My name is Mona Usher. I was born Mona Tabbara in Beirut. My family is registered as number 9 of those that settled in Beirut. That means that the city runs through our veins — even when we run away from it as both my sister and I did.
I come from the centre of town overlooking the sea squeezed between the burnt-out husk of the Holiday Inn on one side and the abundant palms and cedar trees of the American University of Beirut on the other.
The war started when I was still a small child and followed me up to the day I left in my twenties. So, I can’t really think about my childhood or adolescence without thinking of the war and all its fears and anxieties.
My father is a printer and his works are in the basement of our apartment building so when the bombs started falling around us and the lights went out, that’s where we and all our neighbours in the 6-floor block would gather until the danger was past. I can remember night after night that went by like that, with the radio telling us what was happening above our heads.
When I was old enough, I wanted to go to university to study art and design but the war made this difficult. Fortunately, Rafiq Hariri had set up a foundation to help young Lebanese like me and I was able to go to the American University and then Beirut University College. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was to have the most dramatic effect on my life.
Among the lecturers at AUB was a young Londoner, who had just left Oxford University, looking for adventure and thought Beirut would be a good place to find it.
Four years later, I left Beirut without telling my father and met him in Cyprus where we were married. We had to borrow my airfare to London from an old friend of his grandparents in Nicosia.
I have lived in London ever since. We now have two funny and lively girls, Isabel and Samara, who have — as people always tell you — turned my life upside down, but in the most delightful way.
My first job was in a fish and chip shop in Queen’s Park. Then I worked at the Lebanese embassy in Kensington. And after that, I worked for a while for the Arabic newspaper, Al Hayat, in its offices next to Olympia. I then worked at the BBC for the following eleven years and in 2007 I dedicated myself to my own cooking and events business, Samara Cuisine.
When I first came to London, my English wasn’t good. I found that one of the most immediate ways I could communicate with the new people I met and leave a good impression was through the Lebanese food I cooked. This had always been a passion with me. As time went by, I became known for my cooking.
Food is still a passion for me first and foremost — the love of art and design that I once studied in Lebanon now finds its expression in cooking.
The hundred dishes I am presenting here are a distillation of all I have experienced in my life between London and Beirut.