NOOR WAZWAZ, HOST:
I love my mom's grape leaves or in Arabic, we call it warak enab (ph). Each grape leaf is like a battlefield of flavor stuffed with rice and meat, lots of warm spices and a lemony kick. This dish always reminds me of my mother's Palestinian kitchen. It was the dish Mama made when she wanted to spoil us or when we invited people over. This was the main center of attention on the dining table. Making warak enab, though, is not an easy process. It can take hours rolling each grape leaf, and it takes hours to cook on the stovetop. It's the sort of food that's best to make in groups. It kind of becomes like a social event.
I remember it would be my mom, my aunt, my cousins, my grandmother. We'd all gather around, our hands kneading into the table as we stuff and roll our grape leaves. We talk and laugh and gossip. My mom and aunt would argue about who's rolling skills were better. My teta (ph) would tell them they're both doing it wrong. Everything felt so precise. But the thing is, they weren't following a recipe. They knew how to do it all by heart.
Now, I've tried recreating this dish many times. It's turned out differently. And sometimes, I put the pot on the stove for too long, so the food burns. Sometimes I watch the grape leaves burst open, the meat and rice fall right out, and the hours I just spent carefully rolling each leaf, right there, all gone to a waste. I'd FaceTime my mom many times to try to get it to be like hers, and I'm still learning to perfect it. But I know that each time I make it, I learn what not to do. And lately, the outcome hasn't been too disappointing.
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Noor Wazwaz. Whether it's my mom's grape leaves, your grandma's lasagna or the mac and cheese you grew up eating, this episode is about how to recreate a beloved family dish - the ones that take days to prepare and the ones you pop right into the microwave, and how cooking with purpose can be a way to bond with our family members.
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WAZWAZ: Well, hi, Joudie. How are you?
JOUDIE KALLA: I'm good. How are you?
WAZWAZ: That's Joudie Kalla.
KALLA: And I'm a chef and cookbook author of "Palestine On A Plate" and "Baladi." My two cookbooks are really discovering and putting together family recipes from my grandmothers and other families.
WAZWAZ: "Palestine On A Plate" was the first cookbook I ever bought. When Joudie set off to create this cookbook, she ran into an issue. She needed to recreate her family's traditional recipes, but she didn't have anything to reference. So she started recreating these recipes with her mom, thinking it would solve her problem. But it kind of made things a little harder. When she cooked with her mom, it was impossible to follow along and take notes. Joudie's mom was just throwing in ingredients without any measuring.
KALLA: And then I came back to my mom. I said, well, let's try again and - with the measurements this time. And her eyeballs were, like, going to pop out. She's like, this is not how we do it. So then I said but we have to do it this way because people don't know what your eyes mean.
WAZWAZ: Joudie's mom reminds me of my own mom. My mom never owned any measuring tools. No need for all that clutter, she'd say. But through this process, Joudie learned a lot of lessons, lessons she now shares with her online cooking classes.
KALLA: People shouldn't rush. Cooking should be a pleasure. I think a lot of people have a lot of fear when they cook because they want to make it so perfectly.
WAZWAZ: I mean, I am guilty of this. When I try to make a dish that I grew up eating, I want perfection, and I'm so disappointed when it doesn't look or tastes like my mom's. And so takeaway No. 1 is throw your expectations out the window. Do not expect that your dish will be the same as the one you grew up eating. And don't even try comparing.
KALLA: Comparison is like a killer. When you compare things to other people, you lose your confidence, whatever it might be. It's not your mom's or your grandmother's. It's your own. I cook a lot and I cannot cook my mom's quality food ever, never because everybody has their own touch.
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WAZWAZ: Of course, if you're lucky enough to watch your family member make the recipe, do it and take notes. But remember how you translate it, it's going to be different.
KALLA: There's so many things that go into cooking, but it's more than just the end result of eating it. It's the process and really just letting go and giving into it and enjoying it.
WAZWAZ: As cliche as it sounds, it really is all about the energy. My mom tells me this all the time. Of course, there's no way to actually prove this. But, hey, a positive attitude never hurt anyone. The thing to remember is recipes are a road map. You don't have to follow them exactly. And maybe you're in a similar situation like Joudie - you don't have a recipe to follow or you have a recipe, but the instructions aren't clear. That's OK. It's OK to deviate. Who knows? You might be pleased with what you make, which brings us to takeaway No. 2 - be ready to experiment but experiment thoughtfully.
So let's say someone makes a dish and, you know, they taste it. They don't know if it's a salt problem. Maybe there's too much allspice or turmeric. How will they know what is the problem? And do you recommend them to change one ingredient at a time or just all of them? How would you approach it?
KALLA: So my approach in general in life when cooking is always start off with less and then add more. When you add too much, you can't take it out, OK? And this is one thing I've learned. A lot of people are very excited. They just put whatever in and they go for it, and then they're just like, oh, my gosh, this tastes terrible. Because once you've added too much of anything, it's pretty much impossible to rectify it.
WAZWAZ: So you want to go in slowly with the spices and taste your product or mixture before you dive into making the rest of it. So let's say you're making a giant batch of meatballs. Pan fry one of them and taste it. Maybe it needs more salt or it could use some more herbs. This is your chance to adjust it. And as you keep adjusting and adding spices, taste it until you get the right flavor.
KALLA: I'm constantly, constantly tasting it. Constantly, I just keep trying, and then - until I get it to the right point, and then I stop.
WAZWAZ: You're training yourself to get better at tasting. But make sure you take notes as you create your dish. Remember how the sauce tasted without the heavy cream and how it tasted after you added some chicken stock. If you added some more paprika, make note of how much you added. Maybe you put in parsley instead of cilantro. That's such a classic example. Mistakes are going to happen, Joudie says.
KALLA: I tell people, you always have to make mistakes because you'll never forget, so you'll never repeat them. And this is the best thing I learned as a chef and as a cook is that mistakes are always good because they will show you how to not do it again wrong next time.
WAZWAZ: Take this story, for example, Joudie's first time making rice. It was kind of a disaster.
KALLA: I didn't know that you needed the water to evaporate.
WAZWAZ: So she just kept adding more and more water.
KALLA: It became like a porridge soup.
WAZWAZ: This is a perfect example of what happens when someone is not listening to what their gut is telling them. Joudie knew that the rice needed to absorb the water. But she was so caught up in the process that she was ignoring her own instincts. So this is takeaway No. 3 - you have cooking instincts and sometimes, they're trying to tell you something. So, listen.
KALLA: Use your senses and not just your sense of smell and taste and sight but your logical mind. Like, does this look right?
WAZWAZ: Mistakes like these do suck, and they can make you want to give up. But by making these mistakes, you're also working on another skill - your confidence. You need to make these silly and sometimes embarrassing mistakes so that the next time you're cooking, you'll have that aha moment. I did that last time, and I'm not going to do it again this time.
KALLA: So maybe that dish will get wasted, or you will eat it, you know, with clenched teeth and frustration as most of us have done many times.
WAZWAZ: So for Joudie, the next time she makes rice, chances are she won't be adding all that water again because she knows better now. It's understandable that you'd want to be exact about every teaspoon. But Joudie says it's important to understand the feel of a recipe.
KALLA: Like trying and tasting and mixing things and going to see how something's working out and actually enjoying the process rather than mechanically do this, do this, do this, do this. This is the thing. You have to start feeling things and touching things and start to learn, you know, the feeling of things.
WAZWAZ: When you pay attention to the things that are happening in between, you're also training yourself and strengthening your cooking skills. You're intentionally stopping and using all of your senses, so you're making a mental note. This is how the soup should taste. This is how the filling should smell. This is how the dough should feel.
KALLA: My Auntie Lamya (ph) would do her sfeeha dough, which is like the crispiest, thinnest, strudel-type pastry. It's literally just flour and water. And, you know, while she's doing it, she's telling me the texture of the dough and what it should feel like in your hands and whether you measure it or not. It can still go wrong, but the feeling is what you need to know. It's the feeling of this soft pillow that bounces back. It's soft and plump. So that's, for me, the texture of this dough. Whether or not I measure it exactly, if it doesn't feel like that, I've done something wrong.
WAZWAZ: And if you look at what you're making and see that it doesn't look right or doesn't smell right or doesn't taste right, that's a good thing.
KALLA: So already your mouth is speaking to you by telling you there's something missing here or you've put too much of something. And I'm sure you've made something and thought, oh, this isn't quite right.
WAZWAZ: What if people feel like they don't have any cooking instincts?
KALLA: I actually don't believe that. I think everybody has a cooking instinct. I think if you have a good taste in your mouth - and I mean that in the sense like you can sense flavors and taste them and when you eat - you can taste things that hit your taste buds. You'll never forget them. They're always there. So you always do have this inkling inside that something should taste of something. Oh, it should taste like this. And I think people who don't know or think they don't know how to cook or don't have that instinct just need to let go.
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WAZWAZ: Letting go - easier said than done, right? Of course, for many of us, the reason we want to recreate these recipes is because it's a way to keep your family heritage alive. It can bring a sense of togetherness that spans generations, and it strengthens our ties to family members alive and those who are not with us today. And as we dice, chop, mix and stir, we're commemorating our heritage and our family members.
KALLA: It would be such a shame to lose all that and not document it because they're no longer here to speak for themselves and to tell us anymore. So we are just dependent on what we remember. Or if we're lucky enough to still have our moms around and aunties and uncles who are sharing what they remember, it's gold, you know? It's something that you can never bring back if you don't write it down now.
WAZWAZ: At the end of the day, family recipes aren't just recipes. They're memories and stories and emotions. And family recipes make all that accessible every time we cook. I wanted to step away from the technicalities of cooking and learn how to cultivate new memories. So I called up the queen of gathering.
PRIYA PARKER: My name is Priya Parker. I'm the author of "The Art Of Gathering: How We Meet And Why It Matters."
WAZWAZ: For me, I basically grew up in the kitchen with my mom. Every dish we make takes a really long time. The recipes are complex. It's very laborious. And thinking back to when I was living at home, my mom and I would be sitting at the kitchen table rolling grape leaves, and we'd have lots of conversations, but most of the time, they weren't remarkable or focused.
PARKER: You don't necessarily have to be explicit with other family members, again, depending on the context of, like, let's all share stories. I mean, you can - you have to read your family. So in the case with you and your mother or whoever it would be, one simple way is to begin to just lightly ask for stories and that could be through the food. Do you remember the first time you rolled a grape leaf? Who was it with? Where did you get those grape leaves from? How has the market changed?
WAZWAZ: You can use this as an opportunity to unlock some memories. Maybe you come from a culture who doesn't talk about feelings or a family that's bad at communicating. Cooking can be the perfect and convenient excuse to talk about these things. But Priya also mentions that you shouldn't feel pressure to get all the stories and conversations in one sitting. She says, try thinking about it and even strategizing. But also just keep it casual. So if you're going to make a meal that takes days, those conversations can be spread out.
PARKER: So I think one just almost design principle is to think about pace and speed, right? So I think if there's a meal that takes three days to prepare - right? - you're doing slow-cooked ribs or a biryani that takes, you know, days, then the pressure to have a conversation that's, you know, so meaningful in 30 minutes eases up. And so the first thing I would say is, think about the pace and the length of time you want to take. There are recipes that take, you know, actually weeks, at some level, to begin to go and gather the recipes, whether it's difficult and you find it from a specific spice store online and everyone's waiting for those spices to arrive.
WAZWAZ: And this is takeaway No. 4 - be curious and start conversations with your family members. You'll also get the added bonus of getting to know them better. It's still amazing to me how much I don't truly know my mom or dad. There's tons of conversations to have. But if you're like me, you may be stressed out and wondering, is it even possible to pay attention to how the meal is being made and also making sure you're making meaningful and memorable moments with your family members? Is it even possible to do both? But I must say, in asking this, I was biased about my understanding of what a family meal can be, that in order for a family meal to be significant, that it needed to be this beautiful and complex multi-process recipe, when, really, it can be a simple dish that has profound meaning or is just a good childhood memory.
PARKER: I think the power and the way through lies in specificity. And I think even in our conversation, there's an assumption, you know, among both of us that there are family recipes or that there are multigenerational family recipes, whether they're oral or written. And I think that there are as many people, if not more, in this country that grew up with, like, Campbell's Soup or, like, taco casserole. Like, the power isn't so much in long, old, quote-unquote, like, "recipes that have to look a certain way." The meaning lies, at some level, in either a shared memory or in an inherited memory.
WAZWAZ: Not all family recipes need to be labor-intensive. It could be the funfetti cake or grilled cheese sandwich that you grew up eating.
PARKER: And so I'll give an example. My mother is not a good cook, and I don't think she would be offended by me saying this on National Public Radio. And she was a working woman all through my childhood. She would get Boboli crusts and put shredded mozzarella cheese on it and cut up broccoli and then sprinkle red peppers over it and stick it in the oven. And, like, I would love it. And to this day, when I see broccoli pizza, like, I feel nostalgic and taken care of (laughter).
WAZWAZ: I always consider that the traditional family meal was everything that my mom would make us. And yes, a big part of that is because of perpetuating gender roles. But in doing that, I was discrediting all the moments my dad would stay up to make us something to eat. In fact, one of my favorite memories is my dad making us his famous pizza sandwich, when he'd take a piece of pita bread, slice it in half, crack an egg in the center and add some spicy Turkish sausage and pop it in the oven.
So here's a bonus tip - don't forget to ask other family members about recipes, too. What was their comfort food growing up? My dad's dish was a very simple meal that took less than 30 minutes to make, but thinking back, I can't help but feel nostalgic. It was simple moments like this that allowed my siblings and I to bond with my dad in a different kind of way. And it gave us an opportunity to learn more about his upbringing in Jerusalem. So whoever it is you're talking to, focus on the food you're making and use that as a proxy.
PARKER: You can absolutely have meaningful conversation around food. But I think part of the power of this episode and the work that you're doing here is, it's having a meaningful conversation through food. And the best way to do that is to start from the planning, not from the moment people walk in the door or the Zoom room, but to actually ask, you know, two or three weeks ahead, hey, I think it'd be really fun to do a shared, you know, cooking experience or a shared meal, whether it's Thanksgiving or whether it's just another Saturday.
WAZWAZ: But if you're hearing all this and you're feeling all the pressure to make new memories and making sure you have the right amount of turmeric, Joudie reminds us that you shouldn't get too obsessed with the process. It's a beautiful thing you're getting into.
KALLA: And I really think it's run by fear more than anything because people get so intimidated by cooking because they see all this, like, magic happen. But it's simple things that are happening. You just have to put the time and the patience into it to make it work for you.
WAZWAZ: And so to recap, here are the takeaways from this episode. No. 1 - do not expect your dish will be the same as the one your mom or grandma used to make. No. 2 - be ready to experiment, but experiment thoughtfully. No. 3 - listen to your cooking instincts. And No. 4 - with purpose and intention, you can make cooking a real memorable experience with your loved ones.
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WAZWAZ: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to have productive arguments and, related, unrelated, another one on surviving the holidays with your family members. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT, which I hope you do and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And now, a completely random tip, this time from listener Kristy Chester (ph).
KRISTY CHESTER: I have found that if I turn the fan on over my stove to the highest setting, it pulls a lot of the hot air radiating from the oven up with it and it heats up the house a little bit less.
WAZWAZ: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us a voice memo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. Special thanks to Joudie Kalla, the author of the cookbooks "Palestine On A Plate" and "Baladi," and Priya Parker. She's the host and executive producer of The New York Times podcast "Together Apart." I'm Noor Wazwaz. Thank you for listening.
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