“During our residency at Arts Centre Voo?uit we decided to make lunch for the people working in the house, both as an offering, and as a way to introduce ourselves to the team at a time when normal moments of encounter are happening less.
It was also an excuse to get into the beautiful Majolica canteen, which is now the main kitchen of the house. Fiona’s research at Voo?uit began as a case study of this space, which used to operate as the staff canteen, and has now been transformed into a kitchen while the canteen has moved to another room. Fiona is researching endings and modes of mourning during this residency, and has been interviewing members of the team on their relationship with the Majolica canteen, using a mode of interview based on the ‘Schwartz’ method used in documentary radio. Working in the new kitchen and preparing a meal with care for the staff felt like a way of threading between memories of the space and its future.
We spoke about what we might cook, considering our research as an entry point, and what the city and the seasons may offer, as well as our own food experiences. As we were thinking of possibilities, we spoke about how recipes have similar versions in different places. The formulation of greens and potatoes, which in Ireland we call colcannon, is similar to شوربة العدس بالسلق lentil potato and chard soup that is cooked in the greater Syria region. Or that tahini is used in a similar way to how cream is used in some cuisines around Europe. We spoke about different breads, different dairies, different grains, and how the monopoly of wheat grain and cow dairy are dominant and limiting diverse food making options.
We talked about food waste when we cook with certain vegetables or fruits, some parts are used and other parts are discarded. And how these are decisions that occur within different food cultures and also connect back to the questions that Fiona is looking into, on the traces of what is left behind when something or someone is no longer there. In one of the bio shops in Ghent, someone working there warned us that tuinbonen (fava/broad beans) are a lot of work, because you have to pod each one and end up with only a small amount of beans. Samah explained that this kind of bean, which is called فول اخضر ful akhdar in Arabic, is used in a dish made where the skin is kept on the beans (recipe in the footnote).
From there, we planned a menu and spent a day walking around the centre of Ghent buying ingredients. We walked to Lousbergmarkt to buy vegetables and on the way we looked for nettles to make Fiona’s nettle soup. Samah spotted them growing by the canal at Visserijvaart. We reckoned they were far away enough from the road to pick and eat after a good soaking. We paired up for this task, looking for the most tender leaves, although in late April they were really past their Spring best. One of us picked and the other held the bag open and we talked about finding things and picking things, and what our limits are. We spoke about how all of these tasks are better together: the shopping, the planning, the washing up, the asking questions.
In Dukkan, a shop on Noordstraat 12, Samah showed Fiona multiple things she didn’t know about: torshi pickles popular in Iraq, and makdoos (walnut-stuffed aubergines pickled in olive oil), and the many different types of dates and date syrups, as well as the date stuffed biscuits made at the end of Ramadan called ka’ak bi-ajweh and the wooden molds they are shaped in. And the good bread. We spoke about how we cook in our day to day lives, for a family, for friends, for a child or a housemate, and how cooking changes in different moments in life, and for different recipients. We spoke about how our mothers cook and what we learned from them, floury hands and shared recipes. Samah called her mother on Messenger to make sure she got the correct recipe of ful akhdar before she began preparing the dish for lunch. Her mother Laila Doleh is part of her research on the body as an archive of knowledge, and food memory.
We spoke about za’atar a lot! It’s Samah’s current food chase… and one of the foods we shared at lunch with the staff. Za’atar got us talking about thyme and oregano leaves and the herbs we grew up with, and about sesame (which is a main ingredient in the za’atar mixture) and it’s ubiquity.
We spoke about how vast knowledge is, how it can be debilitating to think about all the books we want to read, and how it can be good to take a small thing, like a sesame seed, and start there. We spoke about how we learn, and think, and remember. And how cooking manifests all those things in a way that folds into the body and then scatters across a meal.”
1 Mutabbal Foul Akhdar: instructions by Laila Doleh: Select early spring broad beans, known as tuinbonen in flanders, that have a soft velvety skin. Wash, remove the head of the bean, and chop into about ½ a cm wide pieces (traditionally you also string the filament along the side of the beans, but if you are not familiar with this process you can skip it). Bring water to boil with a sprinkle of salt, and drop the beans in for about 5-8 mins (this depends on if you are cooking a large quantity or not, take out a small slice and try it, it needs to be cooked but crunchy). Drain in a colander. Once cooled you pick handfuls of beans with both hands and give them a little squeeze so the water is pushed out (otherwise it’s a little soggy, and that doesn’t taste nice). Separately in a bowl, mix minced garlic (it needs to be galicky so be generous), with lemon, salt, sumac, fresh coriander and olive oil. Mix with beans and serve cold with bread.
2 This nettle and lentil soup is very hearty, almost like a stew. In a large pot gently fry some fennel seeds in olive oil, then add a soffritto of finely chopped onions, carrots, garlic and fennel and cook until coloured. Keep the onion peels and carrot and fennel tops and pop them in a pot of gently boiling water to make a stock. Keep the fennel fronds for topping the soup with. Add salt, smoked paprika and hot paprika to the soffrito. Add chopped potato, stir, then brown lentils and stir. Add some finely chopped or grated tomato, and ladles of the stock you have, season with salt and pepper, bring to the boil then lower heat to a simmer and cook for one hour. In a separate pan, fry some garlic and green peppers, then add nettles to the pan. Tip this into the cooked soup when you are ready to serve and stir the nettles through. Top with the fennel fronds, a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper if desired and some yoghurt.