Beyrouth // PNN //
Hisham Assaad is a Lebanese-Palestinian chef, food stylist, graphic designer, photographer and humanitarian. PNN reporter Courtney Bonneau made this interview with him.
Hi Hisham, thank you for doing this interview. As you know, PNN wants to highlight the stories of Palestinians living in Lebanon. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your family history here in Lebanon?
“Hi Courtney. Originally, my family comes from Palestine; they were evicted from their homes in 1948 in a village in northern Palestine called Al Bassa , in Akka , and after that, they moved to Lebanon as refugees and in the 1950s, they received the Lebanese citizenship. Until the Lebanese civil war broke out in the 1970s, they lived in a refugee camp. When the war broke out, they moved to the Emirates, where I was born. We moved back to Lebanon in the late 90s, back to the same refugee camp because we had no other place. Despite holding a Lebanese nationality, we had no place to live, so a family member let us stay in a house that they weren’t using at the time. And that’s where I grew up, basically. I studied graphic design and then I moved into foods because I found myself more interested in that.
At what age did you start cooking and who inspired you to cook?
It was actually my mom, because when she was teaching my sister to cook I would stand on the side listening and watching and taking notes of things. I didn’t need to cook back then, but when I started growing into a more curious teenager, and as a young adult, I wanted to experiment, and I wanted to try things with foods that were not the traditional things that my mom was cooking. My mom is a great cook, and it’s not just my opinion, but I want to try recipes that I found in books and online and try mixing and matching things that I read about. And I think by around age 19, I started working at a fast food place.
First, I have had your mom’s cooking and can attest to the fact that she is objectively a great cook. Second, which fast food place did you work at?
Burger King! I worked there for about two years, and I started eating raw onions because of that job. I kind of hated raw onions before that but because I was in more contact with the raw ingredients, I grew to like them. Working there was a really good start because despite not preparing the fast food from scratch, you’re handling the raw ingredients and learning how the sandwich is prepared, what goes into it, and learning discipline because there are a lot of rules, regulations, including sanitary and health regulations in the food industry. For me now, cooking is more about feeling what you’re putting into the dish, not measuring and weighing everything, but the discipline I learned there was a good foundation.
Your dad is a butcher; how did that influence you?
He is a butcher. Honestly it didn’t really influence me at the time because he didn’t have his own butcher shop. I used to go with him to his workplace and would see meat products being prepared but didn’t feel like getting into the business. He later worked as a butcher and a grill master in a restaurant. So we weren’t in direct contact with that side. But I could ask him if I want to know more about certain stuff. I would have to really pull information from him to get an answer, but not because he doesn’t want to share. He’s very concise with what he explains. Recently, I started going back to him just to ask him for instance about which meat cut is best for this or for that, and how he makes the things that he’s good at. Like the shawarma recipe, the soujok recipe, I took them from his own repertoire. It was something that I had to acquire from him at a later stage in the making of the book. Early on, I would go with him to work events where I would see him slaughter animals either for his work or for someone who’s sacrificing because they got a new home or a new car. I’d like to learn more about it in detail. It is still one of the things that I would like to get into and try getting my hands dirty with.
Really, I’d be curious too about the anatomy of animals and– yeah, I was wondering if that influenced you at all or?
The last time I got close to that was last year in June. Someone was coming over from the States, a chef, and he wanted to get the full experience, so we organized a whole trip for him, and we got a sheep to sacrifice. My dad was the one doing it so I watched. Watching isn’t’ enough, though; I need more experience, not just visual or theoretical. He does it so effortlessly, he doesn’t even think about it. He just goes, “Okay, that’s the neck. Let it all drip out.” And then, “Okay, take the skin off, pack it up. Take all the skin off.”
He’s a professional. There is a picture of a heart on your Instagram; is that the heart from the sheep?
Yes, that’s the same sheep. https://www.instagram.com/p/CaAgWMPsn0a/
You have a blog, Cook in Five Square Meters.Can you tell me about the journey from when you started writing the blog to where you decided to write Bayrut?
The blog started in 2013 and was born from all the recipe experimentation that I used to do; trying to cook recipes from books and the internet, tweaking them, then trying my own versions. People ask me what the recipe was, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to document that, try to take better pictures and have a blog, and to document the recipes that I cook.” I started working on getting better at photography, writing stories, and providing interesting information about a recipe or a family tradition to create more interest about food. I didn’t want to stick to my day job (graphic design), just sitting in an office, executing jobs and not being creative. I needed an outlet for my creative energy. And from then on, I worked with some brands doing food photography, occasionally filming videos making recipes using their products . In January 2020, after the Lebanese revolution of 2019, I got an email asking me if I would be interested in writing a book for a publisher in Australia, and honestly I thought it was a scam until I searched every single detail that she mentioned in the email. When I realized it was legitimate, I got excited because I felt like okay, this is my chance to fall in love again with Beirut and Lebanon after the revolution and all the crises. And that was the catalyst for writing Bayrut.
How did you decide which recipes you wanted to include in the book?
The publisher wanted to make a book about Lebanese food, and they wanted to narrow it down to Beirut because in Australia there aren’t a lot of books about Lebanese and specifically Beiruti cuisine. And they wanted to take the chance to present something. But a few recipes from outside of Beirut snuck here and there.
Which ones did you sneak in?
The Musakhan or the Palestinian chicken and sumac and onion roast with olive oil. Traditionally in Palestine, they prepare it differently. It’s a way to use up leftover taboon bread. It’s a thick bread, like a tanoor or tandoor, and a celebration of olive oil. So they get a lot of onions, sumac, lots of olive oil, and they coat the chicken with it, wrap it in bread, and bake it. They tear the bread apart and pick the chicken. There’s also the Mjaddra. There are different variations around Lebanon and Palestine. But the one that I have in the book is similar to the Southern Lebanese or Palestinian recipe.
I would like to know what are your favorite dishes from the major cities in Lebanon.
I’ll start with Bekaa, because there’s the Sfeeha. They are meat pies in pastry dough. Lakkis Farm in Bekaa makes the best ones; they are amazing when they get crispy from the lamb fat in them. In Beirut, I would go for the ice cream from Hanna Mitri. There’s that old shop that was run by a man, a father. And when he passed away, his son took over, and he’s the one running the shop. And the mother would sometimes be in the shop helping him with picking and cleaning the pistachios, and any random tasks that she can do. He has really good ice cream– it’s not an ice cream, it’s more of a sorbet, but it’s nice and creamy and not too heavy. Tripoli. So I wrote in the book about the difference between sfeeha and Lahm Baajine . In the Bekaa there is in Sfeeha, the little square meat pies. And in Beirut Lahm Baajine usually, it’s the really thin, cracker-thin pastry with meat on top. And Tripoli, the Sfeeha is something else, and the Lahm Baajine is something totally different.
Which recipe from the book is the most fun for you to make? Which one do you enjoy making the most?
And if it’s none of them, I can take this question off. The two that come to mind are the Moghrabieh and the octopus dish. I haven’t had a lot of experience with seafood, especially octopus and calamari, and squids. I know that octopus, you have to cook it for a short period of time or an insanely long period of time in a pressure cooker. Anywhere in the middle, it’ll be tough and chewy. But if it was cooked right, it would be nice and soft with a nice bite. So the times that I tested the recipe, I had to try and see where I could go. And when I cooked the recipe to promote the book in Marseilles last October, it was so stressful because we got something from the market. I don’t know how it is, how it feels like, if it takes a lot of time cooking, or less time– I don’t know. Just tested it out and I hoped for the best. [laughter] And it worked.
There have been multiple crises here in the last few years (economic, fuel, electricity, the port blast, COVID) how have they affected your work?
I wrote about that in the book because I wanted it to be a real reflection of what was going on, not just a facade that Ministry of Tourism ads promote.
I have one last question for you. You are a part of an NGO called Clown Me In. Can you tell me a little bit about that, the work that you do at the camps or in other areas?
Clown Me In is an NGO that started in 2008 and we started as a group of humanitarian clowns in 2015. What we do is psychosocial support through clowning and comedy. Our shows always have social messages, environmental messages that we need to convey to help educate people about. We believe that people have the right to laugh and have fun. So one of the things that we felt necessary to do after the explosion in Beirut in 2020, we took to the streets, helping people and cleaning up, taking glass and wood and stuff out. And then we felt that, “Okay, a lot of people are doing that, but what can we offer?” So we started working, and we did a 10-day clown tour where we performed twice or three times a day, in the middle of the heat of September and COVID. We had to wear two masks with the costume on and perform in Karantina, in Mar Mikhayel, in Burj Hammoud , Achrafieh,, and Beirut, in different places that were affected because we believe that people need to have this break, need to take the time off to laugh, enjoy the company of others, feel that there is a community or support around them, even if it’s just for an hour. We received a lot of good feedback from people telling us, “You just made my day, all of you. You are the best thing that I saw this week.” And we have several projects that we do that focus on psychosocial support where we offer social therapy, and clowning, theater, puppetry, in consecutive sessions to work with the group, to help the group get more acquainted with one another and to be more supportive, create this support within the group. Our slogan is, “send us where love is needed.”
Okay. Well, thank you very much for doing this interview.
Do you want some chocolate cake?
Bayrut cookbook: https://cookin5m2.com/bayrut-the-cookbook/