Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: email@example.com
Tunisian cuisine instructor
(She’s been in Japan since June 2010)
Houda Sellami, a very calm, very motherly and gentle-mannered woman. I didn’t believe that she came from a country where the Jasmine Revolution took place in 2010. I told her that and she laughed; “I called my family when it occurred. They told me that they were OK and I didn’t need to worry that much. Media always exaggerate things”. The place where people can learn the true colors of other countries that news coverages hardly provide. That’s Niki’s Kitchen.
Houda is actually a diabetes doctor who majored in medical science in Tunisia and France. But on the other hand, she threw herself into the role of an instructor or a host mother and gave her students a good time during the lesson. I imagined that Florence Nightingale directed a soft look at injured soldiers as Houda does for her students.
Those who got to know the name of Tunisia on the TV news, those who’ve never tried Tunisian cuisine, those who’ve never met Tunisians… we’ll be really happy if you feel familiar with a country that has thousands of years of history through this interview.
Enjoying Ramadan with family
Today we made a Ramadan menu called “iftar“. We enjoy it only during Ramadan and it’s very traditional. Normally fathers and mothers work, so it’s not easy to share food with family. But we can do that during Ramadan because they come back home earlier than usual. So we love the period.
The time when we can eat something depends on place and season. For example, we have no food at all from 4AM until 8PM in the summertime in Tunisia. In France, no food until 10PM. Also Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar and it migrates throughout the seasons. It means Ramadan is in observance in May in one year, in December in another year. We make many kinds of dishes for dinner during Ramadan anywhere and anytime.
Improving a class through girl talks
My first class of Niki’s Kitchen was held around the end of January 2012. Originally Sophie, a female Niki’s teacher from France, told me about this cooking school last December.
I met her for the first time at a French women’s meeting in Tokyo. She told me about her macarons and Niki’s Kitchen. I got attracted to the cooking class first because I knew about cooking very well.
So I asked her how to hold my own cooking class there. She answered that she made contact with Niki-san, an organizer of the school, and met her two years ago. So I also sent an e-mail to Niki-san and met her in the middle of January, 2012.
Even though Niki-san didn’t try my cuisine, I could start my class right after the first meeting with her. Instead, I explained how much I loved cooking and how much cooking experience I had. My family used to invite a lot of guests to my house in Tunisia and I helped my mother a lot. I think she trusted me, but she told me how many kinds of dishes and desserts I would need to prepare for each class.
My first dish at Niki’s Kitchen was brik (similar to a fried stuffed spring roll), hlalem (tomato soup), couscous and makroud (Tunisian dessert). And I added one more dish. Niki-san also came to the class and said that was too much after the class.
She still gives me a lot of advice. Especially in regard to choosing dishes which adapt to the Japanese palate. So I always show my dishes and recipes to Niki-san and her staff before class even now.
That process is very important. I want to accommodate our cuisine to Japanese taste buds. Sometimes Japanese people don’t like our traditional taste. So I ask Niki-san every time I’m stumped about a dish. I like talking to her. Not only asking her about menu or recipes, but also enjoying girl talk!
A little girl took care of her family
I started cooking when I was 10. When my parents went out and came back late in the night, we had to cook something by ourselves in order to fill our stomach. Even though I have three siblings and I’m a second daughter, I cooked for them. I still remember that I made marka, a kind of stew. It’s a very simple dish which is made from tomatoes and some other vegetables. But it got a little bit watery and I was afraid that it would get fire so I added much water.
My mother used to work everyday because she was a professor. She traveled a lot so she was gone from home often. My older sister went to an engineering college and she spent a lot of time out the house. So I took care of my younger sister and my father like an oldest sister for many years.
Sometimes I got tired of cooking for them, but I loved that. My mother bought me a French magazine and I loved reading recipes of some European cuisines on it.
Students are “guests”
To me, students are not students. They are my “guests”. I don’t like a teacher-student relationship. We cook together, wash plates together and eat together. We do everything together.
My mother told me not only how to cook but also how to welcome people. My family used to invite many people to our house. We prepared food for 20 guests every time we had a party, even when I held my engagement/wedding party. My mother often told me how important taking care of our guests was. You should set the table, you should clean rooms… This is my family’s heritage. Preparation for dining is of the same importance as serving food. My mother often said that welcoming guests is like an art.
I think I can apply the teaching of my mother to my class. But I was afraid of holding my first class because I don’t understand Japanese so much. I always look at people and guess what they want to do. However I was confused when they talked to each other in Japanese. “What do they want?””What do they need?” I was really nervous about what they were really thinking. So I always asked them “What are you talking about?” “Are you happy with that?”. That’s how I tried to understand them. I would say I’ve welcomed about 200 guests so far in total.
☆☆☆ Happy Potluck Party ☆☆☆
Language barrier stands above myself
I had never imagined that I would be in Japan before I got married with my husband. He’s been in Japan for 12 years and I got engaged to him three years ago. It means I came here because of him. I came here only four days after the marriage.
I loved a Japanese ninja cartoon called “Sasuke” when I was a little girl. I learned some Japanese culture in my country, but Japan is very far. We feel a close relationship with Europe. So I asked my husband, “Why did you choose Japan?”. He answered, “Because I like it.”
My husband can speak Japanese very fluently, but as for me… it’s difficult. I want to be active, but for now it’s impossible because of the language barrier. I want to work, I want to see many things, I want to discover many stuff. But sometimes I get lost when I go out even though I’m an adult. Sometimes I ask which way to go, they tell me in Japanese and I get confused.
I want to live in the real Japanese society. I want to live close to Japanese people. There is a person who lives close to us. She says hi and how are you to me in Japanese every time she sees me. I talk to her a little bit but I say “I’m sorry, I cannot understand…” even though I want to enjoy conversation with her.
Guess what people think, try to accommodate yourself to other cultures
But I’m overcoming the language barrier, too. I can’t understand what others are saying, but I can guess because their way of thinking is not so different from ours. I believe that all people have similar methods of thinking.
Also some of Tunisian customs are similar to Japanese ones. Japanese don’t like to leave some food because it’s rude. We also think like that. I want to be active, but I don’t want to ask my husband “Do this, do that”. In that sense, I’m like a Japanese woman.
I don’t feel any cultural barrier here. Of course some Muslim customs are difficult to be adapted to Japanese culture. But we should try to accommodate ourselves to their culture as much as possible as long as we live in Japan. We must be flexible.
What is Niki’s Kitchen to you?
What I want to keep doing even though I’m a pregnant now. Maybe my coming baby also hopes that.
During the cooking class, I can forget any troubles. We have a fun time, we laugh together. So I want to keep teaching to… No, I want to SHARE my culture with my Japanese guests at Niki’s Kitchen. I would like to share not only my food culture but also another kind of culture such as Arabic calligraphy and belly dancing with them.
I want my guests to enjoy being in my house like enjoying traveling around Tunisia.
Her page on Niki’s Kitchen website (Japanese): Click!