ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — “I use my food blog, Sarelle Plays, as a creative output for many of the things I enjoy, namely, good food, cooking, travel, and anything else I want to share. If you like my recipes or stories, that’s just icing on the cake,” says Sarelle Hayek. Sarelle’s parents came to the United States from Lebanon and Iraq. Her great grandparents were from Urfa, Turkey.*
“Until the age of 9, we lived in England. I went to an all-girls’ Catholic school that was about 200 years old. We had lunch in a dining hall each day and were served a three-course meal starting with soup. The food was standard English fare: lamb with peas, minced meat with pureed carrots,” she says. It was a cultural shock for Sarelle when her family moved to Orange County in 1985. She went from a private English school to a casual California public school. Instead of a dining hall, kids ate outside on picnic tables and most kids brought their own lunches.
“Back then, Orange County wasn’t the culturally and culinary diverse place that it is today. When other kids were bringing ham and cheese sandwiches to school, my mother packed lahmajoon and dolma for us.”
As a child, Sarelle says she found it embarrassing that these Armenian foods marked her as “different.” Like many Armenians, she grew up eating a variety of Middle Eastern foods at home, but says she wasn’t always proud of her food heritage as a child. At 14, she became a vegetarian. She says her mother couldn’t fathom cooking separate meatless meals every night. This propelled Sarelle to begin cooking for herself, and she remembers being surprised and encouraged when many of the recipes she made were actually edible.
Sarelle attended UCLA, majored in political science. In college, she took Mandarin language classes. After graduation, she moved to Beijing rather than return to Orange County where her family lived. Looking back, she says she doesn’t know where she found the courage to move to another country at that time. She spent seven years in China, and considers those years some of the best years of her life.
Beijing is where Sarelle first met her husband. When she arrived in China, she was still a vegetarian. However, she quickly gave up vegetarianism, as even vegetable dishes in China were often made with meat stock. When she began to eat meat again, she was introduced to a new, amazing world of food. “I found Chinese food to be incredibly delicious and varied, all the way from kebabs in Uyghur restaurants to those fiery Sichuan hot pots. I credit Chinese food for re-awakening my taste buds and developing a more discriminating palate.” (The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority group mostly living in the Xinjiang autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. The Uyghurs are predominantly Muslims).