The monsoon season (finally) started yesterday so, in celebration, I went for the first time to a small, cute shop which sells food made by a local woman. I had driven by and seen it but never gone in. With the drizzle coming down at a steady pace, I decided to have a small party, support women who are selling food, and, of course, continue my food research!
As I viewed the sandwiches, cooked food and cakes on display, I discussed the food in a mixture of Arabic and English with the expat man who was working. “Is this strawberry cake?” I asked, pointing to a cake with a pink layer of what looked like jam. He said yes. I repeated the question in Arabic to make sure, then moved on, “Is this cake with coffee flavor? Is this chicken? Is the chicken spicy or normal?” etc. I bought a selection of things, went home and produced them for my guests: this is non-spicy chicken, this is strawberry cake, this is coffee cake.
Wrong. All of it wrong. The chicken was fiery hot, it wasn’t strawberry and the brown cake was ‘Lotus’ flavored, not coffee. Sigh. Last week it was at KFC, I ordered 4 chicken strips and Dew with ice; I got someone else’s order and was told that the Dew, which had no ice, has “ice inside.” Sigh. In these kinds of example, it’s a mixture of linguistics and culture. I would not think of a ‘biscuit-flavored cake’; a white cake with medium brown frosting looks like ‘coffee’ to me. ‘Ice’ to me is cubes the size of cherry tomatoes, not that the soda is cold.
Sometimes it is an issue of what you ask for is not what you get but sometimes it’s a visual and cultural problem, as in the photo above – I enlarged that photo several times, tilting my head, thinking “WHAT is that in the little bowl?” Finally I decided it was walnuts and date maamoul (dates with spices cooked into a paste, surrounded by a heavy sugar cookie dough and baked). I don’t think of walnuts as breakfast food so I had to wait until my eyes could “see” them. Several times I have seen shallow bowls of dates and assumed it was pieces of meat and vice versa. One trick I learned is that if there is a coffee dallah (traditional Arabian coffee pot) it is dates; if there are cups of tea, it is probably meat. [Or in the above photo, the piece of wood doesn’t look like what I expect ‘camp fire wood’ to look like: it’s dark, full of holes, almost insubstantial looking. But from camping in the desert, I know this is typical of wood you can find or buy and it serves as a marker, “we are very far from town.”]
There is another level of difficulties: seeing various food items and not understanding how they fit together. A friend remembers being in a grocery store with me when we were in grad school. As we came around the corner of an aisle and the end cap had: cans of tuna, cans of peas, cans of sliced mushrooms, egg noodles, salt and canned cream of mushroom soup. I looked at her and said how this combination of food was a culturally-bound signifier of middle-class American in middle America, an implied recipe without stated recipe. Everyone who saw that display would know that all these items should be bought and cooked together to create a tuna casserole. But someone from outside that culture would see a collection of disparate items. Such as the photo below: chips, processed cheese and bread. This might be read as “put cheese on bread and eat with chips.” But Omanis know, you open the bag a little then crush the chips. Put cheese on bread, sprinkle on chip fragments and then roll up into a tube.
Eating begins with the eyes and everyone sees food through their cultures, upbringing and experiences. Learning to see again, see new, and re-see is a long process that I am still in the middle of.