LONDON: When New York-based Lebanese-Kuwaiti copywriter Kareem Shuhaibar started his Instagram account, The Voicenote Chef, in Spring 2020, little did he know it would quickly bring together a community of more than 30,000 followers for a daily fix of Arab food and culture.
“It started from homesickness,” Shuhaibar, who was living in London at the time, tells Arab News. “It was lockdown. We’d been stuck at home for probably a month by that point and I was starting to feel really homesick and a bit sad, so I turned to my mom for comfort and she was, like, ‘Why don’t you make a Shorbat Adas bi Hamod (a lentil soup)?’”
Although initially hesitant, Kareem ended up making his mom’s lemony lentil soup and “it turned out phenomenal. I was so impressed. So I asked my mom to send me another voice note and she sent me (recipes for) Muhamarra, and artichokes with garlic and lemon.”
More recipes followed — his Whatsapp slowly turning into a “manuscript of 1,000 voice notes” recorded by his mom — and Shuhaibar grew more confident in his cooking skills. So confident that he launched The Voicenote Chef.
The reason his page resonated with so many, Kareem believes, is because “people love witnessing how a guy who knows nothing about the kitchen can transform overnight with the help of his mom. It’s a modern story that goes against stereotypes.”
Beyond the authenticity of his page (he will happily post a photo of food served on a chipped plate “because that’s the plate you have at home”), there’s an original, and equally entertaining, element of nostalgic storytelling in the way he posts his recipes. Shuhaibar also regularly posts comedy skits about the nuances of being an Arab mom or specifics of everyday Arabic culture.
“There’s a whole world around the dinner table in the Arab world. There’s what happens after you eat. There are the conversations you have when you’re eating,” he says. “(On The Voicenote Chef), food is so much more than just ingredients. It’s a story. It’s a home you come to every day. You come in, see what I’m talking about today in terms of Arabic culture and food, see what my mom’s saying, and you leave, hopefully with a smile and a big belly.”
Beyond the food and comedy, there’s a very personal story behind ‘The Voicenote Chef’ too. It was a way for Shuhaibar to honor his single mom, who raised him and his siblings on her own following their father’s death 25 years ago.
“It brings me closer to home, even though home is thousands of kilometers away. I feel like I’m in the Middle East every day I open my page. I feel this page is like an embassy for our Arab world,” he says. “And it’s become my therapy. My mom saved me in the pandemic.”