As countries in the Northern hemisphere of the world begin the coldest months of their winter with people retreating to the warmth of the indoors, Kuwait by contrast enters its growing season. The cool and pleasant weather brings with it a desire for locals to want to give up their air conditioned cocoons of summer for the great outdoors. The desert sheds its dusty, hot desolation of summer and dons a colorful green coat, drawing Kuwait’s residents out to camp and picnic year on year. Amongst the multitude of outdoor activities and holiday bazaars that Kuwait’s residents have enjoyed in the winter months over the years, more recently has seen the emergence of small artisanal farmer’s markets.
Maryam Al-Nusif, affectionately known as Mimi, is the force behind the first farmers market that sprouted up in Kuwait (Shakshooka) in the spring of 2013. Not limited to Shakshooka her dynamism has also spawned the Secret Garden Project and she is also one member of the Kuwaiti pop up restaurant team of Two Chefs and a Waitress. I had an opportunity to sit with her and briefly talk about the projects she has breathed life into since her return to Kuwait in 2011 and discuss what her hopes were for Kuwait’s greener future.
As Mimi tells it, Shakshooka was never planned, rather like all of her projects it evolved organically. The seed was planted in 2003 when her father briefly had a shop in Salmiya where he sold organic produce he grew on his farm. On her return to Kuwait after attending culinary school and working in notable restaurants in London (including Nobu Berkley Square), loyal customers of this shop kept asking her to provide organic produce. She credits the creation of Shakshooka to two of the most loyal of these customers, Raba Al Faraj and Sara Khalil. It was these two remarkable ladies who took the initiative and organized two tables in a car park of a residential complex in April 2013.
April is the end of the growing season in Kuwait and so the variety of fresh organic produce was limited to a small amount that sold very fast. Within 30 minutes of setting up their pop-up micro shop, they had sold out of everything except for tomatoes and eggs. Late comers to the table began to ask, “what can I do with so many tomatoes and eggs,” to which Mimi’s simple answer gave them the inspiration of what to cook and gave the market a name ‘Shakshooka’ (a spiced poached egg and tomato dish with origins in Tunisia).
From those two produce tables the green roots of Shakshooka spread, popping up in different venues around Kuwait, always spreading the word about its location in the last minute using social media. In December 2014, Shakshooka finally found a permanent home in one of Mimi’s other projects – The Secret Garden.
The Secret Garden came into existence in late 2013 when Mimi turned her attention to a neglected and largely abandoned public park that was located off Baghdad Street in Salmiya and converted it into a community garden project. Her infectious enthusiasm, gave the project life and a rare gift for Kuwait – that of self sustainability.
Every weekend, apartment bound adults and children alike can be found tending to the garden, painting discarded tires and converting them into colorful planters growing lemongrass, radishes and other organic produce.
Today if you visit the garden you find a bright green space, festooned with lights and brightly crocheted squares wrapped around trees. Each Saturday of the growing season (November to April) the garden is alive with music and people. On Shakshooka Market days a carnival spirit is in the atmosphere as people gather to buy locally produced organic food including sourdough bread, handmade filo Greek pastry as well as handcrafted locally made wares.
Here too, Mimi gets to exercise one of her other passions – cooking. On many Shakshooka days you will find her offering a tasty treat that will take your palette on an international food journey with just one bite. Get there early or there won’t be any left.
My time with Mimi was running out fast, but before I left her enigmatic company I managed to get some questions in:
With the benefit of hindsight would you have done anything differently in the last three years?
No. I believe everything happens for a reason and I follow my gut instincts, so I would not have changed anything.
How is the Secret Garden maintained on weekdays and in the summer?
“I am at the garden almost every day, but there is also always someone there, appearing as if by magic when I need the most help.” She has help from volunteers near and far who help maintain the garden 365 days of the year. She chuckles and calls these volunteers “garden fairies,” because such is the mystical pull of the garden that there is always someone tending to some part of it when she least expects it. Miraculously, even when any of her army of volunteers leaves Kuwait a new volunteer somehow manages to find their way to the garden.
What challenges exist that has limited the expansion of the Secret Garden concept in Kuwait?
I have no official paper authorizing the project, only verbal permission from the responsible authorities, so I have no advice to give others on how to cut through the red tape and bureaucracy to get official permits. This is the biggest hurdle, especially for non Kuwaiti residents who may have the enthusiasm to tend to allotments in green spaces close to where they live or work, but are afraid to do so without written permission. To really succeed, local co-operatives and government backed initiatives need to be put in place to give enthusiastic people permission to plant, tend to and maintain public gardens without fear of penalty.
You are obviously passionate about all your projects, but which one gives you the most satisfaction?
“Each of my projects have evolved organically and have a personality and joy of their own, but the one that I am always in awe of is Shakshooka.” I press her to explain what she means and she explains “every time we set up in random places, I wondered if anyone would come – but by the end of the two hours of each Shakshooka, it has always been successful – I am always amazed and grateful. I love that Shakshooka has an energy and balance that binds us closer together as a community.”
As a chef, what do you find the most rewarding and the most frustrating in Kuwait?
“I love to introduce people to new flavor pallets and to broaden their knowledge and appreciation for international cuisine. I am always grateful for the trust they place in me and try something they never tried before – and then to like it!”
As for frustrating, “finding a location in which I can set up my own restaurant and dealing with all the bureaucracy surrounding the correct lease, permitting and staff. I want to have a restaurant where the diners can see the kitchen and the chaos of the kitchen to truly appreciate the final platted dish; that means location and size of location is key and I have not found this place yet.”
How did two chefs and a waitress come into existence?
There once were two chefs and a waitress and we wanted to have a restaurant. As we have yet to find the perfect location, we have used the pop-up restaurant concept to set up and serve whenever we can.
What are the challenges that limit the number of TCAAW events in any given year?
Our biggest issue is venue and permitting. We would love to have a pop up that was open for more than one day, but within the restrictions we have to work with, we have as many as we are able to host.
What can the general public do to help you in your projects and other ‘green’ initiatives that are taking place in Kuwait?
We need the government and peoples’ help to not only introduce legislation to legalize and encourage public garden maintenance by lay persons, but also better education and awareness on our waste management. We have so much domestic help in Kuwait that most people are not aware of just how much waste their households generate. There needs to be better means to divide and recycle general household waste so that Kuwait as a country reduces its carbon footprint, there needs to be more accountability.
If you could travel forward ten years in time for one hour, what would you like to see in Kuwait?
I would like to see people outdoors, walking, cycling, running and using public transportation. I would like to see green spaces blooming everywhere and communities coming together and supporting each other.
For more information on Mimi’s projects, follow her on Snapchat and Instagram: #shakshookamarket; #thesecretgardenproject and #twochefsandawaitress.