Meet the British-Jordanian chef serving Middle Eastern food at Glastonbury

5 min read
18 June, 2024

What are your earliest memories of food? For chef Ayesha Kalaji, she recalls sitting at her grandmother’s kitchen table eating shish barak surrounded by jars of bright pink pickles.

“I’ve always adored food – there are pictures of me when I was younger with my head in a mixing bowl,” she remembers.  

These days, you’ll find Ayesha serving grilled Nabulsi cheese with Persian black lime honey at Queen of Cups, her Glastonbury restaurant that serves unique and delicious dishes taking influence from her Jordanian roots.

From Iraqi pitas to black tahini and black cardamom ice cream, Queen of Cup’s goal is to ensure that you leave full.

"I thought I was going to work for Al Jazeera on the front lines as a war correspondent, but I wasn't very excited by my future prospects. That's when I really considered food as a viable career"

A career in the kitchen wasn’t always on the cards for Ayesha – in fact, she did her degree in Middle Eastern studies, looking into the language, history and politics of the region.

“I thought I was going to work for Al Jazeera on the front lines as a war correspondent, but I wasn’t very excited by my future prospects. That’s when I really considered food as a viable career,” she says, beginning to use food as a way to connect with her heritage. 

Growing up in the UK with an English mother, Ayesha says she wasn’t raised in a traditional Arab household: “I grew up feeling very Westernised.”

While the family spent summers in Jordan, Ayesha didn’t speak or read Arabic. Although she enjoyed Middle Eastern cuisine, she didn’t feel close to it as an adult, so she began to explore food as part of her degree.   

“My grandmother cooked every day for the whole family, she’d be in the kitchen constantly. There was this immediate link between family and food for me, this matriarchal figure of the family feeding everyone. Associating food with my Teta was something I could connect with more readily in terms of my Jordanian heritage.” 

Completing her dissertation on the semiotics of Middle Eastern food, Ayesha was fuelled by a British student diet topped with labneh as she dove into 13th-century cookbooks.

“It’s interesting to see how many ingredients and recipes are still so similar,” she notes. “The food that I am cooking doesn’t just come from my grandmother and one generation back, they’re hundreds or even thousands of years old. These books had poems about asparagus, descriptions of foods from the royal courts and stories of how poets would come from across the land to speak about the virtues of camel spleens.”

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Camel spleen might not be on the menu anymore, but this celebration of food and feeding as a show of honour and love is undeniable at Queen of Cups.

“I love cooking, but for me, the act of feeding people and bringing joy to others with my food is what I love the most. Food is delicious and joyful, but it’s also a nourishment that you’re giving. How we treat others when it comes to food and drink is special. I want to bring people together and create a space where people stop. There’s a sense of mindfulness about what they’re eating, and actually having a conversation with someone.” 

In addition to satisfying hunger, Ayesha aims for her restaurant guests to experience new flavour combinations, which she can witness from her open kitchen.

She expresses being "gobsmacked" that people would drive for hours for her food, especially given the current economy, but it's clear that Glastonbury was craving something innovative.

Ayesha stands out in the area’s foodie scene, dominated by European or modern British fare. Not only are these Middle Eastern flavours unfamiliar in Glastonbury, but her presentation of them is unlike anyone else.

“My path of how I got to food and journey of self-identity means my food is uniquely me. I never claim to be authentic or traditional. It’s a homage, but I’m sure some people would be horrified that I put laverbread, a Welsh seaweed, into my falafel. I grew up in North Wales, so that’s my spin on things. My interpretation is less classical.” 

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Sustainability and seasonality are important to the chef, so while baba ganoush might be a year-round dish in the Middle East, it’s only served at Queen of Cups in the summer when aubergines are in season.

Ayesha also tries to use British suppliers when she can – some spices come back in her suitcase from trips abroad, but Ayesha is currently working with Somerset farmers to grow Aleppo chillies and Syrian za'atar.

“The actual za'atar plant which you can get all over the Middle East but not in this country. Now you can – it’s so cool. I remember going to my grandma’s and seeing za'atar laid out on newspapers drying in the sun, now I get to do that in my kitchen in Somerset. We tried to grow molokhia, but the weather didn’t take this time.”  

All of these factors force Ayesha to try and reconcile her dual British and Jordanian identities on a plate. “It’s exciting for me as an outsider to the culture,” she says with a smile. 

Despite being a non-traditionalist, she aims to showcase the beauty of Middle Eastern food. "There's so much more to it than baba ganoush and hummus. There are pulses and spice blends, and don’t get me started on the desserts. Middle Eastern cuisine can be both refined, perfumed, and delicate alongside big, bold meats.

"I love changing people's opinions about it by pairing new flavours with classic dishes."

Imagine knafeh with Somerset cider brandy sugar syrup or a familiar buerre blanc infused with arak.

Hungry? So is Ayesha – after an appearance on BBC’s Masterchef, there’s no slowing down for the leopard-print lover.

“I want the cookbooks, the TV shows, all of it! Most of all, I want to keep representing myself and my food, and what Middle Eastern food can be.”

Isabella Silvers is a multi-award-winning editor and journalist, having written for Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, Refinery 29 and more. She also writes a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, titled Mixed Messages

Follow her on Twitter: @izzymks