I love food. Not just “ooh this tastes good,” but in a broader sense. Food, besides being necessary; is such a vital part of communication, memory and emotion that it becomes utterly impossible to ignore. I love how our palates vary, the chemistry of good taste, and most of all? I love how food transports us around the world. I love how fearlessly we doctor other cultures’ dishes to our tastes; and I love how fiercely we defend the beauty and treasure of tradition.
Food is the universal passport. You have not actually arrived at a new location until you’ve eaten their food. And it’s the absolute best souvenir to bring home with you. THAT dish, THAT meal that sticks out in your head comes home with you; and influences how you eat for decades to come. I’ve traveled a lot. From each country that I’ve been to, I can tell you precisely what dish sticks out to me; and where I found it. I was born and raised in Egypt; so I have a special love of Mediterranean cuisine. I’m a total hummus snob; because I grew up with it, and to me it has a particular flavor and texture and smell that becomes a feeling. But if you ask me what that ONE dish will be when you take your bucket trip? I’ll say Hamam bi Freek; which is roasted pigeon stuffed with cracked wheat and spices. I’ll tell you to get it at the Khan al Khalili Souk in Cairo. Specifically at the Cafe on the corner of the square in front of the Hussein Mosque.
If you’re in Portugal? THAT dish for me wasn’t the traditional Balacahau or salt dried Cod. It was a grilled sole dish at a restaurant call O Barbas (the Beard) in Caiscais.
In Japan? Not sushi! A Nikujaga meal, which is a sort of communal cooked at table thing that involves tempura vegetables and meats cooked in broth. The Intercontinental in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo stuck out for me.
In New York? Pizza of course! There’s a great place to get a pie on Astoria Boulevard in Queens. By the way, I’m sorry Chicago folks; Asmen included; but I just think pizza should be folded, not forked.
These memoirs of my travels are like the best flavored stamps you can get in a passport. And tasting them will always bring me back to those wonderful memories. Of sitting on a beach in Alexandria with my feet cooling in the sand, watching the sunset while I drink tea with mint and puff on a Shisha (hookah). Or walking along the shore in Portugal in the mid morning; as the fishermen were hauling their boats in. Trolling the streets of Tokyo at 3 in the morning because the time difference had me up at weird hours. Hiding from the chaos and noise that is New York in the depths of a greasy pizza joint, trying to negotiate a pie laden with olives, mushrooms, spinach and anchovies. Good memories, memories that engage all of my senses.
That’s part of food to me. The other part is adaptability. Moving to the US; many of the ingredients and components of day to day eating that I was so used to were suddenly no longer available. And living in the Southern US, I often found myself handicapped because I don’t eat pork. Though I really wanted to experience the local food culture. So, “Fusion Food” became a necessity. I began adapting recipes from both sides of my culture. I can’t find pigeon here to save my life. But I can find Squab, Quail and Cornish Game Hen. Red beans and rice, collard greens, and similar dishes are typically cooked with rendered pork fat. That’s out. But duck fat and smoked turkey necks do a wonderful job of filling in for that subtle rich smoky salty flavor that needs to be in dishes that could rapidly devolve into tasteless glue.
All of that said? Most self-proclaimed “foodies” offend me a little. I hate “Show Kitchens” where the chef is on display in a front kitchen for the cooking part of the meal; meanwhile the prep and staging and the REAL work is going on behind closed doors. I honestly? Don’t care that much what my chicken’s name was and if he was happy before his head was cut off. I hate that “Comfort Food” has become the vernacular for foods that taste good but are not good for you. ALL food should be comfortable. The argument over what the “Foodies” have done to food culture goes in far more graphic detail here. I’d definitely suggest it for a read, and just something to think about. While I think the conviction is a little too far; the points are there. Loving food is fine. Living for it; being so preoccupied with it that you crush it’s soul is not.
Thing is, it’s not even about health concerns like obesity.. which, will be a post for another day on how much I hate how people are treated poorly based on body shape. It gets into an actual morality in that article. And good points are made. For example, the affectation of people “Knowing where their food comes from” to the point that slaughtering an animal to eat has become a spectator sport. Gluttony doesn’t make you fat. Gluttony makes you into a monster. Who on earth takes pleasure from the necessity of killing animals for food? As a little girl I used to go to my Grandparents’ house. They had a roost to raise pigeons and would sell them to local restaurants. I have distinct childhood memories of the process of capturing, killing and cleaning those birds. It’s not a thing that is entertaining to me. Did I do it? Yes. Am I a better person for it? I’m not so sure. I would hope that if I am a better person, it is because of an abhorrence of violence; a distaste for inflicting pain and suffering, and a gratitude to those who take on that unpleasant aspect of nutrition with a sense of dignity and mercy that is lost when it becomes a spectator event.
I’ve seen more than a few lambs slaughtered in my time. One of the rituals of Islam’s Eid al Adha (The Festival at the end of the Month of the Hajj; the pilgrimage to Mecca) involves the sacrifice of an animal. My husband has actually done it before. Now before you call it brutal or wasteful; the animals are sacrificed, the meat processed and donated to those in need; usually with the family keeping only a small portion for themselves. But in the entire time leading up to that act, the concern is almost entirely focused on doing what must be done as quickly, cleanly and mercifully as possible. it’s not a thing people stand around and watch. There are no cheers amid the dying throes of the animal. It is a thing that is done in prayer and reverence.
So in all of this rant about food; and our relationship with it; I don’t know if you carry anything away from it or not. Maybe you’re a little more mindful next time you go out to eat. maybe instead of that chain restaurant, you aim for the local joint. Or maybe you just try something different for once. Or toss it all out the window.
I just could not feel right about doing a blog called ‘Word Salad” and not touching the topic of food and what it is to us. If you chose to comment? Let’s make it a dialog. tell us what impact food has on you. Whether it’s good or bad; close to home and comfort or that flavorful stamp on your mental passport of where you have been and where you are going.
Kitchen – Trompe Loeil
Hat – Leverocci
Hair – Lamb
Skin – B I R D Y
Dress and Glasses – Mon Tissu
Ears and Bangles – Mandala
Hands – SLink
Cannisters on Counter – Commoner