Down the aisle:Amanny Ahmad

Artist and Chef Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

You’re a chef, activist, and an artist. Do you identify more strongly with one of these titles, or do you feel equally connected to all of them?

I approach everything I do under the umbrella of being an artist, because that’s what I’ve considered myself my whole life. Now being an artist is a really weird thing with a lot of connotations. I’m still reluctant to call myself a “chef”  because it was never my intention to become one, and I was never professionally trained. It was an accident, really- a really lovely accident. I am reluctant to claim any sort of title. You know when you fall in love with something and it’s so effortless and you don’t have to force it? In the art world there’s a lot tension, and a lot of giving yourself to other people. It’s kind of like being in a relationship. If you have to try too hard, it’s probably not the right one.

The first time I used food as part of my artistic practice was for my senior exhibition at Cooper Union. At the time I became really interested in immaterial artworks, I was focused on figuring out how to make art without a byproduct. The deep punk part of me is opposed to capitalism in a way that’s a bit idealistic, I am really interested in the environment, I don’t want to add more shit to a world that’s already full of it. I was thinking, “How I can make something a Wall Street bro can’t buy and commodify?”

In my last year at Cooper Union I stopped painting or drawing. I made a 30 foot long table of food cooked by my mom- a beautiful, bountiful spread, and it was gone in two minutes. At the time, I didn’t do that as my “thing”, it was just something I wanted to do to encapsulate different parts of my identity, and easily communicate them to my peers. It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t til a few years had passed that I actually started cooking professionally or as an artist.

As a Palestinian-American woman, my whole life has been wrapped up in the question of, “How do I reconcile these sides of myself and express my experience and current reality?” I think that political art is usually really unappealing aesthetically, and generally too on the nose. It’s hard to make good political art. Whenever I made things that didn’t deal with it, though, I felt really shitty. Like, “Every day my family is living under brutal oppression, meanwhile I am making minimal color fields…what is my problem?”

When I started working with food, there was a perfect marriage between making something that wasn’t wasteful and in line with my own ethics and morals- how I hire people, where I source my food from, etc. Food has this universal ability to communicate. With art there’s a disparity between what people know and how they experience it. Food is just about your sensorial being. It removes these pretensions. I am just doing what I can in the way that I can.


“Food has a universal ability to communicate. With art there’s a disparity between what people know and how they experience it. Food is just about your sensorial being. It removes these pretensions.”

 

Your residency dinners at Dimes last year seemed like an opportunity for you to present foods that you had grown up with in Palestine or that had been taught to you by your family. Many people also associate that food with being Israeli food. Can you explain this disparity and how we can start to shift the conversation?

An example of the disparity is with the spice za’atar. It’s a relative of hyssop, thyme, and oregano. Traditionally it’s been foraged by Palestinians, my family included. In 1977 Israel passed legislature that Palestinians aren’t allowed to forage for this plant anymore, as Israel claimed it stopped the plant from self-propagating. In 2006 there were further restrictions that came with fines and confiscation for Palestinians found transporting za’atar through checkpoints. The idea that this plant was suddenly in danger simply isnt true, people had been picking it and eating it in the region for generations. It is another way to use food as a way to control and limit the culture of Palestine, while Israel continues to market za’atar as an Israeli spice.

In this political climate especially, you have to care about all human issues, not just the ones affecting you. That is intersectionality. So for me, them not openly stating their position is problematic. By allowing people to co-opt them as part of their political agenda, that’s a missed opportunity to show support for the suffering of others, otherwise, silence tends to become submission.

People say to me that Israel has a lot of different kinds of foods, and I agree. Whenever there is a culture that is an amalgamation, I understand that borrowing and mixing happen. But when one culture is being extremely marginalized and overpowered with violence in a consistent way- basically being erased from history- and then a beautiful aspect of their culture is being co-opted by their oppressor, that’s problematic! It goes beyond wanting credit for za’atar, or hummus.

What was it like being raised between two such radically different places— Utah and Palestine?

I was born in Utah but was raised back and forth until I was 14. I really am in this grey area because so much of my memory of youth is in Palestine. It is really integrated into my being. It was never something I had to rediscover later in life. I always ate the things I foraged as a kid, for example. It’s kind of the way I think about dogs- they don’t really know anything other than what they experience. I was like, “This is just my life, it’s not weird or unusual.” Diaspora was always a part of my being.


“I understand that borrowing and mixing happen. But when one culture is being extremely marginalized and overpowered with violence in a consistent way- basically being erased from history- and then a beautiful aspect of their culture is  being co-opted by their oppressor, that’s problematic.”

 

Did you spend much time in the kitchen when you were young?

I helped my dad cook a lot, I was raised by him until I was 15. He didn’t really cook Palestinian food, though it was present in spices and techniques. He’d cook shrimp, pasta, salads, and stews. The first thing I ever made that was Palestinian was when I was 5. There was world culture day at school and I put on traditional embroidered thob (dress) and made hummus for everyone. Back in Palestine, cooking was more of a communal experience- rolling grape leaves with my aunts, picking Mulukhiyah/Molokhia (a type of gelatinous stew). It’s pretty mucus-y- you put a lot of lemon and salt in it.

Do you have any early memories of food in Palestine that influenced the way you approach your work today?

Im always looking at how my grandmother deals with the kitchen. She’s so aware of wastefulness- not in some way where she read it on a blog or on Instagram- it’s just a part of her being that nothing is thrown away… The lemon peel to clean the countertop, or crumbs to save in an espresso cup for the birds. That way of being has had an impact on the way I see the potential to use and reuse things. For her it was about poverty and scarcity, and that kind of consciousness and awareness is interesting and important to me.

The freedom to have access to food has gotten progressively worse over the past 15 years in Palestine.  When I was young we could still drive to Jerusalem in 25 minutes. When they built the separation wall, the only people in my family who were able to go to Jerusalem were my grandparents because they were over the age of 55, and they could only go on Fridays for prayer. I have cousins who live there who have never been to Jerusalem. My mother was born there and went to high school in Jerusalem. Now, she has to apply a week in advance just to go there for 24 hours, just to check it out. On my most recent trip to Palestine this May, I was forced to claim my Palestinian ID card, which nullifies all of my rights as a natural born US citizen, and I am also no longer able to travel outside the West Bank without special permissions.

Before they built the wall there were a lot of blockades, and then you’d have to get out of a taxi and walk to the next, maybe 5 times of switching taxis, all just to go to the market. There were times I did that where I got shot at by Israeli soldiers that were just shooting at random people walking. It was just people going to the market or going to pray. Historically my family were farmers, and every time I went back to Palestine my dad would show me areas that had been seized that had once been our farmland. That’s what happens to so many farmers there, and they no longer have any industry or other skills to go on.


“My mom was into natural medicine so I have strong understanding of herbs, and it’s a big part of my cooking. I use a lot of coconut oil, ghee, and olive oil. I am pretty health-conscious. When I cook at home I keep a mostly vegan kitchen, except maybe yogurt. Very simple.” 

 

So tell me about this store (Dual Spices).

This is somewhere I have been coming for a pretty long time. I don’t know how I first found it. It has everything! My mom is into natural medicine so I have a strong understanding of herbs, and it’s a big part of my cooking. This is an amazing resource because it’s fun to buy a lot of this shit and fuck around. I love Aleppo and sumac. Whenever I am doing a dinner, I come here to stock up on all the spices. Their packaging is resealable, which at Kalustyan’s it’s not.

I also use a lot of coconut oil, ghee, and olive oil. I am pretty health-conscious and aware of what I am using and how it works for my body. When I cook at home I keep a mostly vegan kitchen, except maybe yogurt and butter. Very simple. I love different kinds of peppercorns- green and pink. Sumac is really important, which you can literally use for anything. I love rose anything.

Have you had Nigella seeds? It’s bitter but really good for you. I like to put it on things like yogurt, salad dressing, all to add a touch of bitterness.

What things do you like to bring back with you when you visit Palestine?

My grandma makes really good pickles made with wild cucumbers and young green grapes. It’s so good. I bring back za’atar, sumac, maftoul, which is what they call couscous. Really anything. On my recent trip I brought back 2 suitcases of grape leaves, molokhia, spices, teas, ceramics, seeds (shh), some old embroidery.

Where are you off to next?

I just came back from Palestine, Greece, London. In NY and Vermont for the summer and then hopefully off to Barcelona, Portugal, Japan, and some other spots in the coming months!