brought success and you are able to share with others, for example with Food Blogger Connect (a leading international food blogging conference based in London.)

I was about six months into doing the blog, in 2008, and I wanted to attend a food blogging conference in LA. A lot of these events were taking place on the West Coast but the cost of a round trip was so much, I thought, I’d get some food blogging friends together, so we could share and improve. 

 

It started as just one afternoon but suddenly we had people coming from India, Canada and Europe, so we decided to do another one six months later but bigger, and it’s just grown since.  

 

Your primary focus is Middle Eastern cuisine but you have a Texan mother. Do you ever cook Texan food?

I do. I probably cook more Tex Mex than actual Texan food though, such as beans and chilli… my sister makes a mean steak. I think most of the time I’m taking some version of a Middle Eastern dish - I do love my burgers, and ‘roasties’ with sumac on. 

 

Do you ever just eat cereal?

No, I love to cook. When I’m in the UK every meal is home cooked. Though when I’m here, I’m on the road a lot, in traffic, and sometimes I will buy chopped parsley from the supermarket and make my own tabbouleh – this does upset my father though; unless it’s chopped and washed at home he won’t touch it. I do believe that sometimes you need a shortcut. 

 

 

'The Jewelled Kitchen' is now available in Lebanon.

Bethany Kehdy (image by Tanya Traboulsi via www.dirtykitchensecrets.com)

sometimes I will buy chopped parsley from the supermarket and make my own tabbouleh – this does upset my father though; unless it’s chopped and washed at home he won’t touch it.