Meet Sondos Azzam, Dubai’s Palestinian pickle girl

For this food artist, fermented foods are not only tasty, but also channel nostalgia and solidarity

Sondos Azzam says she could eat pickles every day with every meal. Photo: Sondos Azzam
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Jars of pickled green olives, bottles of tangy Persian cucumbers and flavoured kefir jostle for space in Dubai resident Sondos Azzam's kitchen.

The Palestinian food artist says she’s “obsessed with fermented food” and is often referred to as “that pickle girl”.

Grandma’s kitchen

For Azzam, who holds a master's in art direction from the University of the Arts London, pickling as a practice gained momentum during the Covid-19 pandemic, when she found solace in her kitchen, learning new techniques and processes for making preserves.

“Those days I was alone in London and found myself attempting to understand fermentation as my culture was less accessible. Besides its benefits for gut health and sustainability, fermentation and preservation, for me, are a sign of familial love,” Azzam tells The National.

Growing up, her most precious childhood memories centred around visits to her grandmother's kitchen in Jordan, which was always stacked with an assortment of seasonal mouneh (preserves) – think thick glass jars brimming with olive oil, pickles, tahini, dried apricots, figs, pickled eggplants, brined white Nabulsi cheese and labneh.

“Whenever I am fermenting, I am reminded of her kitchen, bubbling with aromas and flavours, especially yoghurt in cheese cloth being made into labneh,” she says. Her Palestinian-Lebanese grandmother would also host family lunches on Sundays, preparing mloukhieh, a green leafy vegetable dish, every week.

“She would always serve the dish, along with a salad and pickles. But even before the meal was ready, I would devour the pickles off the table. And my indulgent grandma would lovingly hand me another plate of moreish pickled treats, which was spicy and sour with a hint of pepper,” says Azzam.

Mouneh in Middle Eastern culture is a traditional ritual, geared towards increasing the longevity of food past its season. Many homes boast their own fermentation technique and unique flavours.

In the summer, Azzam says her grandmother would dry herbs and greens including mloukhieh. “In spring, it would be cheese, grape leaves, zaatar and lemon from her garden and, in autumn, it would be olives and olive oil,” she says.

Women play an integral role in the mouneh ritual, which the food artist hopes to highlight by taking the legacy forward.

A pickle a day

Her fascination with fermentation has led Azzam to conduct a series of pickling workshops at Warehouse 421 in Abu Dhabi, Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and Sharjah Biennial last year.

She is constantly experimenting by fermenting leftover fruits and vegetables from her fridge and puts the spotlight on pickling through her workshops.

At the Sharjah Biennial, for example, Azzam led participants through a session on lemon preserves and lemon kefir.

“The interactions at workshops are my favourite part, especially knowing that people leave the session excited to experiment and indulge in fermentation. At this particular workshop, one such dialogue centred around thinking of a scoby [symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast] when making kombucha and relating it to a mother figure guiding and helping the ferment to grow,” she shares.

Consuming some form of pickled or preserved food is also a daily practice, one she indulges in either at breakfast or lunch. “My mornings typically start with bread and fried eggs, topped with salted olives with slices of fermented eggplants or pickled onions,” says Azzam.

Most of her afternoons are spent trying out new ferments. Her current favourite is flavoured kefir mixed with juices, herbs and seasonal syrups. “If I could have my way, I would have pickles all the time,” she says.

Ode to Palestine

Apart from her fermentation work, Azzam has been reimagining Palestinian and Middle Eastern culinary delicacies through supper clubs, photography exhibitions and events.

In 2022, she hosted Naranga supper clubs at Myocum restaurant in Dubai. The multisensory dining experience explored the collective memory of the Yaffa orange, a strong symbol for Palestinians, questioning the fruit's legality.

The audience was treated to beetroot and orange salad with goat’s cheese, orange and thyme granita, musakhan with orange and pomegranate molasses glazed chicken with Yaffa cake as the dessert.

Azzam has also tapped into her Palestinian roots at an art installation in 2019 that revisited conversations with her father about his childhood home.

Conceived and expressed through objects and smells that signify his emotional moments before he left Palestine, the installation allowed the audience to understand fragmented nostalgia.

“My work attempts to excavate and examine memories of Palestine from the perspective of my family, their childhood and the rose-tinted lens of what it used to be,” says Azzam. “While I attempt to highlight this narrative, it is difficult to find solace at a time when the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people is on public display.

“Rather, I have found more peace in using my time to call attention to their struggle by spreading information and knowledge through food and art.”

Updated: February 04, 2024, 11:11 AM