The Story Behind Sami Tamimi & Tara Wigley's Un-Mess-Upable Shakshuka

Plus, how to bring your kids to culinary school, the art of the quadruple-batch, and reimagining foods from childhood.

October 14, 2020

The Genius Recipe Tapes is a weekly show from Food52's new podcast network, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly Genius Recipes column and video series. This week, Kristen spoke with co-authors Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley about their new book Falastin. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This week on The Genius Recipe Tapes, Falastin co-authors Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley join Kristen to discuss what it was like for Sami to rediscover and reimagine foods of his childhood, why Tara is a pathological quadruple-batcher, and the stress-free Scrambled Red Shakshuka from their book.

Check out the full transcript below (or hit 'play' and start cracking some eggs).

Kristen Miglore (voiceover): Hi. I'm Kristen Miglore, lifelong genius hunter. Each week I'm uncovering the recipes that will change the way you cook this week. I'm speaking with  co-authors Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. We discussed what it was like for Sami, who hadn't been home to Palestine in nearly two decades to both rediscover and reimagine the foods he grew up with. How navigated cooking school with 18-month-old twins. And of course, the genius red shakshuka from their book where you don't have to worry about getting your eggs cooked just so.

Kristen: Hi, Sami and Tara:. Thank you so much for joining. I know you're both in two very different time zones from me, so thank you so much for that. Where are you both right now?

Sami Tamimi: I am in Umbria in Italy at the moment. Uh, here for the last three months.

Tara Wigley: Yeah, I'm a bit behind Sami in London, in England.

Kristen: Got it. And how have you been spending your days? What sorts of things have you been doing since we're all sort of in various stages of lockdown?

Sami: I am in the middle of the countryside, and I have quite a lot of friends around here, so just [seeing] friends and taking it easy and cooking a lot, um, entertaining, which is really nice. I couldn't do in London so much before we left.

Tara:: Sami’s set up sounds slightly more [ideal] than mine. I'm home with three kids, and so there's lots of feeding going on, rolling from meal to meal and dishwasher to dishwasher. But also, I think, like lots of people enjoying the simple life, [the] removal of the complicated schedule and the, sort of, too many things going on. So just leaning into the cooking and hanging out and yeah, trying not to destroy my family.

(Sami and Kristen laugh)

Kristen Yeah. No, no more commute.

Tara:: Yeah, and it's funny because first, you know, our book was due to be published on the day—literally the day—that the bookshops closed. So on one hand, it was obviously a sort of a blow for us, in terms of the fun we were gonna have publicizing it together in real life and meeting people. But on the other hand, you know, it's a cliche to say at this stage of lockdown, but it's then given lots of people the time they normally never have to actually to cook. And then there's just lots of things about the way that Palestinians cook in terms of homely food and lots of pantry ingredients, which means that a lot of people have been cooking from Falastin and other things.

Sami: Yeah.

Kristen: Well to get where we are with Falastin—how did you two first meet and how have you worked together over the years in the Ottolenghi family?

Sami: Tara's been with Ottolenghi now for 10 years? And when we launched the Ottolenghi cookbook, Tara started working on this project. This is when we actually started working together. But we are kind of—because of the Ottolenghi test kitchen—and Tara worked also with Yotam in his own kitchen at home, developing recipes and all that. But yeah, only the last three or four years we've been working directly together.

Tara:: Yeah, before then, as Sami said, I’ve been in the test kitchen and he’s been in the Ottolenghi kitchens, and I tried to hang out with him working in the Ottolenghi kitchens, but he quickly sent me on my way because he realized I was more suited to the the test kitchen vibe rather than the professional chef vibe, which is a very different kettle of fish, I quickly realized.

Kristen: So how did Falastin come to be a cookbook and, you know, was the vision for it very clear from the get go? Or has it evolved over time in this intense process as you're talking about?

Sami: The idea started a long time ago. I mean, I had it in my head for a long time, thinking that I would like to do something that—because I left [Palestine] so many years, like 22 years now. And I always had Palestinian cooking and food as a back up to my career. And I kept borrowing things to basically make it a little bit more interesting with the ingredients, the recipes that Mama used to cook. And I felt like I needed to give a little back and also thank, you know, the place and the people and the wonderful food that they had, my family, and my mom, of course. The process started, uh, four years ago, when me and Tara sat down and said, OK, so what are we gonna do?, and so we came up with 500 recipe titles. And we started with me trying to be quite loyal to traditional recipes. But then straight forward—I mean, quite quickly—we realized that this is not what we wanted to do. We wanted to do something that people can actually cook on a weekday. 

Tara: Yeah, I love recipe books because they all just tell such a different story, don’t they? So when Sami says that all the books that in the market with Palestinian recipes, uh, everyone's telling their own story, whether it's the story of the recipes that were handed down to them from there, their mothers and their grandmothers, or they're writing a recipe book for their children if they might be living outside of Palestine now. So this way, it's preserving the legacy and telling the story. And Falastin is very much the story that we were telling, which is in part Sami's story and his love letter home to a country that he left over 20 years ago.

But we also didn't want to tell not just Sami’s story or even just one story. Which is why we've got all these profiles in the book of different people in Palestine and our way and was sort of telling lots of stories about lives being led today in Palestine. And this idea of, stories and recipes as narrative is constantly weaved throughout the book. Recipes are, in a way, stories.  

...you can be someone who's really hopeful and enterprising and dynamic, doing really exciting things in a situation which is really hopeless and depressing and bleak.
Tara Wigley

People allow for complexity and contradiction and paradox, for the reality of that, so you can be someone who's really hopeful and enterprising and dynamic, doing really exciting things in a situation which is really hopeless and depressing and bleak. And these two things can co-exist, so you can go to a refugee camp and acknowledge the reality of that, and think about it and talk about it and ask questions. But then you could meet someone living and working and creating a cookery school in that same refugee camp and walk out feeling like you've met the most joyous person you've met in weeks. 

And this shakshuka, for example, is a story every time it's passed on. from one person to the next. Details change, and some things remain, and some things stay the same, but the essence will be there. Without laboring this metaphor too much this is one that's kind of true. There's not one story of Palestine, but many of this life being lived today.

I think people have nerves about their ignorance about a country and a region and the people, and you get to a point in life where you, sort of, stop asking questions because you don't want to come across as the idiot who doesn't know the difference between one place and another. Or, sort of, what’s what. So I think we reached out to hold people's hands. I think they're coming along not only for the recipes, but also for the stories. And our hope is that people go with this book under their arm and go and go and meet people, go and get a lesson in Islam. Like these people there, they're living, working today. They once were all free to travel. The hope is people go and explore, ask questions, and eat.

Kristen: Absolutely. It also really struck me that you mentioned including, in some cases, profiles in the book with views that you didn't necessarily agree with. How did you make that decision? Was there anyone that you didn’t consider including because their views were so different than yours?

Sami: No, we met quite a lot of people, and the people that we chose to feature in the book, I mean, some of them became almost like friends. We loved the stories as well. And it kind of inspired us, you know, because of the harsh reality there, and the difficult living, but at the same time, these people are thriving and doing something positive. And a lot, many of them do it with a big smile on. And it's humbling at the same time, but also quite inspiring to see. But it wasn't so much about, you know, them agreeing with our vision. We just wanted to feature people that we thought—for readers to read the stories—

Tara: And also, you know, who are we to judge? Like you can't judge people who are living in a situation that you are living outside of. And we had these two great evenings where we hung out with two very different male restaurateurs and chefs. And on the first evening, we're with this hip young guy who just was just a lot of fun, we had incredible food. But he absolutely wouldn't be drawn on any sort of political commentary. He wouldn't even say what he identified with, in terms of being Palestinian or Palestinian Arabic. He just wasn't interested. He just said, It's just food. It's business. I have a family, and he wouldn't be drawn. 

The next night we went to Nazareth and we had dinner with an older guy, and for him, food was nothing but politics from the minute we walked in, to the hours later when we were finally allowed to leave. Everything, everything, everything was politics—from the music, to the food we chose, and he had opinions on everyone. He'd be a divisive character. Some people might not go back for their second meal there. But who are we to judge? You know, this guy is in his sixties and he's been there, watching it, feeding it, serving it for years. So they're both just approaching food and business and restaurant in a very different way. But they're just 20 miles away from each other. And he was quite scary there.

(Tara and Kristen laugh)

Kristen: I love that juxtaposition, and that you may not have been prepared for it after your previous evening.

Tara:: Oh my goodness, yeah, well we had drunk too much the night before because it was Sami's partner's birthday, so we all decided not to drink on the second night, and then we walked in [to the restaurant] and he [the owner] was like, I hate when people come to my restaurant and don't have a drink, who goes out to dinner and doesn't have a drink? And so we were like—OK! 3 beers.

(Sami and Kristen laugh)

Kristen: This is The Genius Recipe Tapes. We'll be right back.

Kristen: So, the updates that you've made to the recipes—how did you decide what the right amount of updating was? Was that complicated for you?

Sami:: How did we do it? I think it kind of happened organically in a way because, I mean, I grew up with Palestinian dishes where I know that they are delicious, but a lot of the time, but the dish, or the end result of the dish is this beige or brown thing that, you know, you just put on a plate and you know it's delicious, but it doesn't look appealing. So we had to kind of take some of the elements that go into that, and take other elements to this to make it a little bit more, um, appealing, a little bit more complex as well. 

There are recipes that are not purely Palestinian, but we wanted to try to do something that is a little bit new and fresh. And also the time consuming aspect as well; a lot of Palestinian dishes take quite a lot of planning to prepare and cook.

And people don't really have the time. I mean, nowadays they do, but the idea is that, you know, you just come back from work after a long day and you just want to do something in 20 minutes. 

Tara: But again, as with the words, we had this sense of responsibility. We have this section called “Playing Around,” with alternatives suggested. But we know that actually, it's not as simple as just playing around if the recipe has tied up with your identity. So we were very aware of that. And so the there's no kind of left-field ingredients, and Sami very much held the line if ever I would sort of suggest that quinoa might work instead of bulgur wheat, for example, if someone was gluten-free, he was like, this is a book without quinoa because we do not have it in Palestine. So yeah, and then also not wanting to include ingredients that people can't get ahold of, like there's a traditional Palestinian dish where lamb is cooked in a fermented disc of yogurt called jameed that you really can't get out of Palestine. We want the books to be very, very practical and used by people.

Kristen: I loved that you especially noted that the hummus that had been published first in the Jerusalem cookbook—had not changed. I actually wrote about that recipe back when Jerusalem came out as a Genius Recipe back in 2013 after some Food52 community members raved about how life-changing it was. And I know that technique came from your grandmother, right Sami?

Sami: Yeah. I mean, there's no need to change that recipe because it, you know, it's kind of works wonderfully. And it’s, I mean, what I hear from people, it's one of the best hummus recipes. And yeah, the idea is not to change things totally. I mean, the topping changed, but that's kind of something that I would also do at home. I do hummus, I would just do a different topping every time. We get true and loyal to the tradition, and there's quite a lot of traditional recipes as well in Falastin. So, for for people that kind of start, or are not familiar with the Palestinian kitchen, there's there's everything for them in the book. From, you know, new to the very traditional. And yeah, I mean, it's just like I was just talking to my sister the other day about the book. And you know, all the Palestinian know how to cook the dishes. I mean, you know, all these women, that kind of cook at home, the older dishes or traditional ones. They know already how to do them, they don't need a book. But she said, it's actually nice that there are quite a lot of new recipes that she doesn't even know. This is what Palestinians will be cooking, which is It's quite a sweet thing to say.

Kristen: So Sami, I know that you have said that you were sort of shooed away from the kitchen as you were growing up. I'm curious, I have a lot of questions about that actually. Did that make you want to cook all the more? And then, things like your grandmother's hummus technique—how did you learn that and incorporate it into your cooking later on?

Sami: You know, the curiosity and the passion to know about cooking, and, you know, it was there the whole time since I was a little kid. And, you know, I did kind of sneak into the kitchen. And, uh, but I actually didn't know that I wanted to be a chef until I was kind of 17 in a hotel. And, uh, yeah. And going back to the hummus recipe, this is what the Palestinians do wonderfully. Where, you know, they hand, it's the tradition. It's also the cooking techniques and also the way they preserve. And the way to keep the recipes alive. So they hand them for my generation to another. And so my mom basically inherited this kind of method for cooking hummus from my grandma, and it moved on to my sisters, and I also kind of borrowed from the family. So it was, it was already alive and everybody is making it at home. I just have to basically, uh, take a step and just say, ok this is going into the book.

Tara: Because all the cooking at home is done by women in Palestine when Sami was growing up, but also today. And I just love, Sami never says it himself so I have to say it, but I just, I think it's amazing that the person is teaching the world to cook Palestinian food is a man because it's really unusual. It's just a really rare thing. And then, so it's amazing to think of that little boy being shooed out of that kitchen, that he's going to be the one who who just teaches so many people have to cook Palestinian food at home. It's, it's amazing. 

I'm so sad we haven't got any excuses anymore to travel to Palestine. The last kind of five years, I feel like I've seen every year. And uh, in fact, we have a joke at home that whenever—because I went, I left for Palestine one morning before one of my kids woke up. And he woke up and he's like, where's Mom gone? And my husband said she's gone to Palestine. And he just thought I was going to run. And now whenever I go for a run, I have to write a note saying I'm going for a run, not to Palestine.

Kristen: (Laughs.) Of the many different ways that you gathered recipes for this book, where did this one come from?

Sami: This came actually from my family. We haven't had the traditional shakshuka that you kind of see. It's kind of scrambled eggs into onion and tomatoes and actually, sometimes they call it egg and tomato. It’s uh, I mean it’s rooted probably from Turkey or from the Ottomans, where they do almost the same thing. But they also add butter on top. So yeah, shakshuka for me as a kid, it was scrambled eggs into tomato and onion. And we added other elements to it, too. We, at home we used the ground spices, but the recipe asked for toasted whole spices and the feta kind of adds a different element and texture as well.

Tara: But it’s such a good example of one of the recipes in the book, because it's like it's something that Sami would have had as a child in a sort of simpler version without all the toppings that he brings to the test kitchen with his kind of, his memory and the technique. But then once it gets into the test kitchen, then we, then we start kind of playing around. So that evolution is so demonstrated by this recipe.

Sami: Yeah, and we actually started with three shakshukas because—remember, we had yellow shakshuka, we had green shakshuka and then the red shakshuka— I wanted to do like, you know, the way I had a child, which is the scrambled eggs.

Kristen: Well and the thing that really drew me to the recipe at first is that obviously like a poached or braised shakshuka is theoretically very simple to make well, but I think that some people are intimidated to get their eggs just right. They're worried about overcooking them or undercooking them, or maybe like some are over, some are under. So—and I happened to be one of them, so I was really drawn to the idea that was scrambling. You have that much more control. I'm curious, did that cross your mind at all when you were including it?

Sami: Yeah and also, I mean, a lot of people also don't like very runny eggs, which is another kind of thing that I had in mind. 

Tara: I’m a pathological recipe quadrupler. So I also love shakshukas, but particularly the red one, in that you could just quadruple the base and then you got a kind of supper in less than five minutes. Because you can add whatever you want to your pan and then slowly scramble your eggs through it.

Kristen: And there's something about it too, that's very gentle to scrambled eggs. I think it's very hard to overcook scrambled eggs when they have such a delicious—

Sami: Yeah I mean, the sauce does help it and, you know, kind of make it keep it moist for, you know, the whole time. Even, you know, uh, when it cooled down, I mean, I remember I had some the next day, and it's still delicious to eat.

Kristen: I was feeding it to my daughter the next day and she doesn’t mind. And I also enjoyed it. 

Sami: Aw!

Kristen: When are scrambled eggs good as leftovers? Except for in this dish.

Tara: Yeah, completely. Completely.

Sami: I love it when people say that kids, kids loved them.

Tara: I took my kids to Sami's house for lunch once and I was like lright, kids, the thing about Sami is that he’s quite a good chef, quite a well known cook. So whatever he puts in front of you, you better eat.

(Sami laughs)

Tara: They did.

Kristen: Did that work?

Tara: It did work, yeah, it did work. Sami was like, your kids were really well behaved like. They were terrified.

Kristen: Actually, speaking of kids, I saw when they were 18-months-old, you went to cooking school and brought them along. And I, my daughter is 18 months right now, and I just have to, my hat is off to you.

Tara: I know, my hat’s off to myself as well. I didn’t know what I was thinking. I mean, the things you do in the moment. And then I looked back to use it. I was like, wow, that's pretty punchy. And I took this great big dog that we picked up in Bosnia who is basically a wolf, which we didn't realize until we brought her back to the U.K. I don't know if it's having twins, just made me sort of negligent? I found this child minder in the local village and she charged about £4 a day per child. She had this great big fish tank and I think these kids just sat in front of this fish tank for about three months.. But yeah, I have to say, looking back on it, I think that was a punchy move. But I don't know. I thought I would turn up and everyone would be at cookery school with kind of families and husbands and dogs and just everyone was completely by themselves. But people were 18 and fresh out of school or sort of 60 and recently divorced and didn't know how to cook eggs. And I was just bang in the middle. But yeah, sometimes you just gotta jump.

Kristen: I find that so inspiring because, I mean, we had to jump in that we just moved cross country. But in elective ways. You know, I find myself trying to be like, wait, I don't know if we could do that, because I don't know if she can handle it. And I don't know if I can handle it. And like, you have just proven, yes, like you can handle. You’ll figure it out.

Tara: Yeah, your logistics or work out somehow. I don't know. You can get kind of, with kids., kind of get obsessed by logistics. And actually, you just gotta just plow on and just everyone consisted of run and catch up somehow.

Kristen: Thank you for that. And thank you for sharing that story, too, because for all of us other people who are just trying to make it work with young kids, it's quite inspiring.

Tara: Well, they're 12 next week. Everyone's made it to this age.

Kristen: (Laughs.) Amazing. Thank you both for spending a good chunk of your evening with me. I hope you have a lovely rest of your Sunday.

Tara: Thank you!

Sami: Pleasure.

Kristen: (voiceover) Thanks for listening. Our show was put together by Coral Lee, Gabriella Mangino, Alik Barsoumian, and me, Kristen Miglore. You can find all the Genius Recipes, videos and stories on our site, Food52.com. And if you have a Genius Recipe that you'd like to share, please email it to me at [email protected]—I am always hunting. If you like The Genius Recipe Tapes, be sure to rate and review us. It really helps. See you next time.

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