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This chef adds Aussie flavours to classic Ramadan dishes. The results are perfection

Hoda Kobeissi shows us how to prepare manakish (Levantine flatbreads) three ways: with za'atar, a yoghurt topping called kishk, and her own version of vegemite Source: Supplied

Classic Aussie flavours like lemon meringue and even Vegemite frequently find their way into Hoda’s Kobeissi’s kitchen – it’s all part of her philisophy to fuse the new with the traditional.

Changing traditional recipes has always been Sydney chef Hoda Kobeissi’s style when preparing classic Middle Eastern and Lebanese dishes, even during the holy month of Ramadan.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and abstain from drinking water during this time.

Before dawn, they eat a pre-fasting breakfast, known as Sohour, and break their fast during Iftar, or dinner.

To Hoda, Ramadan is a time for spirituality, connecting with her inner self and giving and sharing.

Born in Australia to Lebanese migrant parents, she grew up in an environment where food was more than just a meal, it symbolised important gatherings and sharing good times with family and friends.

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, Hoda and her family still enjoyed Ramadan by sharing Iftars over Facetime.

She says Middle Eastern cuisine is one of the few cuisines that have been left fairly untouched.

“We don't want to play around with tradition, and we're very attached to our traditional food.”

Despite that, she also looks at traditional recipes as a “guide” and enjoys experimenting with different flavours.

“I am Australian-Lebanese and I was born and raised here. And for me, I like to, what I call "Aussiefy" a lot of the Middle Eastern recipes.

“I think that it's okay every now and again to adapt. In Australia, for example, we have different ingredients and we may not have access to all the same ingredients we have in our mother country.” 

Musaharati
A man carries out the traditional role of a "Musaharati" or a "Ramadan drummer" awakens Muslims for the pre-dawn traditional "Sohour" meal.
AFP

She recalls how she used to wake up for Sohour when visiting Lebanon as a child during Ramadan.

“Traditionally for Sohour, in Lebanon, there’s a group of people called msaharrate, and what they would do is walk the streets of Beirut and they’d have these massive drums or banging the back of pots and just wake everyone up, and they’d chant songs to wake the neighbourhood so they can have their Sohour.

“This is something that will remain in my memory and I hope to share with my kids when they grow up as well.”

Man'oushe with a twist

One of the most traditional meals to eat for Sohour is the Lebanese man'oushe, or pizza.

“The man'oushe, is definitely one of the most traditional dishes, and when we go out to a man'oushe shop we typically request a zaatar man'oushe because it's nice, simple, light. And that's how it's always been.”

Inspired by the cheese and Vegemite scrolls, Hoda thought, why not make a Vegemite cheese man'oushe.

“We see scrolls of Vegemite and cheese, so why not have Vegemite and cheese man'oushe and that's sort of how my mind works. That's how my mind thinks it's like well, I'm looking and I'm breaking down that scroll and I'm saying, well, how can I incorporate it into my Lebanese cuisine? And it's about okay, well, I need a bread component. I need the Vegemite component and I need the cheese components. And so, with the man'oushe that's exactly what we have there. And why not?

“The taste, it was sensational. Delicious.”

Labneh with soy sauce

Labneh or strained yogurt is another typical Sohour dish during Ramadan, and it is usually eaten with extra virgin olive oil and Lebanese bread.

But Hoda has to add her own touch to it.

“I've been playing with flavours like adding soy sauce and sesame oil to labneh and seeing how that has fused together and coupled with nice different mushrooms that have been sautéed.

“It's proven to be delicious.”

As Muslims fast all day during Ramadan, for many the highlight of Iftar is when dessert is served at the end.

For Hoda, changing traditional Ramadan desserts and adding Australian flavours is her signature.

“I changed the ever so traditional znoud el set [ladies fingers] by adding lemon meringue flavours and doing a lamington-inspired znoud.

“I'm still playing on the classic but I'm incorporating a lot of different flavours into that, and it's still tasting delicious.”

Changing traditional recipes is seen as taboo by some in the community, but Hoda says that she learnt some her food philosophies from her mum.

“Mum, while she did cook traditional dishes, she has always been, a full-time worker ever since coming to Australia. She's worked full time and she studied and had kids. And so for her she had to always find shortcuts to achieve the same thing.

“So if it was, for example, cabbage rolls, we all know that what we have to do with cabbage rolls, but there's no time to do that sometimes. So, what she would do is a deconstructed version of that, and she will chop up the cabbage, sauté it with the mince, add the rice and the spices and cook it that way. Still tasted the same still was delicious. It was just in a different way.” 

She admits that she does take it to the extreme, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Mum played on the classics like deconstructing things or mixing a couple of different dishes like fusing those together.

“But I take it a little bit more extreme and I incorporate things like, Vegemite and soy sauce, and all of those flavours.”

Check out some of Hoda’s recipes here.