When Bethany Kehdy found herself stuck in Dubai during lockdown – when she had only intended to come for a visit – and then stuck again from carrying on with her dream in her beloved Beirut after the lockdowns eased because of the Beirut explosion, she turned to cooking to help bring her out of the difficult circumstances life was forcing her into. That is how DAYMA was born.
“My uncle used to say ‘Eat and forget your worries.’ Food is meant to be shared. The Levantine kitchen is meant to be shared. So get your family around the table, gather your loved ones, and eat. And forget your worries.”
“It tastes like…home.” That was the first thought that went through our minds when we sat down to a meal prepared by cookbook author, Taste Lebanon founder, and chef, Bethany Kehdy, for one of the newest Lebanese restaurants in Dubai, DAYMA. It might have helped that we were sitting at our own dining table, in our cozies, and eating the meal with our family from the comfort of our own home – thanks to the fact that DAYMA is a home delivery restaurant – but we are confident it also had to do with the way that Kehdy has perfected the art of recreating your grandmother’s kitchen with her own signature twist.
Dayma ( دايمة ), the Arabic word used to express appreciation and gratitude for the generosity of a host after a delicious meal, roughly translates to “may this meal be repeated time and again.” As the food is laid out on the table, the family size portions are meant to be shared. We had ordered a ‘taste,’ but what arrived was a feast.
For the kids, it meant a good meal with their family, laughter and chatter with siblings, and little fuss because they actually want to finish their food. For the parents, it was a reprieve after a long day, and a moment to remember when they themselves were kids and their moms would bring out the musakhan, the fights for who got the biggest piece, and lastly going to bed with bellies full of food, security, and love.
For DAYMA founder Kehdy, researching the history of food is certainly one of her passions. Fascinated by the ancient ways that people used create meals, Kehdy tries to honor the traditional kitchen, even as she experiments and plays with the food to create contemporary dishes fit for her ancient ancestors. “I like to know about the history of food. What they used, spices, how it was prepared,” Kehdy explains. She has books and books of research on the ancient flavors, local fare, and the traditional methods of cooking the foods that nowadays are our ‘everyday’ comfort foods.
“You know the typical contemporary way to eat sambousek is with mincemeat,” Kehdy recounts. “So I thought I will try some new flavors, and I thought, oh I’ll do it with prawns. But then I was looking through one of my historical books on the cuisine in Iraq during the 9th century, and I realized they actually had a very similar recipe for using prawns in the sambousek! We kinda stopped using it in the modern day, but historically, in the 9th century in the region, they were making them with prawns. So, you know, sometimes you think you’re making something new, but it’s actually ancient. It’s contemporary ancient.”
And she does bring a contemporary spin to old favorites. Like take her kibbeh. Because it’s usually dry, kibbeh is not typically our favorite local dish, however, Kehdy’s kibbeh is uniquely moist, flavorful, and exploding with juicy, red onions. “It’s unusual because of the stuffing,” she laughs. “Because normally it’s just a mincemeat stuffing. But it works. I like things moist and rich, with condiments, other things going on—lighten up life, you know?”
And so it is the way with her cuisine. She takes what you think you know, and she claims it as her own with a twist, a shake, and burst of flavor that is new and yet old at the same time. Contemporary Ancient.
There is a spice that lingers on the tongue that tastes almost tart, but almost sweet, but it is unique in it’s essence and not one you would be used to tasting in, for example, a kibbeh or musakhan, or any other savory dish.
“It’s mahleb,” Kehdy says, almost mischievously. Mahleb, the local, aromatic spice from the pit of a sour cherry that has been used in Middle Eastern baking for centuries, is Kehdy’s secret weapon. However, where traditionally mahleb is the spice used for baking desserts, Kehdy puts it in her savory foods. Again taking the research and knowledge from the past and using it to create something new for today.
“Flavors are familiar, authentic, and relatable,” Kehdy explains. No matter what the cuisine is, flavor brings us comfort. Biting into the ‘Everyday Musakhan’, the buttery pastry flakes apart and the rich aroma penetrates your nostrils causing your salivary glands to activate. The chicken inside is spiced to perfection, with that hint of something different, and it almost melts in your mouth from how tender it is. But you’re not thinking of this. You’re just remembering the last time you ate this same food with your father, and how much you miss him now.
The taste of a date may forever remind you of your first Iftar. Or the smell of cooking onions and garlic, might trigger memories of your mother preparing the evening meal. And when days get rough, as they have this year, the familiar is what we need. A little taste of home is what we so desperately need.
“I was missing home when I lived in Miami working with real estate mortgages,” Kehdy finally confesses when she is asked how she got into cooking. “And I missed the food from home—the traditional dishes that I grew up eating that as a kid I did not like eating—and it’s what I wanted to cook. Cooking became a form of therapy.”
To experience the magic of DAYMA, order from any of Dubai’s major food apps, and enjoy the experience from the comfort of home.