At Home with Abdullah
I’m so excited to share this feature of Abdullah Syed, one of my favorite foodies and all-around creatives, just as we prepare for the holidays and hosting and all the savory, sweet, deliciousness that comes with it. Abdullah is pretty much a self-taught cook (with some assistance from his mom) whose Instagram feed is always making me hungry. In our At Home series we’re exploring the concept of what makes a home for people who’s stories I love. Today you can read about Abdullah’s cooking journey and how it’s helped him to create new traditions and make connections with food and people in a new country. All photos in this feature are by him, because in addition to being great at cooking, hand lettering, and generally making things, he’s also a bangin’ photographer.
1- Who are you, what do you do, and why?
My name is Abdullah Syed and I'm an artist and creative type-person (?) living in DC. My day-jobs have been in ed-tech startup space for the last few years- mostly marketing, design and sales roles. While I have always enjoyed my traditional career, I enjoy making things on the internet and IRL. I have many side hustles and love every single one of them. I have an Etsy store, I published a coloring book, I sell my art through various websites, maintain (multiple) rather eclectic instagram accounts, do calligraphy, paint, draw, sew, etc. OH and I cook, too.
I do because it's fun.
I guess I've always liked making things, and over time, I have made peace with the fact that I can be many things, and do many things and that's OK!!
2- When did you start cooking and why do you do it?
I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, in a household where my mother was always the cook (who's amazing btw) and I dabbled into some VERY BASIC cooking here and there. When I moved to DC at age 24, I barely knew my way around the kitchen. For the first couple years of living in DC, I worked from home and just had a lot of time around the house so I thought I'd try to be good with money and make my own food. With my mother on the phone to walk me through the basics, and a lot of trial and error, I think I caught on. I also think it gave Ammi and I plenty to talk about- we not only shared recipes but also talked a lot about the inherent ability of food to connect people. I think beautiful things happen over dinner tables all over the world every day, and to be the person that enables that somehow by providing nourishment and inspiration is, honestly, pretty fucking cool. I am now 5 years in, and I think I have developed a very distinct sense of flavors, ingredients, techniques and of course plating.
3- You make all kinds of food and I am always so hungry scrolling through your IG feed lol. What inspires your cooking?
Many sources of inspiration-- mainly instagram and the internet hah. Food is also one of those things that I'm just obsessed with, so I am just like constantly listening to food podcasts, watching food related TV shows, reading about recipes, checking out blogs, I have subscriptions to a few magazines etc. All of that combined with changing seasons (soup season is here!!), events, dinner parties, visits by friends and family always inspires me to try new things. I joke frequently that the only way I know of, to tell people I care about them, is food, lol, so I rely on it constantly. It's just a big part of life.
4- What's something you cook that always reminds you of home?
I'm not super fancy- I make this Daal maybe once or twice a month. 2 kinds of lentils with just salt and chili powder, topped with a Tarka of ghee, cumin seeds, dried red chillies and garlic. It's simple, it's delicious, and goes great with either boiled Basmati rice, or naan, or any breads. You can eat it as a soup, as a side, as a main. With toppings (maybe a quick red onion pickle, maybe some fresh veggies, maybe some no-mayo coleslaw... the possibilities are endless!) Happy to spend another 50 years trying to make it taste like my mom's.
5- What are your favorite parts of the holidays? How do you celebrate?
Growing up Muslim, Eid was always a big family affair- lots of food, entire family getting together, my siblings and cousins, and aunts and uncles all spending time together- my grandmother at the center of it all. Now we're all grown up and live in many different parts of the world, so it's hard to try and get together at the same time.
Since I moved to DC, I've been intentional about starting my own traditions. Ramadan, Eid, Christmas, Thanksgiving: regardless of what we are celebrating, typically the holidays involve many similar elements: family, friends, loved ones, good food and good company.
6- What's one thing you love cooking this time of year?
I always tend to do a mix of traditional and adventurous for every menu, so nobody is upset that their favorite thing is missing. Really into roasted squash right now, and I do enjoy a hearty winter soup with beans and greens. For holidays, I think I haven't really found my constants yet- last year we did kababs for thanksgiving and a turkey for Christmas. This year we might do Cornish hens, or a lamb roast. So many choices... what's that phrase.. "the world is your oyster!" OOHH OYSTERS!