When we were in Charleston, SC for Saveur's 2017 Blog of the Year awards, we met Kathryn Pauline of Cardamom and Tea. A passionate Assyrian writer and cook by way of Chicago and Hong Kong, she was selected as Saveur's Best New Voice. We sat down with her for a discussion on Assyrian Food, blogging in a new city, and the one food she can't eat (and more!).
Brianna Plaza: Tell me a little about yourself.
Kathryn Pauline: I was born in Chicago and my family is from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. My mom immigrated to the US when she was a kid, and I grew up eating a lot of Middle Eastern food, and learned how to cook by watching my mom and her mom. I married my high school sweetheart soon after we graduated from university, and spent the next few years working in non-profits, first in refugee resettlement, then running an after school program, then working to combat climate change at a grassroots environmental organization. After a while, I decided that I wanted to go back to school to become a professor. But while I loved teaching poetry and composition, academic research was not the best fit for me, so I just recently left with a masters' degree in English literature to pursue a career in food media.
Brianna Plaza: What inspired the blog? Were you a writer before?
Kathryn Pauline: I think I first created my blog as a distraction from my dissertation. It was a way for me to look forward to writing something every day that had nothing to do with 14th century poetry or literary theory, which I had started to realize I was a little less excited about than I had once thought. Although I've left academic writing behind, grad school was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow with the help of some phenomenal writers, especially my advisor Sara Novacich (among many others).
Brianna Plaza: You recently moved to Hong Kong. what is it like being a blogger in a new country?
Kathryn Pauline: Learning to cook and blog in a new country has been simultaneously rewarding and stressful. Before the move, I had built up a backlog of enough posts for the first six weeks, anticipating that it would be a hectic time. But then the backlog started to dry up, and I started to feel like I'd never be able to come up with anything good ever again. But my workflow is completely back to normal now, and I think a lot of the challenges of learning to cook in a new place have made me a better cook.
Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan city where you can find just about anything you're looking for, but you have to know where to go to find it. Also, there isn't a huge Middle Eastern population, so certain things are really hard to track down. And some things that I totally took for granted in the US are insanely expensive here. Like, if you wanted to get enough parsley to make a small bowl of tabbouleh, it would cost me about US$12.
But on the other hand, there's a lot of overlap between various Middle Eastern and Cantonese cuisines, so certain things are way more accessible here than in the US. I keep buying stacks and stacks of persimmons and okra at the big open market by my apartment, and now that it's November, I've just started to see quince popping up all over the place. Koosa (Korean/Lebanese zucchini) is easy to find here, while it's much more of a speciality item in the US. It's been fun getting to know another cuisine, while learning more about my own from another perspective.
Brianna Plaza: What is Assyrian cuisine?
Kathryn Pauline: Assyrians are indigenous to Iraq and the surrounding area, but we also live all over the Middle East and the rest of the world (in the US, there are concentrated populations in Illinois/Michigan and California/Arizona). So the cuisine really varies from family to family and place to place. My family's food is influenced by Baghdadi and northern Syrian food, so we eat a lot of masgouf, dolma, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, riza sh'ariyeh, pita, lawash, samoon, tabbouleh, and fattoush.
There are a few things that are unique to Assyrian cuisine, which just about everyone has in common, like booshala (a yogurt, Swiss chard, and grain soup) and kadeh (a roux-stuffed sesame brioche). There is a lot of good vegan Assyrian food, because Assyrians traditionally spend about 1/4 of the year fasting from animal products. The two major fasts are during Lent and Advent, but also every Friday, so we have vegan versions of a lot of Middle Eastern foods ("soma," or "suitable for fasting"). My favorite dolma is my grandmother's vegan version, prakh'it soma, which uses walnuts and mushrooms instead of beef, along with lots and lots of herbs, tomato, rice, and chili pepper.
Brianna Plaza: As you develop recipes for the site, where do you draw inspiration? What's challenging about writing recipes?
Kathryn Pauline: A lot of my posts are dishes I grew up eating and have been making forever. But when I'm coming up with something new, I have a particular way I like to brainstorm, where I have a big list of possible types of dishes (like soup, sheet-pan meal, ice cream sundae, etc), and a few lists of ingredients, dishes, techniques, and concepts I've been interested in lately, and I just try to think about how things could work together from each of the lists, until something clicks.
The most challenging thing about making recipes is this totally overwhelming anxiety I've experienced since early on, when I had my first total stranger tell me that they made something from the blog and loved it. In that moment, I was like "WAIT WHAT? People are making my things?!" Of course, I created my blog for people to make my recipes, and I've been diligent about carefully testing my recipes from the beginning, but I think that actually getting that first message about it make it feel much more immediate, and simultaneously exciting and stressful. If I tell someone to put in the wrong amount of salt, or if I tell them to bake something for the wrong amount of time I might ruin their Saturday! I take my duty to not ruin people's weekends very seriously and spend way too much time going back and re-testing everything for the millionth time, just in case.
Brianna Plaza: What do you hope readers gain from the site?
Kathryn Pauline: I hope that people walk away understanding that even though "Middle Eastern food" totally exists as a broad category, it's also incredibly complex and varied. I also hope that people understand that cooking traditions with ancient roots are not relics of the past.
Brianna Plaza: Other than Assyrian food, what's your favorite thing to cook? Are there certain ingredients you can't live without?
Kathryn Pauline: The one ingredient I couldn't live without is fresh grape leaves. My husband and I have been trying to decide on summer travel plans, and he wants to go on a couple fun trips in June before going to visit our families, but I was giving him a hard time about it because it would conflict with the peak of grape leaf season in Chicago. My mom and I only recently started picking them ourselves in the last year or so, and so now I think I can't live without the whole process of foraging for them and preserving them. Also, sumac, simply because it makes everything taste amazing. It's like what Jerry Seinfeld says about cinnamon, it should just be in a little shaker at every table, along with the salt and pepper.
Brianna Plaza: Is there anything you don't like to cook or eat?
Kathryn Pauline: I actually have a terrible, deep, dark secret: I'm allergic to eggplant! I only have 1 eggplant recipe on the blog, and I made 20 people taste it and give me frank feedback in response to very specific questions. It's apparently very good baba ganoush, but I will never really know for sure. To write about the recipe, since I couldn't write about my own experience eating it, I drew on the tasters' notes, technical cooking concepts, and my childhood memories of eating baba ganoush.
Brianna Plaza: What's something you cook over and over?
Kathryn Pauline: I've made hundreds of loaves of pita bread and hundreds of pots of basmati rice. In Assyrian, the word for bread, "lakhma," comes from an older word that meant food (it shares a lineage with the word for bread in Hebrew and meat in Arabic).
Brianna Plaza: What do you like to do outside of blogging?
Kathryn Pauline: I've been having fun getting to know Hong Kong, eating so much good Cantonese food, visiting my friends and gigantic family in the US, traveling around Asia, and when I have time, I like to sing and play the piano. My husband's a philosophy professor, so we spend most days working from home together, and do just about everything together. Cooking for your family and partner can be such a beautiful gift, and it was such an important part of my childhood and also my present life, and certainly often it's a practical necessity, but I want women to feel less expected to take on the burden of feeding and caring for everyone all the time.
Brianna Plaza: How important was food to you growing up?
Kathryn Pauline: I think food was more important to me growing up than I realized at the time, because it always just felt like such a given. I wasn't really aware of how important it was to my identity, but now when I look back, it seems strange that I didn't end up going to culinary school or something like that. My mom gave me a lot of freedom in the kitchen at a very young age, and I just loved the magic of putting ingredients together and ending up with something greater than the sum of its parts. It made me feel independent and grown up, and like I could accomplish something real.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade Mag. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as an Email Marketing Manager at General Assembly, and tries to travel as much as she can.