Edibles from the Middle East
Over at Mashallah News, we featured a bunch of stories lately that relate to something that is at the same time deeply emotional and incredibly simple: food. Through these culinary features, we have explored a number of themes – from issues of identity and belonging to contemporary politics and migration – and visited cities like Yerevan, Istanbul, Beirut, Tehran and Dubai. If you didn’t read these features yet, they are highly recommended! It’s fascinating getting to know places through their cuisine. And you realise that, yes, you really need to visit – and taste – each and every one of them!
Ask anyone in Armenia – be it a diasporan, repatriate, life long resident or tourist – where to find the best apricots in the world and sure enough the only answer you’ll receive is, “here”, within the borders of this mountainous, landlocked country nestled between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran.
It’s not bias, but more or less fact, as even the fruit’s scientific, Latin, name – “Prunus Armeniaca” – suggests its origins are tied to Armenia. An archaeological excavation found apricot seeds in a Copper Age site and scholars often suggest that Alexander the Great brought apricots from Armenia to Greece, introducing it to the Mediterranean country.
Then, yours truly takes you to visit Sona’s kitchen:
Sona’s mother hands her the mashed potatoes, which will serve as the filling for the last dish: kebbet batata, burgul (cracked bulgur wheat) shells stuffed with a spicy potato filling. Kebbeh, which is usually stuffed with meat, is eaten all over Lebanon and has a special place in many a Lebanese’s culinary heart. When Sona makes them — the Armenian way— she fills them with potatoes instead.
“You are eating a dying language from the plate of a ghost,” explains Rakowitz. To me, that threatened ghost is not only the Arab Jew, but the Arab in her entirety – her throat surrounded by the daggers of sectarianism, her ancestral language of “us” gradually being smothered into silence by the angry fists of many selfish regional versions of “we”.
At 8.47 pm, the meal begins. There are now several thousands seated on the ground: people who were there during the demonstrations and now have found themselves at this iftar. There are Muslims, Christians and non-believers; there are Turks, Kurds, Socialists, Kemalists and Liberals, young and old, all reflecting the diversity of the Gezi movement.
Sometimes, the seductive charm of Iranian food is overt but guileless, like a yoghurt and cucumber soup, garnished with intercrossing paths of crushed rose petals and dried mint; or overt and artful like a dark amber halva infused with saffron, rosewater and cardamom, sprinkled with pistachio powder in a curlicue design.
Sometimes, it is covert, like a Salad Shirazi, a salad that is beautiful because it is stunning and is stunning because it is the epitome of simplicity—an edible haiku—nothing more than a choir of cucumbers and tomatoes and onions, singing with lemon juice and olive oil and crushed dried mint.
And sometimes, the disarming charm of Iranian food is downright lyrical, because if fluffy and fragrant saffron rice made moist with a stream of succulently savoury stew is not transcendental lyricism in a spoon—then, pray tell, what is?