Times of Youth: For those who do not know you, could you describe yourself and your work in brief?
Yvonne Maffei: I’m a Food Writer, Recipe Developer and the Publisher of MyHalalKitchen.com. I create, test and write recipes for my website and other publications as well as do the food styling and photography for the website’s recipes and articles.
Times of Youth: Despite of being a Graduate in International Studies, Journalism and Health, what got you more interested in the arena of cooking?
Yvonne Maffei: I have been interested in good food since I was a young girl. My Sicilian grandparents on one side and Puerto Rican on the other surrounded me with the most delicious and interesting foods during my entire childhood and my parents carried on the tradition of being interested in international cuisine, exotic foods and flavors and travel. I grew up in a small town in Ohio surrounded by Amish towns and local farm fresh produce, so I was fortunate enough to know what local and seasonal fruits and vegetables should taste like. When I went away to college, my mom supplied me with boxes of great cookware and cooking utensils that I used to experiment in my own kitchen. During that time, I also studied abroad and traveled extensively so I was able to explore different cultures and their way of eating and cooking hands-on. My family and the world I explored was literally my classroom.
Times of Youth: Tell us about your tasteful endeavors for your blog My Halal Kitchen. How did the name come about? Did you expect that it would reach this level when you created it at first?
Yvonne Maffei: I really wanted to share the recipes I was making, all with the halal substitutes I had tried and tested out over the years. I chose the domain name that resonated with the concept and was available at the time. I hoped and prayed that people of all faiths and backgrounds would find the recipes simple, inspiring and delicious enough to try as well as having an openness about the concept of halal. I had no expectation about how many people would enjoy what I was sharing, but I just kept pursuing the concept with all my heart and soul. With each recipe created and shared, that’s still all at the top of my mind.
Times of Youth: Hailing from Puerto Rican and Sicilian heritage and bred in the U.S. with an experience of living in several places across the globe, how do you feel it influenced your cooking style?
Yvonne Maffei: Well, I think I come from two ethnic traditions that really love and embrace their cultures and their food. In both cultures there is a reverence for real food, for family, for native and traditional dishes, too, and that’s something I really held onto as I was growing up and seeing the food world as a whole change dramatically. It made me sad and disillusioned because I wanted to, in some way, preserve the beauty and the nutrition that real traditional cuisine can bring to people. I watched my grandmothers nourish us with good food and be the connectors of family and friends around the table with the creations they made. They were really the glue that connected everyone and bonded us for life. When I began to eat only ‘dhabiha halal’ (Islamically slaughtered and permissible) food, it was the perfect opportunity to go back to traditional cuisine (i.e. cooking with real chicken broth as opposed to a hydrogenated oil) and capture the essence of certain dishes some of us hadn’t eaten in years. I then discovered that the reason everyone loved traditional foods was often times the quality of ingredients and the use of real food products. You could say that ‘revival’ process helped me to become a real cook and truly enjoy pursuing it as a career.
Times of Youth: From where do you draw inspiration to design the new dishes?
Yvonne Maffei: I get inspiration from a lot of places, but mainly just how I feel and what I’m going through in my life at the time. For example, when I’m feeling sluggish and want to clean up my diet, I’ll share green juices or fresh salads; when I’m traveling to certain places around the country or the world, I’ll share recipes for dishes I’ve re-created from restaurant visits. It’s all very personal and experience-centered.
Times of Youth: What has been your most delicious recipe ever?
Yvonne Maffei: That’s hard to answer! I don’t like to play favorites with my food or cuisine, but I’ll go with my homemade Baked Mastaciolli recipe. It’s a mixture of using my Sicilian grandmother’s tomato sauce recipe, adding meat and all the halal cheese varieties I’ve discovered over the years and putting them into one big baking pan and serving up for my guests. It’s my tried and true recipe for entertaining because I have confidence that just about everyone and anyone will like it, especially the kids! The recipe can be found on my website.
Times of Youth: You also have a line of kitchen aprons and napkins. How would you describe it to an international audience and potential buyers?
Yvonne Maffei: As Muslims with our own holidays and celebrations, I just thought it would be fun (and it wasn’t available anywhere else) to have aprons that exhibit our happiness for the occasions- the aprons and napkins say “Ramadan Mubarak” and “Eid Mubarak” and are great ways to share the celebratory feel with your guests or wear the messaging as you cook up great meals in your very own halal kitchen.
Times of Youth: According to you, what makes any dish ‘halal’?
Yvonne Maffei: Well, halal food and ingredients are certainly abundant, so that’s why I know any dish can be made halal and that means globally-inspired food, not just food from a particular region or ethnic group. It’s basically the absence of non-halal i.e, ‘haram’ ingredients that makes a dish halal, and fortunately for us there are great substitutes around to make that possible.
Times of Youth: Do you think taste matters more or the presentation?
Yvonne Maffei: They say you eat first with your eyes, then your nose and last with your taste buds. I say it’s all important but in reality who is going to eat something that looks terrible and they have to be convinced that it’s actually pretty tasty? Taste as you cook then present the food beautifully, even if it’s just for yourself. That’s the beauty of Allah’s creations- He made so much and everything so beautiful to our eyes and halal to us. Why not embrace it, enjoy it and share that with others? I’m reminded of Surah Rahman of The Noble Quran where Allah tells us, “Which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?”
Times of Youth: Which cuisine do you favor/relate to the most?
Yvonne Maffei: I think Sicilian food will always be my comfort food. It will always remind me of the love, comfort and security of home and family, and because it’s full of healthy Mediterranean ingredients, I think it does double duty for me!
Times of Youth: We hear that you happened to accept Islam just before 9-11. Could you tell us how has your journey as a Muslim been so far? What impact did it have on your skills?
Yvonne Maffei: As life would have it, my journey has been full of ups and downs, but it has helped me narrow my focus and become clear on how I want to use the gifts Allah Almighty gave to me. At this point it’s about providing simple and delicious recipes to help everyone understand what halal is all about, help bring it to mainstream as a normal, natural and healthy way of eating and to really bring more awareness to our community and the world about the state of our current food system. I am so incredibly passionate about equal access to real food for everyone and on making natural, organic foods the norm once again, about saving the bees and saving our environment. The fact that those things are in line with Islam and an Islamic way of life, it helps me feel that my work is in line with my values and vice versa. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Alhamdullilah.
Times of Youth: What do you prefer to do when you’re not cooking or blogging?
Yvonne Maffei: Gardening and nesting at home are my absolute next favorite things to do. Although I love to travel, I also absolutely love to be at home tinkering around cleaning, organizing and rearranging things. It’s my personal space, my sanctuary and where I feel the happiest, so I want it to be comfy and cozy for my family and everyone who visits.
Love: Peaceful living
Halal: God says it’s good for us
Family: Unconditional love
Kitchen: Healthy creative expression
Times of Youth: Which has been the most unforgettable moment/feedback in your scrumptious journey?
Yvonne Maffei: I don’t think there’s been just one, but rather a collection of moments particularly with the amazing people I’ve been blessed to meet because of the work I do. I am able to connect with people who care about food, food justice, halal, gardening, community service, education, children, health and wellness, etc. and the list goes on which is what I love about this work. Life becomes rich with experiences and relationships with people I may not have ever come into contact with otherwise, Allahu’alim. That’s how I want to live my life and hope I can be as useful and enriching to others as they are to me.
Times of Youth: Since Ramadan is just around the corner in about a month’s time, what would be your numero uno advice to the ladies with regards to cooking?
Yvonne Maffei: Plan, plan and plan some more. With planning, you become organized because you figure out what you have, what you don’t, what you have time for and what you don’t have time for, and you can get a sense of peace and calm because you’re taking action and becoming proactive about the time you have surrounding meals, ibadah (worship) and everything else that you have to do during the month. I wrote several articles over the years about this topic, which are all on the website.
Times of Youth: What are the upcoming projects for Yvonne Maffei and My Halal Kitchen?
Yvonne Maffei: There’s a lot in the works, but I’m taking it all one day at a time to make sure they’re all done well, insha’Allah. Right now, we have a free app for Android phones and are waiting on approval for our iOS app, so readers can get the same information from our website that they would get by being logged in to a computer. I’m working on more books, live demos around the country and insha’Allah the globe, and soon hope to add more content on the website from other halal foodies. We’ll see where it all goes- we plan and plan but Allah Almighty is the best of planners indeed!
Times of Youth: What advice would you give to young aspiring chefs via TIMES OF YOUTH?
Yvonne Maffei: Don’t try to be like anyone else but ‘YOU’. Find out who your authentic self is as a person- who are you, what’s your mission in life, why you’re into cooking and what path down the culinary road would make you happiest. It’s okay to admire and look up to other chefs, cooks, bloggers, TV personalities, but sometimes it can make a person feel that they are less than adequate. I just want anyone starting out to know that your journey is unique and so are you- we can all be in this field together and bring something special, unique and truly beautiful to share with the world.
Times of Youth: Do tell us how can fans and foodies contact you to share their appreciation and feedback.
Yvonne Maffei: I love to hear from readers. They can contact me via my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/myhalalkitchen or by email at:[email protected] I try to respond to each and every inquiry, even if it takes a while to get to them!
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