How Two Arab Women Chefs Are Celebrating #AprilIsForArabFood

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How Two Arab Women Chefs Are Celebrating #AprilIsForArabFood
Using the hashtag, they share their culture and traditions while countering stereotypes of Arabs in the news media.
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When chefs and food writers Mai Kakish and Abeer Najjar cook Arab food, you quickly notice what really drives their culinary passion.

Through their cooking, the two Arab women honor and keep alive the memories they associate with every dish and every ingredient. 

And that special connection between food and history is also at the heart of a popular hashtag they helped spearhead.

"What better way to showcase our food, cuisine, culture, history than food? It’s just something that translates across borders across countries. And we thought, 'you know what, let's hashtag it: #AprilIsForArabFood.''' 

Kakish and Sweet Pillar Food launched the hashtag in April 2018 because in the U.S., April is known as Arab Heritage Month. Based on the online success of last year's hashtag, Arab food bloggers and chefs all over the world are now taking what they started last year offline and into real dining rooms.

In Chicago, Kakish and Najjar co-hosted a meetup to encourage Arab food bloggers to take up more space in the food world and to reclaim their heritage.

"Something that really stuck out for me with the hashtag was that it says "Arab food," because I think a big insecurity you have growing up is identifying as Arab as you shy away from using that word. ... And I feel like sometimes other words or descriptions like ‘the Middle East’ restrict certain communities that might not be living geographically there. So, you know, I'm American, but I identify with my Arab side, and I felt like that was a reclaiming of that word that sometimes has these bad connotations, especially from the way we see it being used in mainstream media."

For Najjar, the hashtag is also an opportunity to bypass major publications that, she says, too often write about and promote Arab dishes in a way that's not authentic or fully representative of the diversity of Arab cultures and traditions. 

"Not this limitation to our food that it's just falafel, or it's not just shawarma, or it's not just rice or bread. It's this complex food, and everywhere you go, everyone does it a little different, and being able to actually share that and not argue over it or fight over it. And everybody having their own piece in that narrative."

"Even just recognizing  where it's from, if it's from Palestine or if it's from Lebanon. I think often it gets watered down or made more palatable. I'm more than welcoming to anybody who wants to learn about Arab food and cook it and write about it and all of that. But to come with a certain sensitivity around the issue, because nothing is in a bubble, like nothing that's in our food is in a vacuum. There's all these complexities and layers of politics and language and, you know, the region in general and how us being American plays into all that."

"We wanted this whole thing, with even the hashtag, we wanted it to blossom in a very positive light. The point of this is not to create arguments, not to create more boundaries and walls. We want it to take those walls down. We wanted to put the Middle East ... or the Arab world in a positive light."