I am a Palestinian from Jordan, married to a Palestinian from Syria, living in Australia – so my cooking is a combination of so many different cultures and traditions.
My mother’s family fled Palestine during the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. My grandparents couldn’t take anything but the key to their house and what they could carry on their backs. 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes during the 1948 war, which marked the beginning of the Palestinian diaspora. My mother, her five brothers and three sisters were all born in Jordan, where our extended family still lives.
My father was born in Palestine and fled to Jordan with his family during the Six Day War in 1967. None of my parents went back to Palestine and unfortunately I never went there.
My parents met and got married in Jordan and then moved to Saudi Arabia for my father’s job. I spent my childhood in Saudi Arabia and went to school there. We lived in a compound with people from all over the Arab world. Every week in the compound a family would prepare food and invite the other families, so I remember eating really exquisite dishes of Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian cuisine.
When I was eight my parents moved to Australia and I have lived in Sydney ever since. I met my husband, Khalil, in Australia. He was born in Syria and lived there most of his life, but was here to complete his PhD.
We had our wedding in Jordan where my extended family attended. His family, who was living in Syria at the time, also traveled to be there. When Khalil first visited Jordan, he was faced with so many cultural challenges surrounding food. In Jordan, men eat the mansaf with their hands instead of with a spoon. They form a ball of the rice-yogurt mix and bite into it – all without spilling a drop. Khalil wasn’t used to this, but he tried to eat that way to get the full experience and honor my family’s culture.
Our first meal as a married couple was actually prepared by Khalil: his signature spaghetti bolognese. Khalil lived with a group of his friends before we got married, so he had more experience cooking. I didn’t cook at all as a kid. When I was a teenager, my mom asked me to help her cut the salad and for years that was about all I could make.
But I grew up watching the bond between my mother and grandmother while cooking and after my marriage, when there was no one to cook for me, I started experimenting with food. When I wanted to cook, I was constantly on the phone with Mom getting her advice. She provided the best recipes for Palestinian and Jordanian dishes, while my mother-in-law passed on her amazing Syrian recipes via phone calls and WhatsApp. The internet helped with all non-traditional meals, and I learned that I loved using food to dive in and out of many different cultures.
Eight years later, my cooking skills have improved so much that I now show the dishes I make to the world, while teaching others how to make them, on Instagram.
I love how much culture defines one’s dining experience, and I’m so happy that my cooking is now infused with a whole host of different cultures from around the world.
Walla’s Palestinian msakhan
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
500 grams of onions
3 pieces of Afghan bread
1 cup sumac
½ cup olive oil, plus extra for toasting almonds
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp mixed herbs
Handful of cardamom pods
A few bay leaves
Almonds as a topping
Place the chicken pieces in a pan, cover with water and add a diced onion, the mixed spices, cardamom pods and bay leaves. Cook on the stove (or in a pressure cooker) until the chicken pieces are fully cooked. This will take about 20 minutes in the pressure cooker; or about 45 minutes in a regular pan, keeping the heat low to medium, so let it simmer.
Dice the remaining onions and fry them in a separate pan over medium heat with half a cup of oil until the onions wilt – about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, remove from heat and add the sumac to the onions and mix.
In a separate pan, fry the almonds in some oil for a few minutes until golden brown.
Set your oven to broil to preheat and spread the onion mixture over a piece of bread.
Place the bread and onion under the broiler for a few minutes, until the onions begin to caramelize and turn a light golden brown. Watch carefully that the bread and onions do not burn. Sprinkle over fried almonds. Add another layer of bread and onion and repeat the grilling process, layering the pieces of bread. Once each layer is toasted, remove the bread from the oven.
Place the cooked chicken pieces on a baking tray, drizzle with oil and sprinkle sumac over them. Place the chicken under the grill until the skin turns golden.
Place the chicken pieces on the bread and garnish with the remaining nuts. Enjoying!
Married and mother of three little girls, Walla is an elementary school teacherself-taught cake artistdessert maker (@bakemycakeby_walla) and an Instagram food blogger (@walla_abueid).