We all have that one friend whose mother makes the best food. Yes, we’ll always be partial to our family’s home cooking, but deep down in our hearts, we know that one particular lady will always leave us fantasizing about her delicious creations. Enter “Auntie” Sawsan Da’ana of the esteemed Matbakhi concept. What started out as a small business involving a woman, a wooden spoon, and a dream in the privacy of her own kitchen is rapidly expanding into a gastronomic empire, and yet the woman, the wooden spoon, and the dream are still there.
“I’m in love with food. I love eating it and creating it,” says Auntie Sawsan as she shows us around her new pride and joy – the Matbakhi Kitchen. The Arabic term Matbakhi literally translates to “my kitchen” – and her kitchen it is indeed! Run by the Da’ana/Abdal clan, with Sawsan’s husband handling business and operations and her daughter handling branding, the kitchen belongs exclusively to Head Chef Sawsan, who calls all the shots, carries her team and creates all the magic.
Though the Matbakhi team had only moved into their new Qurain-based headquarters four months ago, the place already seems like home to all of them. Different rooms pose as stations to serve every purpose: from a vegetable prep room, to a meat prep room, a room dedicated to washing dishes, cutlery and platters, and a large area where industrial ovens line the wall, accommodating the hundreds of orders Auntie Sawsan and her Matbakhi team prepare with love to send out to anticipating and appreciative customers. As beautiful and impressive as they all are, (and there are many, many more) they can’t compare to our favorite room of all: the room where if you love to eat and want to watch this Wonder Woman in action, you can experience the magic.
“This space needed to happen,” says Auntie Sawsan as she preps her famous Fatet Betinjan (Eggplant Fatteh—a traditional Levantine dish) to feed our hungry tummies. “Prepping orders and giving classes from my kitchen at home was getting too hectic and crowded – as the business grew, so did my vision, and it only made sense for our space to grow along with it”. And grow they did, to a space that’s more accommodating, yet still manages a comfortable intimacy.
This room features a granite top island surrounded by comfortably cushioned stools, a sleek counter-top burner at the head, and two built in ovens dedicated to baking delicious surprises and pastries made by Auntie Sawsan herself. Cookbooks, spices placed in jars, knick-knacks and charms adorn the wall, lined neatly on mounted shelves, giving the room a homey feel. This accentuates Matbakhi’s dining ethos – eating family-style, in a cozy atmosphere where you can bond and discuss with your fellow diners. The Matbakhi space seats up to twelve diners, and caters to single parties at a time. “All they have to do is contact me, settle on a date, let me know how many and what they would like to eat.” And as easily as she plates the heaping piles of decadent fatteh onto our plates, the vision is created, and diners can enjoy their meals as planned.
The space will also serve as a center for her budding cooking classes, and she clearly had this in mind upon designing the room, purposely making it so that it’s easy for everybody at the granite-top island to interact. “I took some courses at the Alain Ducasse Cooking School in Paris, and it was such a memorable and life changing experience for me—I feel that I subconsciously designed this part of the space to mimic that environment that I was in. If you have great memories at a place you loved, you’ll want to feel like you’re revisiting it forever.” Inspiring it is, giving us the urge to hurry up and sign up for her upcoming classes to be offered in the near future, post Ramadan 2016. The classes will average to three hours long, and will offer a syllabus containing a starter “such as a soup, salad, or appetizer” she interjects, a main dish, and a dessert. “We have to keep it relatively simple because cooking is a commitment and everything can take time, but the experience will be unforgettable.” Do these classes require experience and expertise? “Not at all – no experience necessary! Some basic knowledge is required, depending on what you’re coming here for, but the bottom line is to come in with a positive attitude, looking forward to cook some great food, and to bond and interact with everyone else in the process.”
In her teaching experience, Sawsan has trained and taught everyone: from nannies and cooks sent by employers, to newlyweds looking to perfect their just-out-of-our-parents’-house culinary skills (or lack thereof), to parent-child duos looking for a fun evening of bonding. This bigger space will only take these classes a step further, and she’s looking forward to seeing that happen.
Lest we forget the food—the glorious food. Matbakhi specializes in Levantine cuisine, honoring Sawsan’s roots in life and the kitchen. Being of Palestinian origin, she excels in the making of all things tabikh (home cooking), but also finds pleasure in creating Italian dishes and international fare such as Asian inspired platters. She whips up mean nibbles and bites that come in all shapes and sizes – from party favorite pastries to mini shawarmas and falafels, to succulent savories and refreshing salads. And her desserts! A certain bazaarite has fond memories of the lazy cakes she’d feed her in her youth, but since then, Sawsan has graduated to greater lengths with an array of decadence for her customers to indulge in. “And I have one more thing to show you” she says, as she leads us to the side of the maze-like kitchen, revealing a gorgeous, authentic, built-in brick oven: “this is where we will be making our manakish (Arabic Pizza). Don’t forget to come here for breakfast sometime.” We had no words.
As we polish off the remaining bits of fatteh, Sawsan leaves us with a few words that were as memorable as the hearty treat we were served. “Anyone can cook, but you have to be in love with it – in love with the ingredients, produce, spices and all the other mechanics that come along with creating food. Even down to the textiles and plates that you’ll use to serve each meal. When I cook, I cook with love and a lot of soul.”
“And salt!” Her daughter interjects, prompting Sawsan to gales of laughter – “that’s true,” she responds. “I do love my salt!”
As for the fatteh? We didn’t need to eat anything else for the rest of the day.
Matbakhi is open for business in Ramadan! Place your Futoor, Ghabqa and Suhoor orders in adavnce. Matbakhi is located in West Abu Fatira, block 1, street 26, building 214.