Cooking with love
Food brings people together, says Samira El Khafir, owner of Melbourne café Modern Middle Eastern. We chat with the MasterChef alumni and about family, favourite flavours, and her new cookbook.
How did your family influence your love for food and cooking?
Growing up in a typical, big Middle Eastern family – there are eight of us and I’m number eight – food was always a really big part of our lives. I was always used to mum doing big dinners during the week. Our faith also teaches about respect for food – it’s not about the quantity that you eat, it’s about appreciating it and making sure you use every bit of what you’re cooking. So there wwre things I was taught from my faith and my culture and my parents.
What are your favourite ingredients or flavours to cook with?
Oh there’s so much! Tahini is one of my favourites because you can just whip that up into anything. Pomegranate is one of my favourite fruits. And fish; I love my prawns.
What inspires you when you create a dish?
Mostly it’s to compete with my mum! My mum is very traditional, she never changes anything from the traditional way, but I’ve got a new love for changing things up. Yes we’ve cooked things this way for years and years, but you can change it. So I’m inspired by trying to recreate traditional meals.
You had the incredible experience of being a finalist on MasterChef in 2013. What did you learn from it?
I definitely learned to have more confidence within myself and my cooing style. When I first went on MasterChef I was a bit iffy about moving away from traditional foods, thinking the judges know Middle Eastern food really well and if I was to change this dish they’d probably criticise me. It was lack of confidence that made me feel that way. It wasn’t until I built up my confidence on the show - and it was the show that helped me build up my confidence - that I was able to create those dishes and it turned out the judges actually loved them. So I definitely learned take the risk and don’t be afraid.
Tell us a bit about your book, Eat With Love…
My book is a bit of a fusion. I love my book – these are recipes straight from my head, recipes I’ve used basically my whole life. The hardest thing for me was actually measuring things because I usually don’t measure anything; I just pour things in as I go. It’s got traditional dishes and amazing spice mixes that you can use on any type of meat, and it think that’s really what enhances any dish. For those who are a little more advanced in cooking it’s also got a section with some of my MasterChef dishes as well.
I think for me the main thing about this book is it’s about bringing family and friends together, to be able to create a banquet and use up every bit, stalks and all. That’s mainly the theme of my book: to eat with love. When you cook something, cook it with passion and eat it with passion, and enjoy every mouthful of it.
What are your go-to meals when you’re short on time?
Fish! There’s a dish in the book, chili fish with brown rice and that’s my go-to dish. All you need is coriander, garlic, chili, onion, oil, rice and fish and Bob’s your uncle – just your basic pantry stapes and you can’t go wrong. It doesn’t take long to make at all, and yet it tastes amazing and is filling
What advice do you have for someone who is new to cooking Middle Eastern food?
Really just don’t be afraid to venture out. A lot of our dishes seem complicated but they’re actually not that hard to make, and they taste delicious. Don’t buy spice mixes premade – if you make them yourself they taste so much better and last longer.
The chickpea dish is a very easy dish to start with; it’s really filling and it’s really good for the body as well, with lots of folate. I’d have an attempt at the Middle Eastern tartare as well – for someone who hasn’t eaten raw meat before I’d definitely go for the tartatre because it is packed with flavour and no cooking is needed at all.
What’s next for you?
After we launch the book, there are two more things I’m hoping to launch soon – a crockery range and a product range. The café is up and going, so pop down if you want to have a sample of my book and try some of the spices!
Samira’s first cookbook, Eat With Love is out now. Visit Samira at Modern Middle Eastern in Melbourne’s inner north and find out more at samiraelkhafir.com.au