Love, life and laughter emanate from Rouba Shahin’s kitchen, welcoming her friends and family to one of her famous dinner parties.
Guess who’s coming to dinner… Rouba Shahin
It’s a record-breaking 46.6C outside, but for Rouba Shahin, the show must go on. After all, she’s come too far to turn back now. Rouba has been prepping everything for tonight’s dinner party for six of her closest friends for days, just as she does every time she hosts a soiree.
Every detail is calculated days before the main event. Rouba has a list of platters she’ll need for each dish, non-perishable ingredients are bought days out, and the perishables are purchased two days ahead. Today, Rouba doesn’t have to leave her North Adelaide home. She’ll just be putting the final touches on all the dishes and enjoying the day.
“You have to keep in mind what you’re capable of doing on the day, especially in the last hour leading up to your guests arriving,” Rouba says. “For me, it’s always a balance of what food I can do in my oven, what goes on my stove, what I can prepare the day before, and things I can prepare and freeze ahead of time.”
Rouba slowly fills her pantry and refrigerator with all the ingredients she needs in the days leading up to the dinner. The day before is exclusively spent prepping all those little things that will make the day of the dinner run smoothly — even down to de-seeding a pomegranate, ready to use as a garnish. “I always wash veggies the day before. They’ll be too wet and salads will be too watery if you do it the day of the dinner. You have to allow them to dry properly.”
The ease with which Rouba flits about her kitchen shows the previous days’ work has paid off. She looks as though she’s been this comfortable in the kitchen her entire life, but cooking is a skill that was gained out of necessity when she was 19 years old.
When Rouba married her husband, Gus, she didn’t even know how to cook an egg. But Gus loves food and Rouba wanted to be able to make all of his favourite dishes. She went on the hunt for recipes she knew her husband would approve of and taught herself to follow the steps methodically. Rouba would find herself chatting to the staff in small grocers for tips.
What began as a mission to gain a new skill, slowly morphed into a passion. She enjoyed her time in the kitchen quietly, cooking for friends and family. Then a few years ago, she decided to share her talent with a wider audience.
Rouba holds cooking classes and helps people plan their own dinner parties, and she’s not afraid to give away her secrets. “I don’t believe in holding onto recipes. In fact, I love sharing my recipes; I want others to enjoy them with their family and friends too.”
As Rouba’s own friends begin to arrive at her home, the atmosphere amps up. There are hugs and kisses. Champagne corks pop. Guests help themselves to the playlist and suddenly, the party starts.
Gus is in charge of the drinks, and without missing a beat, he makes sure everyone has a Moet & Chandon Ice Imperial in hand, complete with berries and mint. It’s the perfect refresher for everyone stepping in from the heat. Glasses are quickly emptied, and discreetly refilled by Gus, who has been expertly keeping an eye on liquid levels.
There are a couple of sneaky grabs at the food set up on Rouba’s kitchen island, but before long, Rouba is handing out lamb pastries, cheese pastries and lamb carpaccio canapes.
The talk is all about a New Year’s Eve party Rouba and Gus hosted. There were multiple barbecues on the go and 50 guests in attendance.
“It was just amazing,” Rouba’s friend says. “You always know it’s going to be amazing when Rouba throws a party.” Rouba insists the extravagant party was just close friends and family. Her signature planning was in full swing for that shindig, but she also allowed people to bring something if they offered.
Her friends all agree Rouba clearly loves cooking for them, and there’s no doubt about it. She effortlessly garnishes, jokes with her guests and sets the last things in place.
Tonight’s celebration is a little bit special. Usually there are children everywhere. After all, Rouba’s cooking is about bringing families together. But tonight, the babysitters are on duty so the adults can enjoy the full experience.
The open plan area allows Rouba to pop in and out of the kitchen, and her friends follow suit and lend a hand. There are plenty of offers of help, and Rouba values the first 20 minutes with her nearest and dearest crowded around the kitchen before everyone breaks up into smaller groups. After that, Rouba tries to keep her duties to a minimum — she doesn’t stress about empty bowls or plates accumulating in the sink.
“I’m the kind of person, once the food’s on the table, I’m pretty chilled. I’m not worried if the dishes aren’t done. I feel that time with my friends and family is more valuable; I’d rather do that when everybody leaves, or even the following day. I’ve been to dinner parties where the hosts can’t enjoy it.”
It might be sweltering outside, but Rouba has kept it comfortable, even with the golden evening sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows, creating the perfect ambience.
Rouba invites her guests to help themselves to the spread that awaits them on the kitchen island. They only need to hear the word, and they’re all gathering around, plates in hand. There is no set entree, main and dessert in Rouba’s Middle Eastern culture — they graze freely and aren’t afraid to switch between sweet and savoury.
The spread is set up buffet-style to allow guests to help themselves. It saves space on the table and gives guests more freedom. “I feel that when people go for seconds, they can just move away from the group, nobody’s watching you load up your plate.”
The group dish out spicy chicken chops, a flavoursome Arabian nut rice and baby eggplant with tahini and pine nut sauce. There’s also salad and avocado hummus, and fatteh (layers of chickpeas and fried bread with garlic yoghurt and tahini sauce). At the table there’s a chilli sauce that Gus made himself, and of course, plenty of olives.
Somehow, guests have to save room for the cream-filled orange blossom semolina cupcakes, shaybiat (custard-filled filo parcels with rosewater syrup) and delicate stuffed dates.
Overlooking the expanse of dishes is a giant vase of olive branches, mirroring the decor on the dining table. The space is decorated simply, but meaningfully. Olive branches in Rouba’s culture symbolise peace.
The collection of dishes looks impressive — and they are — but they also have a simplicity to them. “If people look closely at my table, it’s very achievable because I want people to replicate it in their own homes.”
Rouba’s cooking is traditional Middle Eastern with a twist, usually in the presentation. She gathers ideas from her travels and puts her own modern stamp on food.
“What I love about our cuisine is that it’s so rustic and forgiving. It doesn’t have to be picture perfect.”
Rouba’s culture is something that inevitably works its way into her cooking, but it’s not something she was always so quick to put forward. Born in Sydney, Rouba and her family moved back to their native Lebanon when Rouba was small. They fled the war-torn country when Rouba was 10 and when they arrived back in Australia, her parents were desperate not to lose their culture. “They held onto it religiously. Everything at home was Middle Eastern: television, social gatherings, food.” As a teenager wanting to fit in, it could be a challenge at times, but her culture is now something Rouba has fully embraced, most of all in her cooking.
Gus’s family is Palestinian and Rouba has dreams to create a cookbook about the cuisine, featuring recipes given to her by an elderly Palestinian lady not long before she passed away.
While guests are enjoying a beautiful meal at a beautiful table, there are no formalities — it has the feel of a big family dinner. “I strongly believe in making people relaxed and at home. Some choose to play their music, dance, some hang out in the kitchen, while others will come and help themselves to the food, and it all works.”
(In our culture there is no such thing as entree, we graze)
Fatteh (layers of chickpeas and fried bread in a garlic yoghurt and tahini sauce)
Sambuski (fried pastries filled with fragrant lamb and onion)
(Then we eat!)
Spicy chicken chops (slowly roasted over open charcoal fire)
Arabian nut rice (aromatic rice flavoured with Middle Eastern spices)
Roasted baby eggplants with tahini & pine nut sauce
Super herb fattoush salad
(And keep eating…)
Cream-filled orange blossom
Shaybiyat (custard-filled filo parcels with rosewater syrup)
Moet & Chandon Ice Imperial
2017 Paulmara Estates
Crossed Paths Robola
2014 Paulmara Estates Syna Shiraz
Jallab — a refreshing and popular non-alcoholic drink served in the Middle East. Made by diluting date molasses and rosewater syrup, served with ice and pine nuts.
This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of SALIFE.