Bsisu, May. (2005). The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions. New York: William Morrow.
For years, I had only one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, a present from my mother. But after I started to do research on foodways in Southern Arabia, I began to buy cookbooks to learn more about Arabic foodways in general and to compare and contrast with Dhofari foodways. My areas of interest are how “the Arab table” can have various meanings in various locations and what those meanings might be in Dhofar.
My favorite cookbook so far is May Bsisu’s The Arab Table (2005). She is so generous and comprehensive; she lived in several countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, England and the United States so she knows several food traditions and the difficulties of cooking “home” food in a new land. She includes data about which plants grow where (e.g. 252) and recipes for non-Muslim celebrations (299, 303, 345). The photos are gorgeous, the recipes are clearly written and she always gives hints, substitutions and information about where to get ingredients. I wish I had someone who would cook the delicious dishes for me!
I am reading it for cultural data, trying to catch the moments of surprise then exploring and articulating the variances, such as the difference between Bsisu’s threed/ thareed recipe (188, a platter layered with bread covered with sauce, then rice, then chicken and finished with a garnish) and how it is made in Salalah (a soup to which pieces of dried bread is added). Her chicken schwarma recipe (190) calls for pieces, not slices, of chicken. She has Um Khalid (331); in Dhofar the bread-pudding dessert is called Um Ali.
She describes specific foods for New Year’s which indicate happiness (322), something I have not found here. In asking about ‘performative’ food, i.e. food that brings about a change such as good luck, my informants say that is not part of Dhofari cultures, although there are foods for physical changes such as to lose or gain weight. She also discusses foods, such as raw meat (225) and certain cheeses (16), which are not eaten here.
Other difference are that many recipes require a specific cooking environment such as accessories not easily found in Dhofar (especially in 2005 when the book was published, for example fleece blankets 220), the implication that meat is bought from butchers who will prepare meat as requested (207), and the implied need for a fully out-fitted kitchen with spice-grinder, food processor, sauce-boats, plates to invert dishes on, etc.
Thus reading The Arab Table is fun on several levels. First there are great recipes and also I can see how not just the food choices, but the expectations of serving food, vary greatly between cultures. For example, Bsisu discusses putting things of “each guest’s plate” (188) and setting up various “table” or “stations” for dinners (264-6) whereas in Dhofar, almost every main dish is eaten communally and guests sit in one location unless it is a large wedding party with a buffet.
At a party in a private home, there might be a table with desserts, but guests do not choose for themselves. A plate is made up and brought to them. At an Omani wedding party once, the hostess told me that she would bring a plate for me. I told her not to bother and got up and took sweets for myself. Later I realized how rude I had been, to deny her the chance to take care of a guest and to possibly allow others to judge her as not being an attentive hostess, to let a clearly foreign woman fend for herself.
The Arab Table is an excellent, thorough, big-hearted overview of Arab cooking.
(photo above is from social media, I didn’t want to take images from her book without permission)