Fouad Kassab moved to Australia in 2001 from Lebanon in search of an education and a new life. With distance, his heart grew fonder of the Lebanese food he grew up with. He started The Food Blog in 2006; through the blog, he shares his memories of growing up in Lebanon and experiences of its food.
April Smallwood

4 Oct 2011 - 3:02 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Fouad Kassab moved to Australia in 2001 from Lebanon in search of an education and a new life. With distance, his heart grew fonder of the Lebanese food he grew up with. He started The Food Blog in 2006; through the blog, he shares his memories of growing up in Lebanon and experiences of its food.

We talk to Fouad about finally learning to cook, landing a dream food reviewing role, and his next move (into restaurants!).

How has your Lebanese background influenced your food blog?
Being Lebanese has had a great influence on my life in Australia as a whole, which, in turn, influences my writing. I migrated to Australia when I was 20 years old. I learnt how valuable it was to maintain a connection to my roots and be proud of my identity in such a multicultural country. Through my blog, I’ve been able to share my heritage with an audience who is genuinely interested, and to give a different image of Lebanon that is more cultural and positive as opposed to the typical, war-torn portrayal.

You record a recipe podcast for SBS about Middle Eastern food and culture. Just how big a part does food play in that culture?
Food is at the heart of Middle Eastern culture. Every occasion, big or small, is celebrated with food, and lots of it. In Lebanon, food transcends the elements of conflict created by religion and politics, and it gives the people a common ground. In addition to its positive sociological effects, Lebanese food tells the story of the history of its people. My radio segment completely focuses on telling the story of Lebanese food in the context of culture. I’ve recounted how people get together to make bulgur, the cracked wheat that is so essential to our cuisine, and have discussed the communal practice of bread making, among other things. You can’t separate Lebanese food from its cultural background because it is a result of the culture. We are what we eat, after all.

Which cuisine, outside of Middle Eastern, is your favourite? And your least favourite?
I’m a bit of a glutton and am fascinated by all food. I’d eat anything, any time. If I had to pick one favourite, I’d go for Japanese cuisine – I love its sense of aesthetics, and I’m always dumbfounded by the exactness and discipline it requires. As for my least favourite, fusion is the one I’ve had the worst experiences with. There’s good fusion, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad.

What makes a standout Middle Eastern meal? What makes for a disappointing one? 
Middle Eastern food is all about abundance, generosity and freshness. You want to feel like the food has been cooked by a loving mother. The ingredients must be top-notch, the flavours need to be balanced and the service friendly and attentive. When you eat out, ask for the mezze to come out slowly, otherwise, one is overcrowded with food and feels rushed to eat. You need to be able to take your time, preferably while sipping on some good arak/raki, and the meal should extend over a few hours.

Where in Sydney would you recommend for a memorable Lebanese meal?
You have to head out west for some good Lebanese. This, however, creates a problem, as most restaurants there are quite basic in service and décor, despite the food being generally good. I personally go to Al Aseel in Greenacre. They have a killer lamb shawarma and an excellent chicken with lemon and garlic. Also, El Janna in Granville makes the best charcoal chicken with toum (garlic) sauce I’ve had in Sydney. Get a half or whole bird with garlic sauce, pickles and chips. It’s awesome! More 'comfortable" Middle-Eastern places I like include Efendy in Balmain for Turkish, Almond Bar in Darlinghurst for Syrian, and Alira in Pyrmont for a bit of a Middle-Eastern/North African mix.

Is it true you only learnt to cook since you moved to Sydney? Ever had any disasters during the learning process?
Growing up in a Lebanese household like I did and watching my mother cook was similar to going to university: all theory and hardly any practice. Sure, I’d pound some garlic or pick parsley for tabbouleh, but I never cooked anything major. When I moved to Australia, I lived in Penrith. Penrith isn’t exactly a culinary hotspot, especially when it comes to Middle Eastern cuisine, and I craved the food I grew up with, so I started cooking it for myself. I found that observing my mother all those years really brought out in me what the Lebanese call a 'nafas", a natural skill to cook. Before long I was cooking really complicated Lebanese dishes, and then I really threw myself at it and educated myself on different world cuisines. My library at home mainly consists of cookbooks.

I cook all the time, but, luckily, I haven’t yet experienced any major disaster – the odd issue with trying to innovate with a silverbeet roll and then ending up with a dish that is totally inedible, or the Middle-Eastern short bread that melted completely and stuck like cement to the tray; nothing that deterred me from trying again, though.

What has been the most exciting thing to happen as a result of starting The Food Blog?
The opportunities that come from The Food Blog continue to amaze me. I’ve met many inspirational people; I got published in Sydney Morning Herald's Good Living and have recently had an article written about me in the same publication; I’ve had my own show on SBS radio; I have been able to organise many Middle Eastern food events in cool places like Bistro CBD, Fix St James, and Element Bistro, secret dinners and blogger dinners and I’ve been featured in The Foodies' Guide to Sydney. The most amazing opportunity is when I was invited to be part of the SMH Good Food Guide reviewing team. Three years in and I’m still in disbelief.

You write beautifully. Have you ever considered turning your blog into a book?
I have a few ideas I’ve been researching in order to write a book on Middle Eastern food. The concept is complete and it is going to make a great book. I’m about to begin looking for a publisher, so hopefully things will start moving soon. 

What would your blog followers be surprised to learn about you?
In the near future, if all goes to plan, you’ll see me joining one of Sydney’s wonderful restaurants. I’m extremely excited and will share the details on my blog when all goes well.

Follow Fouad on Twitter.