Sumac. Allspice. Cumin. Rose flower water. Pomegranate molasses. These are some of the ingredients that Blanche Shaheen, local founder of food blog and YouTube cooking channel Feast in the Middle East, lists when asked what inspires her.
"Just pomegranate alone!" Shaheen gushes, dreaming up the possibilities: "I'm gonna put it in dressing, I'm gonna use it to marinate tofu, I'm going to thicken it for ice cream ... it's the ingredients that inspire me most."
Feast in the Middle East started seven years ago as a personal project of Shaheen's to document recipes from her mother and grandmother in a cookbook (which she hopes to publish in the near future). It later evolved into a blog and a YouTube cooking channel. She now has more than 25,000 subscribers over various platforms, more than 8,000 of which come from YouTube.
As part of her repertoire, Shaheen, whose ethnic background is Palestinian, includes classic Middle Eastern recipes, but she also incorporates twists thanks to her upbringing in San Francisco, her own vegetarian diet and her focus on nutritious food. Shaheen, who is also a Zumba instructor, said that she takes traditionally meat-based dishes such as kibbeh (usually ground meat mixed with bulgur wheat) and replaces the meat with lentils or sweet potatoes. Or, she might take a traditionally American dish like New York-style cheesecake and replace the cream cheese with labneh (kefir cheese widely used in the Middle East).
While she films most of her videos in the kitchen of her home in Silicon Valley, Shaheen has also gone out "in the field" to cover a Lebanese festival or interview a chef at a restaurant. One video explored how to navigate a Middle Eastern market; Shaheen's goal was to take the mystery and intimidation out of shopping in an ethnic grocery store.
Shaheen's videos, which are all under 15 minutes, are geared toward everyone, from the novice to the home cook to the experienced chef, she said. Her goal is to deconstruct and demystify Middle Eastern cuisine, providing an entry point for even the most inexperienced cook.
She explains how to make dishes like Palestinian maqluba, a savory upside down cake featuring layers of seared meat and vegetables, katayef, which are pancakes filled with nuts or cheese, and hashwa, a meat and rice based dish with aromatic spices. Some videos feature her family members, and a friend shoots and edits the videos for Shaheen. The rest -- recipe experimentation, storyboarding and documenting the recipe -- she does herself. To save costs, she sometimes shoots six episodes in one day, making sure to prep ingredients and scripts beforehand.
A native San Franciscan, Shaheen is a longtime journalist. She started as an intern at various news stations and went on to host her own independent film show at PBS, where she worked for a decade. She was also a high-tech reporter for Tech TV, an ABC contributor at a live show about Bay Area events and a political analyst for a show focused on news of the Middle East.
"So, you might be wondering, 'Why did I go from that to cooking, right?" Shaheen said, smiling.
For Shaheen, the answer was simple: She wanted to be close to her children. After moving to Silicon Valley and having her second child, she "knew that something had to give," especially considering the work hours, commute and rigors of her job, she said.
So, she started a project for herself and her family.
"I wanted to preserve these heirloom recipes that were handed down to me because these recipes are all word-of-mouth. They are not documented. They are not found in culinary schools. They're quite rustic," she said. "I wanted to preserve them not only for my children, but I wanted to share them with the world, so that they could continue this rich culture, this rich culinary tradition."
Shaheen named her project "Feast in the Middle East" for more than just the catchy rhyme scheme. When she started the blog and videos in 2010, she said it was common to hear the sentiment, "Hope for peace in the Middle East."
"As you can see, here we are, I don't know how many years later, and we don't have peace in the Middle East; it's actually gotten worse. But the hospitality of the people there is still pretty resilient," she said.
For Shaheen, "Feast in the Middle East" spoke to that resiliency and hospitality that people to maintain in the Middle East. She said that she wanted to offer a different perspective.
"I wanted to keep this positivity alive there because everything presented in media is so depressing ... I wanted to show the human side of people there," she said.
For those looking to try their hand at some of Shaheen's dishes or who want to learn more about Middle Eastern cuisine, her YouTube channel is at youtube.com/blanchetv and her blog is at feastinthemiddleeast.com.