Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Poetry and other literary journals. Her poetry collection ATRIUM (Three Rooms Press) was awarded the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, while her third collection, HIJRA (Southern Illinois University Press), was selected as a winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. Both her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and her newest collection, THE TWENTY-NINTH YEAR, were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Here, she talks about soggy foods, traditional Arab mezze, and meals that take a long time to finish.
On her all-time favorite meal:
I love grilled fish with olive oil and salt and tons of lemon. That is probably my number one meal. Even writing this now, I’m envisioning my favorite restaurant in Jbail, Lebanon, where my family will drive to spend the afternoon. My mother frowning over the menu before ordering for all of us, everything to share, everything to be tasted. A long, beautifully decorated table of mezze and vegetables and salads and grilled meats and fish. The other meal that comes to mind is lentil soup—the epitome of comfort food for me. I remember my grandmother making it for me as a child, and she continued to make it for me—feigning hurt feelings if I didn’t eat more than two bowls—as long as she physically could. It would steam my glasses and fill me up in a way that had less to do with food and more to do with her. It’s my mission to learn to make it, despite being an atrocious cook.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
I adore brunch. But Arab world brunch, meaning not at a restaurant with mimosas, but at my grandparents’ house in Lebanon, late morning, almost noon-ish, when the table is filled with small plates of hummus, foul, freshly washed tomatoes and cucumbers, fig jam, za’atar and olive oil, even some eggs. My favorite meals are the ones that take a long time to finish, where people are talking over each other and laughing, passing plates to each other. I also love any meal that I can eat mostly with my hands. Pita bread over cutlery any day of the week!
On snacking while writing:
I absolutely do. I’m a grazer. There’s a running joke with my parents that, whenever they call from the Middle East, I’m chewing. My favorite thing to snack on while writing is lemons. Like, literally: cut up lemons with a ton of salt. I eat them with the rinds on. It’s delicious, but my keypad is often sticky.
On her go-to late-night snacks:
Olives. Oreos. Peppermint Luna bars. Melon.
On her food quirks:
I over salt everything. I also love soggy foods. One of my favorite dinners is a massive bowl of cereal that I’ll let sit for a good five minutes, and then just keep topping off as I eat. People also often comment on how I pick apart my meals. I eat like a toddler essentially.
On her final meal request:
Everyone I love at a table by the ocean. We’re close enough that we can hear the waves. The sun is setting, and the sky is pink. It’s the perfect temperature, just the tiniest breeze every now and then. There’s Fairuz or classical music playing distantly. The first course is traditional Arab mezze, with freshly baked pita bread. Then come the salads, fattoush and tabbouleh. Then the fish and prawns and steaming jasmine rice. Everything is delicious, but more than that, everyone wants to take a bite from each other’s plate. The meal is long and luxurious and everyone knows that, afterwards, there will be a walk, laughter, and eventually—dessert.