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Dear Siti: A letter to my late grandmother


My maternal grandmother, Sabha Odeh, was from Yaffa, Palestine. Newly married, with her first baby and another on the way, she was forcefully displaced from her home in 1948 and eventually resettled in Al-Amari refugee camp in what is now the West Bank. It is where she raised 14 children, became a grandmother, and great grandmother, and where much of my family still resides. I only met her once in my life, but without a doubt she was a major influence in my love for food. She might not know that, so I decided to write her a letter about my food story and share that with you.


Dear Siti,

It’s Abeer. I know it’s been a while since we talked, and when we did get to meet, I was your bratty 3-year old American grandchild who didn’t talk much.

I know when Mom brought me to visit you and all the family in Palestine, I survived on ice cream and sunflower seeds and insisted on living in pajamas. Mom said I’d whine and cry if anyone tried to make me do different, and that you and Sidi would tell everyone to back off and do whatever to keep me happy. Mom says I waited ‘til the last days of our trip to finally start opening up and talking. I didn’t know it’d be the only time we’d have, but you’ve stayed with me all these years in another way and I’m writing this letter to let you know.

So Siti…I kind of have this little obsession…with food and cooking. I always have. And I’m sure you saw it in me. My palete has come a long way from ice cream and sunflower seeds and you can thank your daughter Huda for that.

It wasn’t easy for Mom, being your only daughter to make the trip to America where she would be met with new people, a new language she didn’t know, and grocery stores that didn’t stock any of the ingredients she was used to seeing you cook with. But she got by. She was resilient. Even though she was lonely, I know she felt like a piece of the family was there whenever she cooked one of your recipes. Her food always made our house feel like a home no matter where we were. Despite all the difficulties you faced, you managed to make a refugee camp feel like a home.  And I can’t help but think you passed that on to her.

My earliest memories are running to the kitchen whenever Mom was cooking up something. Even as early as 4 or 5 years old. She never shooed me away and would always make sure I had something delicious to devour when I got home from school. She’d let me help however I could despite my age. I stood on stools or chairs to help stir the pot sometimes.

My siblings capitalized on this love they knew I had for food. We would play “restaurant”-which was really a way for them to get me to make food for them. I played the waitress and chef, but always had a blast.


When we had long drives and were cramped up in the backseat, I’d turn and face them and put on my own imaginary cooking show for them. They entertained their baby sister’s love for food and that support never stopped.

Mom let me watch a ridiculous amount of cooking shows on TV, and back then they weren’t easy to come by. So you can imagine why I wanted my own. We all became fans of Jacques Pépin and his non-foofoo approach to French cooking and would laugh a little when he pronounced cookie sheet as “cookie shit.” We became introduced to Asian cooking through Martin Yan and always said his closing line along with him –“If Yan can do it, so can you.” I think a part of me felt at home watching them. They had accents like Mom. They cooked the food they grew up eating, but weren’t shy to introduce new ingredients or flavors they discovered. They were true to themselves. I know they were some of the first chefs to inspire me and later on I’d look to them for confidence in my roots and culture.


But don’t worry Siti, Mom cooked a lot of Palestinian food. She eventually found the right ethnic markets to go to for Middle Eastern ingredients and when that didn’t work, she found a way to improvise. But look…you can’t plop a Palestinian immigrant into the south-side of Chicago and not expect them to try a few new things. When we came home talking about how great Susan’s dad’s flautas (Mexican fried tacos) were or how delicious some pasta was we had at the neighbor’s, Mom took on that challenge to make her kids the food they loved. She wasn’t gonna have anyone else feed that love we had for food if she could do it herself. So maybe it was warak dawali (stuffed grape leaves) one night but tacos the next. Eventually Mom added sushi, tacos, and gyros to her list of favorite foods. She inspired me and showed me that I can have a deep love for my heritage, but that the places, people, and culture I grew up around were just as much a part of me and my food. And that sounds amazing I’m sure, but it took a serious identity crisis to come to that. 

Siti, I knew at a young age I really wanted to share my love for food with others. But that wasn’t always an easy dream to chase. Life happens. We had hard times, and we had harder times. Money, peer pressure, moving, and being a brown child of immigrants in America. It wasn’t easy. As much as I loved my heritage, especially the food, I often felt embarrassed by it. Kids made fun of the labne (strained yogurt) sandwich lunch Mom packed me for school trips. I remember one of my friends hiding the stuffed grape leaves we were eating at my house in her napkin so that no one would notice that she didn’t want to try them. And lets not mention when Mom would find fresh purslane on the side of a road or alley. I prayed one of my friends wouldn’t see us picking at what they thought were weeds.


Fast forward a few years and though I’m still madly passionate about food, I can’t really envision myself being a figure in that world. I thought about culinary school, about working in a restaurant, but it wasn’t appealing. Also, I thought who could teach me better than my mama. The cooking shows became all the same to me, well-scripted and there’s no one I can relate to really. No one cooked the foods we did and no one looked remotely like me. I got excited when I discovered a PBS cooking show about Mexican food, but it was hosted by a white guy. Something about it didn’t seem right, but I didn’t know how to express it at the time. So I went on, finished college, skipped culinary school, but always kept cooking.

When blogs started gaining popularity, I was enticed by the idea that anyone can start one and just share what they love. But when I started checking the famous food blogs out, I was instantly intimidated. I could never make a site like that or take photos like that. And oh yeah, how do you spell bandora maqliyya (stewed tomatoes) in English? How do you write a recipe for a dish you never seen a recipe written for? You just made it enough times with your Mom to know how its done right! Needless to say, I bullied myself into not starting a blog for a long time. When I finally did, I constantly felt a battle of how to make my food “American” or palatable to white people, if we’re gonna be real. I shied away from recipes that I thought people would think were weird. I though, who would even know where to buy pomegranate molasses or za’atar (wild thyme spice mix)? Why was I so afraid to share something I was proud of?


Little did I know, the food world had trends too. And when I started hearing customers at work ask me where the “za’atar” or rose water was, with a confused look on their faces, I knew they had a recipe that called for it. I was initially excited to see more of us in the food world. But when I started to see that the narrative was void of our stories, it didn’t sit right. When I started hearing people call maftoul (pearled cous cous) or falafel, Israeli, I felt hurt. I felt robbed. And when I saw famous food magazines share their secret to tabbouleh (parsley bulgur salad) was to replace the parsley with kale, I was mad. I felt the love and struggle that made our food rich and filling was being erased. Why was I always meant to feel embarrassed by this food or that is wasn’t good enough? Why were the kids who made fun of my labne sandwich now in line at the Halal cart asking for extra white sauce? Why was there suddenly money in foraging in Brooklyn, NY when our mothers had been doing it for years? Why was it suddenly trendy and who decided that? And why weren’t the immigrants that brought these foods over being showcased or even a part of the narrative? That was the part that made me upset, but it was the motivation and blessing in disguise I needed.

I decided really quickly that if I didn’t take ownership of my food, my culture, my history, I couldn’t be mad when someone else did and profited off of it. Don’t get me wrong, appropriation still makes me mad, but I knew I had to raise my voice and not wait for someone else to ask my opinion. I went from searching for validation, to validating myself. I went from begging for a seat at the table to being just fine pulling up a seat to my own and inviting others to join me. There was a freedom I felt in unapologetically being myself that I never felt before.


I started sharing more posts about what was true. That embarrassment I had when mom picked grape leaves or purslane off the side of the road became a blog post that I had so many people respond to with similar stories that they had from their childhood. I abandoned the fear I had about putting twists on Palestinian dishes and started serving my creations at my underground Huda supper club, named appropriately after Mama. And when I made some dope new friends that were down to film a cooking show with me, I was so nervous, but so ready. We filmed an online mini-series called “Abeer’s Day Off,” featuring dishes like shawarma tacos and rose cardamom tres leches. Siti, it felt like I was inviting people into my kitchen to cook with me and it felt like home. I had a mom tell me how happy she was that her daughters had someone they can watch that looked like them and that they could look up to.

Things started picking up. An article online talked about how I was fighting cultural appropriation through my food. And even though a friend told me not to, I read the comments section. There was lots of love, comments on how I wore my hijab (headscarf) (because of course what I wear on my head somehow has to do with my food), and definitely a lot of hate to sift through. Some said I shouldn’t be trusted with a pressure cooker that I could make bombs in, while others said things that, well honestly they’re not worth repeating. Sometimes I wish people could just see me for the food, but that would be like asking people to be colorblind.

The reality is that like many other parts of our world, people of color and those that belong to marginalized groups sometimes don’t feel that they have a place in the food world either. In a time where we have people showing their ugliest side and dehumanizing others, its more necessary than ever to use what we are passionate about as a vehicle for unity. It’s about so much more than food now, Siti. And while I know I might make some racist people uncomfortable, if there’s one little Abeer out there that I’m inspiring, its all worth it.


So when your granddaughter – this Palestinian/American/Southside-Chicagoan – is sharing her food from Chicago to Ireland to Palestine, know that I still get nervous but get stronger and bolder every step of the way. Know that even though my voice might shake, I’ll still fight against the racism in the food world. That I’ll encourage others to see through it when food from minority groups is fetishized to cater to gentrification and solely to profit off of.  And that when the people who make the food at their favorite lunch spot are racially profiled and harassed, that they stand up for them. I hope I have the courage to tell other chefs that when they need a recipe for Biriyani, they should seek the expertise of a South-Asian chef over Bon Appétit magazine.  

Jacque Pepin once said that food is the simplest form of love we can share. I know first hand the power that food has to connect people. Not only to talk about the foods we share a love for and reduce them to hashtags, but to hear the stories that they come with. To be a gateway to understanding, representation, and diversity. To be a platform for those that haven’t had one and to pass the mic.

Siti, I’m on this journey to keep our story and our food alive and I’m not giving up. Thank you for passing that love on through our family despite all the odds that were stacked against you. Thank you for showing me the strong line of women I come from. Thanks for being there in every dish, batch of pickles, and recipe I develop with mom. Hope I can make you proud.

Talk later, I love you. 



Abeer's Breakfast Pita

I’ve always had a weird love/hate relationship with breakfast. So, I love breakfast food, but I was never a huge fan of eating in the morning as soon as I woke up. I’m more the wake up to a warm cup of coffee and lounge around for a bit until I have to get on the road to work. So on most days, my breakfast is something simple like fruit or toast. Let’s just say a lot of my breakfast recipes usually end up being cooked for brunch, lunch, or dinner! Luckily, this recipe for my Breakfast Pita is an easy one you can throw together for yourself or make for a crowd any day of the week! Check out the video and get the full recipe below!

Prep Time: 15 minutes, Cook Time: 5 minutes, Yields: 1 serving


  • 1 egg
  • 1 whole pita bread
  • salt & pepper


  • grape tomatoes & feta cheese
  • sausage, cheddar & jalapeno
  • mushroom & green onions 


Preheat your broiler. Arrange your pita on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Whisk your eggs and prepare any of the ingredient toppings. Lightly push down on the center of the pita to create a little well. Pour about half of your egg mixture on to the center of the pita. Sprinkle your toppings and pour the remaining egg on top.

Carefully put your baking sheet under the broiler (the eggs are runny and spill over easily). Cook for about 2-5 minutes depending on how hot your broiler is. Keep your eyes on them and don’t walk away! When the eggs are cooked to your liking and the bread is toasted, remove them from the oven. Finish them with coarse salt and pepper. Enjoy!

Breakfast Pita 5
Abeer Najjar

Abeer Najjar is a self-taught chef and blogger. She is a professional late-night snacker and believes the best meals are those that are simple and shared amongst others. Abeer’s love for food started in her mother’s kitchen and is inspired by her family’s Palestinian roots along with her Southside Chicago upbringing.   Abeer writes to preserve memories of cooking with her mother, to share her food experience, and to inspire a deeper appreciation for food and the stories behind it. For many children of immigrants, traditional food is often a source of embarrassment. Abeer wants to shift that embarrassment to pride. Abeer runs an underground supper club and her work has been featured in a variety of publications. She is currently working on creating more content and documenting her family recipes for a book.