Food can be a potent trigger for childhood and adult memories. Everybody has a ‘comfort food’, something associated with good times and good company. Food is vital in a culture of generous hospitality where even if you have hardly anything to share you will go to great lengths to provide something for your guests. Whether you love savoury food or have a sweet tooth, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine will never let you down.
Countless combinations of tastes and textures shape the rich culinary landscape of the region. Bridging cultural differences and political rifts, food is a common thread for many in the Arabic speaking world. It is an essential part of a nation’s identity and sophisticated recipes are almost an issue of national pride: although most mouth-watering dishes are often the result of a long history of
international migration of ingredients.
Let’s take the tomato. Originally from Latin America, it was introduced to the Middle East at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the British consul in Aleppo. Although viewed initially as an ingredient to be used exclusively in cooked dishes, today, the tomato is a critical and ubiquitous part of Middle Eastern cuisine, served fresh in salads, grilled with kebabs and made into sauces.
The tomato’s journey around the globe to the Middle East is even reflected in its local nomenclature: the early name used for the fruit in Iran was Armani badenjan (Armenian eggplant).
But the story goes even deeper than that. Kamal Mouzawak, founder of a chain of restaurants that have an ecological and social agenda, traces the rich history and provenance of ingredients without which today’s elaborate Lebanese cuisine would not be the same. But even in Lebanon, which might be best known internationally for its culinary excellence, there is no free lunch. Noor Baalbaki takes a closer look at the dilemma Lebanese women face in a culture that thrives on its exquisite cuisine while imposing standards of thinness on women.
But there are still more political questions to be asked. Moroccan editorial cartoonist Khalid Gueddar portrays the story of Mouhcine Fikri and introduces us to the fish that nearly started a revolution.
In times when hunger has become a weapon of war and an estimated one million people in Syria are living under siege, forced through desperation to boil up herbs and grass as a soup, we cannot ignore the political dimension of food and nutrition. The agricultural activist Ansar Jasim describes how urban farming has become a form of resistance that enables people, to some extent, to win back sovereignty and dignity. Carol Khoury reviews a book by Anne Gough and Rami Zurayk on the Palestinian version of the Hunger games.
When there is abundance, consumption comes with responsibilities, especially in relation to food waste. Mamoun Ghallab, co-founder of a zero waste non-profit organisation, raises awareness of the entire chain of production and the tangible impact on energy and resources that throwing food away causes.
It has often been predicted that the next war in the region would be about water, however, there is already a low-scale conflict around
Hummus. Dr. Ali Qleibo, author and expert in Palestinian culture, describes how Israel has successfully managed to internationally
brand the chickpea, a typical instance of the process known as food colonisation.
As an example of the unifying qualities of cooking, the anthropologist Rachel Ann Rosenbaum shares her insights into a project that brings together women from both sides of the conflict lines in Lebanon in a form of peace building. At home, the women cook. However, in restaurants, it is rare to find a female chef. Moroccan artist Zainab Fasiki has drawn a cartoon strip for this issue illustrating the way in which gender roles are firmly assigned when it comes to the Friday dish of couscous.
Paul Scheicher reflects upon cafés in Tunis opening during Ramadan, a situation that disrupts the usual gender balance in these traditionally inscribed male-dominated spaces. The salt in the soup are illustrations by the Lebanese artist Joseph Kai.
And finally, over Wajdi Borgi’s article on wine culture in Tunisia, please raise your cup and enjoy the issue!
Bente Scheller, Dorothea Rischewski, Bettina Marx and Heike Löschmann