THE SAYING IN Arabic on Seattle-area Instagram star Nadia Tommalieh‘s bio translates to “The eye eats before the mouth.” She’s a self-taught food photographer and a self-professed lover, if not obsesser, of food styling — her sons got so impatient with all the eye-eating that she started sometimes feeding them at one end of the table while conducting her photo shoots at the other.
The beauty of food “opens your appetite,” Tommalieh says. Then, in a clear excess of modesty, she claims, “I’m still a very beginner photographer.” She’s happy, however, to share her top tips:
Natural light is the best light. In wintertime Seattle, she notes, this can mean shooting your food in the morning (possibly inconvenient, but also can expand your notions of breakfast).
Depth of field is your friend. If your iPhone, like mine, is so ancient as to lack Portrait mode, touch the screen to focus on your primary subject, pull the phone back a bit, then focus on the subject again. Voilà: Your doughnut or bowl of soup is alluringly detailed, while other elements fuzz into the background, as they do in real life when contemplating a doughnut or bowl of soup.
Think about colors throughout the frame. Tommalieh deploys pretty, patterned plates made in her homeland of Palestine or adds flowers. She didn’t originally include pomegranate seeds as a garnish for the soup recipe here, but there they were in her photo, picking up the red threads of a cloth in the background.
Three is the magic number. Three elements in a food photo can best the more static option of just the main subject or two things that compete for your eyeballs’ attention.
Shoot, then shoot again. If it’s possible to “Leave it and come back,” Tommalieh says, “your mind rests, and you look at things a totally different way … It’s always better.”
Tommalieh’s also happy to let everyone in on her best sources for specialty ingredients. In Seattle, it’s Goodies Mediterranean Market in Lake City (good for a whole lamb, and don’t miss the deli upstairs); in Bellevue, try Oskoo Persian & Mediterranean Market. She’s also very into the Tunisian olive oil available at Trader Joe’s right now, a sizable tin for just $10, and likes their prices on spices, too. If there’s something hard to find, well, there’s always our equivalent of the little neighborhood stores in Palestine that function as part of the fabric of daily lives, where the owners get called, fondly, “Uncle,” and will have someone run a necessity over to your place. “Uncle Amazon delivers everything, but doesn’t ask how your family is doing,” Tommalieh says, and laughs.
If you’d like to go out for Middle Eastern food around here, Tommalieh recommends Yalla, which she helped chef Taylor Cheney get started, for a quick bite. For a sit-down lunch or dinner, it’s Mamnoon (she and her husband are friends with owners Wassef and Racha Haroun). But her true love is home cooking. While writing a cookbook “would be a dream,” she’s got no interest in starting a restaurant herself. “I’d rather teach people and have conversations from my heart,” she says.
Tommalieh loves to share the stories behind the food — the culture, Arabic terms, the different approaches her mother-in-law (“an excellent cook”) and her father would take with certain dishes. Her cooking classes at The Pantry and The Works sell out fast. She’s also done a lot of teaching simple, nutritious recipes, via local nonprofit Plymouth Housing, to seniors who’ve experienced homelessness. (Her New Year’s resolution is to get back to volunteering regularly there, and she thinks we all should, too.) She aims to make all her food eminently approachable — it doesn’t have to be complicated to be good, she says, like the smooth, tangy, rich, gorgeously deep orange-gold soup here. “Give it a try,” she says. “Put the love there.”
Nadia Tommalieh’s Shorabet Adas bil Khodar (split red lentil and vegetable soup)
“This delicious split red lentil soup is one of the most popular soups during the fall and winter in Palestine — hearty, delicious, affordable and, above all, loaded with nutrition. Even though it’s a soup, it can be easily served as a main dish next to a simple salad, and it’s the perfect make-ahead dish for gatherings, while leftovers (if any!) can be frozen for later. This recipe varies from area to area, even sometimes from family to family; I learned mine from my beloved Palestinian mother-in-law. She adds vegetables and always a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil, and makes her soup base with water and chicken or vegetable bouillon. I like to make mine with my homemade vegetable stock, but if I’m in a hurry, I pick a good brand of store-bought organic vegetable stock.” — Nadia Tommalieh
3 quarts vegetable stock
2 cups split red lentils, washed
½ medium onion, chopped into quarters (8 oz.)
2 Roma tomatoes, chopped into quarters (8 oz.)
3 medium-size carrots, peeled and chopped into 2-inch pieces (10 oz.)
1 large potato, peeled and chopped into 2-inch pieces (10 oz.)
2 teaspoons salt
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon Middle Eastern 7 spice
¼ teaspoon black pepper
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pita croutons (see following recipe) and chives, plus optional pomegranate seeds
1. Bring the stock to a gentle boil, then add the lentils and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes.
2. Add all the chopped vegetables and spices, and continue cooking until the vegetables are all tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Stir in the olive oil and cook for 5 more minutes.
4. Turn off the heat and let cool slightly. At this point, the soup can be covered and stored for up to 2 days in the fridge.
5. Using a blender and working in batches, blend the soup.
6. Return to stove to heat slightly, then finish with the fresh-squeezed lemon juice. Taste and adjust the salt and lemon juice to your liking.
7. Serve warm, topped with chopped chives, pita croutons and optional pomegranate seeds.
Nadia Tommalieh’s Khobez Mhamas (seasoned pita croutons)
6 rounds of pita bread
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon sumac
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Cut the pita bread into thin slices, then cubes. Drizzle the olive oil on top, then sprinkle with cumin and sumac.
3. Spread the pita in one layer on a baking sheet, and bake for 10-12 minutes or until crispy.