Today I will be presenting my talk “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” for the Just Food conference, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University.

 

“Ethical Eating in Southern Oman.” Just Food, virtual conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society; Canadian Association for Food Studies and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University. June 9-15, 2021. 

 

My presentation combines research from the fields of anthropology and food studies to examine the connections between food and morality in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. Much has been written about Arab hospitality in terms of generosity to guests, but this presentation focuses on two other aspects of food-related behaviors: the ethical way to eat and to dispose of food.

 “Ethical eating” refers to two common behaviors in Dhofar. One is the social pressure to eat in such a way that the left-over food is “clean,” meaning suitable to give to others because it is not touched by people’s hands. A second issue is that the remaining food must be given away, as quickly as possible, following the culturally-accepted sharing hierarchy of friends/ family, other humans, then animals.

 The information discussed has been gathered from formal interviews during 2019-2020 and countless social events with Dhofari informants and friends over the past 14 years.

This work is part of my Foodways in Southern Oman project.

Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge) examines the objects, practices and beliefs relating to producing, obtaining, cooking, eating and disposing of food in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. The chapters consider food preparation, who makes what kind of food, and how and when meals are eaten. Marielle Risse connects what is consumed to themes such as land usage, gender, age, purity, privacy and generosity. She also discusses how foodways are related to issues of morality, safety, religion, and tourism. The volume is a result of fourteen years of collecting data and insights in Dhofar, covering topics such as catching fish, herding camels, growing fruits, designing kitchens, cooking meals and setting leftovers out for animals.

 

https://www.routledge.com/Foodways-in-Southern-Oman/Risse/p/book/9780367859558

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/foodways-in-southern-oman-marielle-risse/1137456632?ean=97803678595587

 

Foodways – Thoughts on Iftars, Food and Cultures

One aspect of living in Dhofar that can be hard to explain is that people are often judged on the intention, not on the rightness (or wrongness) of the action. I have been the happy recipient of this characteristic as I muddle along trying to do what is appropriate.

A few days into Ramadan my doorbell rang about half an hour before the maghreb (sunset) call to prayer which ends the day’s fast. It was an Omani neighbor who had moved in a few months before. We had waved ‘hello’ but didn’t know each other. He had set a covered paper plate, a small packet of dates and a small packet of figs down on the table next to my front door. I smiled and said, “thank you! Ramadan kareem.” He waved at me and walked back down the stairs.

The plate had 2 pieces of grilled bread with cheese, 2 quarters of a toasted sandwich with sliced hotdogs and cheese, 2 samosas with a hash of meat and potatoes and 3 spicy, breaded, fried mashed-potato rounds. YUM! Neighbors, relatives and friends often give each other plates of prepared food for Iftar, the meal at sunset that breaks the fast. This was a kind gesture and the way it was packaged meant there was no dishes that I had to return.

I knew I should reciprocate, but not the next day (which could lead to a ‘food war’). In Dhofar, with family and close friends, it doesn’t matter if or when you give a return gift, but for people you don’t know well, it’s best to wait a few days and keep the energy causal, not frantically trying to quickly repay.

So I waited a few days and then started to think what I should give. First, I should not give something that I had made as there is often a worry that I might have accidentally added something haram (forbidden). Second, I decided to give items that would keep for a few hours, so if the family already had a plan for Iftar, what I gave could be kept for a later meal or suhoor, the meal eaten before dawn.

As only a husband, wife and small child lived in the house, I went to a well-known Lebanese restaurant and bought a plate of falafels with cut tomatoes, lettuce and pickles, a container of hummus, a container of tabouli, two packets of fresh Lebanese bread and a plate of mixed, fried sweets.

Then, I went to the front of their house and was surprised to see two doorbells on the outside gate, and a low wall dividing the interior courtyard. Because of the relative position of our houses, I had only seen one side of the house, with the kitchen door through which I had seen the three occupants enter and leave. But two doorbells meant the house was subdivided, probably two close relatives and their families, which meant they would be having Iftar together and my food gift was going to be wildly inadequate.

Which is what happened. The people I knew didn’t answer, but a woman from the other side of the house opened a window and as I tried to explain what I was doing there, she said that the woman who I knew was her sister. So I handed over the bags, feeling rather stupid, and went home. Then I realized that I had mis-read the time. It wasn’t 40 minutes to Iftar (a time when most people are up and awake); it was 1 hour and 40 minutes to Iftar, often a time for napping.

But the normal Dhofari kindness won through and about five days later, my neighbor stopped by again with a plate of pakoras, vegetable samosas, triangles of tuna salad on white bread and arays [Lebanese bread sliced open, spread with spiced meat (kafta), grilled flat and cut into triangles]. And their Eid present from me? A very large box of chocolates!

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My favorite Ramadan treat is triangle cheese samosas: the perfect food. Delicious hot or cold and they pair with condiments from any culture: cranberry sauce, mango chutney, onion marmalade, or coconut/ green chili sauce. They are only sold in Ramadan, usually from a road-side stand set up in front of a bakery about two or three hours before the maghreb (sunset) call to prayer, earlier now because of the curfew.

These samosas are a good example of food can get connected and unconnected to religious holidays. I wonder if there are Omanis in the States who mark Christmas time by the arrival of peppermint-mocha coffees or Omanis in the UK who mark Easter by the appearance of Cadbury eggs.

The samosas are also an example of how foods which represent cultures can be very idiosyncratic. “Amazing Italian food” to me doesn’t mean pasta, it means the little stands with a cascading fountain of cool water with small pieces of fresh coconut that I first saw in Florence when I was a teenager. It seemed to me the most perfect snack and I begged my father for cash to buy pieces every time I saw one.

“German food” makes me think of my absolute terror of ordering bread in a German bakery when I lived there. Counter-people and other customers expected you to have your order ready and be able to answer the quick, sharp questions hurled at you. Hesitation or confusion resulted in many baleful glances. I would stand outside and practice saying my order to myself for a few moments before I ventured into bakeries.

(photo of a family Iftar by an informant, shared with permission to use on this website)

iftar - g

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an interesting ad campaign about not wasting food during Ramadan

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Foodways – Iftars in Ramadan

Ramadan started on Tuesday night in Oman. Given the circumstances of fighting Covid-19 there are fewer advertisements showing large gatherings/ family iftars (the meal eaten at sunset to break the fast). Families are highly encouraged to only share meals with those who live in the same household.

Photos such as these (above and below) are usually shared just within family members (usually with a ‘wish you were here’ kind of greeting). I asked X, who has helped me with my food research, if X might take a photo that I could use on this webpage to show a typical Dhofari iftar.

A few things to note:

  • Every-day family dinners usually have one large dish (fish or meat [cow, camel, goat] with rice or pasta) accompanied by salad and condiments, For rice dishes, plates are not needed as everyone shares from the platter. But for iftars, there is often soup (requiring bowls) and various choices, never only one dish. This means that everyone has a plate to take a little from the numerous dishes, including dates (the most important element), stuffed grape leaves, salads, sandwiches, a fruit bowl (bananas, grapes, oranges), cut fruit and/ or fruit salad with oranges, watermelon, apples, etc.
  • Three typical iftar dishes are 1) sambusas (aka samosas, a baked or fried pastry with a savory filling such as spiced vegetables, cheese or meat). Meat and vegetable sambusas are available all year, but cheese ones are usually only available during Ramadan. Sambusas are sometimes made at home but are usually bought at little covered stalls which are set up outside most bakeries from 4pm-6pm; they are sold by the kilo in brown paper bags. 2) shorba, a soup made with beef, vegetables and oats (sometimes with lemon) and 3) thareed, a dish made with khubz roqaq (raqeeq/ roqaqr, a round bread about 24 inches across and very thin) soaked in a beef or chicken stock with spices. Sweets include custards, kanafeh/ kunafa (shredded filo pastry or semolina dough that is baked in sugar-based syrup usually with a layer of cheese, sometimes served with cream or nuts), luqaymat/ loukoumades (sweet fried dumplings dipped in sugar syrup), saffron/ coconut/ chocolate cake, etc. The most important drink is laban/ labneh/ leben (fermented milk, known in America as buttermilk) which is usually taken with dates to break the fast. The second most common iftar drink is Vimto, a cordial of fruits and spices that is diluted with water. (I think of it as the Omani equivalent of eggnog, a pumpkin spice latte, or a peppermint-mocha coffee, a drink that it is ubiquitous during a holiday season; even the people who hate it admit it is part of the atmosphere.)
  • Another difference between every-day family dinners and an iftar is that normally the food is not served close to prayer times and everyone eats at the same time. There is little conversation while eating and the food is cleared away as soon as everyone is done. For iftars, as seen below, most of the food is kept in a covered containers as it has to be prepared and set out before the call to prayer. After the sunset prayer, family members will sit together for a longer time, eating slowly as they have been fasting all day. Some will eat a little, wait for some time, then eat again. Thus the iftar meal can be left out for hours and the food choices need to either be palatable at room temperature or kept in covered containers.
  • School-age children eat lunch at home, not at school, and most adults are also home for lunch which is the main meal of the day. Dhofaris who work will rarely eat a packed lunch at their desk. This means that kitchen are usually not equipped with the accoutrements for household members taking meals from the house like lunch boxes, mini ice-packs and single-serving size plastic containers. But most households share many-portion amounts of food with neighbors and relatives so there are usually inexpensive duplicates of items such as coffee carafes and glass or plastic serving dishes, and single-use thin metal containers with cardboard covers. For example the dish below with the green cover will hold a rice or pasta dish. This would be used as shown below, with the cover on to keep the food warm until the call for prayer has sounded, or filled with food and given away. A typical kitchen will have several of these so that there is no need to worry if/ when it will be returned if one is given away.

iftar k - 2

I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at the annual convention of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, June 2021.

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at Just Food, virtual conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society; Canadian Association for Food Studies and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University. June 9-15, 2021.

(photo from social media)

y - good morning 1

https://foodanthro.com/2020/12/01/just-food-because-it-is-never-just-food/

https://www.food-culture.org/2021-conference/

Foodways and Living Expat on the Arabian Peninsula – part 2

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I love those moments in which foodways and culture interact in ways that take me by surprise. When I lived in Cyrus, a friend from India kept trying to find “Indian Chinese,” Chinese food spiced the way it is in India. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I moved to the Arabian Peninsula and realized that what I had thought of a “Chinese” was really “American Chinese”; there is no General Tso’s chicken outside of North America!

A non-American friend asked me why all American breakfast foods are spiced with cinnamon in the same way I wonder why people in the UK insist on putting raisins in every dish.

It’s always impossible to say what foods you will miss most when you move abroad. When I lived in Europe, I asked my mom to send me crab seasoning, a spice I never liked before and never used, but that little tin sat on my bookshelf proudly for a year.

Moving overseas always means culinary adjustments. One friend is vegetarian by choice, but when he tried to be vegetarian on the Arabian Peninsula, what he ate became the main topic of every meal. After many conversations centered around his food choices, he decided that when he was in the Middle East, he would eat vegetarian when he could (which meant, when he was alone) and ate sparingly of what was offered when he was eating with friends.

When I used to do cultural orientations for new teachers, I would tell them that everyone has unspoken/ unacknowledged expectations about foreign cultures in that they will think, “I know that X will be different but of course Y will be the same.” And when they see their “of course Y will be the same…” start to fall apart, it is painful. Especially when it comes to basics such as grocery stores (no pastrami, scone mix, turkey, toasted onions, salad-in-a-bag or soft pretzels); potato flakes are shelved next to pancake mix and every Cheeto is ‘flaming hot’ here.

You are faced with “Party fever” spray deodorant, hokey-pokey (ask someone from New Zealand), Jaggery (isn’t that a Dickens’s character?), angel delight (?), Tim-Tams (ask someone from Australia), “Chicago Sauce,” fish maw soup, and jungle oats with a recipe on the side for “fish cakes” which begins with “one tin of sardines in tomato sauce.”

The oil aisle is a pure delight. Of course you have your basics: almond oil, sunflower, coconut oil, pure ghee, Mazola, grape seed, and peanut oil, then the flights of fancy take off: olive oil from Spain and Italy, toasted sesame oil, gingelly oil, olive pomace oil, ground nut, walnut oil from France, basil, lemon, soy bean, avocado oil. The spice aisle has “Zeal” (aka MSG), “Spice for Mince,” “Zulu Fine,” “Spice for Rice,” “Spice for Mince,” “Veggie Season,” juniper berries, and my favorite: bits of raw sugar and cinnamon sticks in a grinder.

Many texts about the Middle East talk about guests being forced to over-eat or the horrors of being given camel eyes to eat. I have not seen that – my issues are with the jalapenos lurking under the cheese on pizzas, never being able to drink filter coffee (it’s always hot water added to an espresso), being invited for dinner at 8pm and having the food actually served at midnight, discovering that the dessert is sweetened shredded carrots, being invited over to chat and given a glass of tap-water and nothing else… Salads don’t have dressings, bread is not served with butter, drinks are brought out after the meal is finished – it’s different. Not better, not worse – just different.

good words

Foodways and Living Expat

One of the issues I have run into doing research about food is trying to stay neutral when describing unfamiliar foodways. It’s easy to fall into finger-pointing about “bad food” such as Omanis discussing my oatmeal cookies (to them, they taste like sand) and my declining to try their dried, salted shark filet.

The men in my research group are disgusted at my eating “old” food (cold, leftover pizza) and it took me a long time to accept that a toasted white bread sandwich with processed cheese spread, crushed Chips Oman, a sliced boiled egg and hot sauce is a good snack.

They tease me because I can’t cook rice; I have yet to eat a decent muffin in Oman (and don’t get me started on the hollandaise sauce!) Even food metaphors fall apart cross-culturally: one store had a large sign: “if life doesn’t give you lemons, we deliver.” I think I have enough ‘lemons’ at the moment, I do not want any delivered!

Like at home, my friends know each other’s favorite restaurants, but since food appears and disappears in the grocery stores, we are all on the look-out for basics. You slowly learn what others crave and preform the basic kindness of standing in grocery aisles and calling/ sending messages: “they have blueberry yoghurt,” “molasses is here,” “vanilla powder is in” and “I see Dr. Pepper!”

Shopping is more stressful to me than at home – there’s a lot of hide and seek. Pasta sauce is in three different aisles, and often the salsa is mixed in. Salt has its own section not near the spices (and don’t even dream of finding tarragon or rosemary), sugar is with the coffee not the flour, muffin cups are on the other side of the store from the muffin mix, the few times cranberry sauce appears it is next to the golden syrup, croutons are next to dried soup mixes and crackers are in the cereal aisle.

Then, when you have found something – there is always the debate: is this going to be worth the money? The joy of seeing Ben and Jerry’s was canceled by the fact that the three times I have ventured to try it, the ice cream had freezer-burn. Many delicious-looking cakes and tortes have tasted liked wood shavings. I have bought many items because I was afraid the store would never have it again (green salsa), to encourage the store to keep it in stock (dried tortellini) or that I will never eat (Lindt bears as holiday decorations, cookies and 7-Up for workers).

Once covid hit, friends and I tag-teamed shopping so I learned to find all sorts of things I never knew existed: sprouted rice, coconut flour, beetroot powder and pea pasta.

There a lot of rabbit holes to fall down, especially in reading menus. There are misspellings: “frut” for “fruit, “pommel grenade” for “pomegranate,” “mashromme” for “mushroom,” and “pasilic” for “basil.” Some words are just transliterated so you can get quickly lost with “rocka,” “arais,” “pine” and “akkawi.”

Just as a person needs to learn that “Florentine” means “with spinach,” there are place adjectives in Middle Eastern cooking; for example, “hummus Beiruti” means “with garlic.” When I try to get a pizza the way I want it, I need to use all three ways to describe one thing: green peppers, capsicum, and fil-fil bard (“cold peppers”). And you can’t order a cheese pizza, you need to say “margarita,” but that word is often confused with “fajita” so you end up with a spicy chicken pizza instead of plain cheese. 

In addition to food, it took me awhile to get used to how to eat – I still spill a lot of rice when eating with my hands. And, after a few years, I am finally accustomed to the eat-then-talk-for-hours routine in Dhofar. When a non-Omani friend invited me for dinner (sitting outside!), we arrived at 7:30, were done eating by 9 and as I was expecting that we were going to settle in to talk, she asked for the bill. I was amazed – weren’t we going to “visit”? I had forgotten my previous understanding that dinner in a restaurant took 1 ½ to 2 hours, 3 or 4 hours is normal to me now.

(photo from social media)

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Foodways – other avenues of research

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

The good news is my book, Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge), is now officially published. The bad news is, as every author knows, I keep finding topics I should have mentioned. Just today I happened upon: Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representations of Food by Geert Jan van Gelder – what a great-sounding book! I will try to find a copy and read it.

I know there is a whole sub-genre in Arabic literature of personified ‘fights’ between different type of foods (munazara) for example “The Delectable War between Mutton and the Refreshments of the Market Place” featuring King Mutton and King Honey (or Clive Holes’ work “The Dispute of Coffee and Tea: A Debate Poem from the Gulf,” in Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature, ed. J.R. Smart, 1996, 302-315). But I did not include a discussion of these as they seemed a little too far from my topic, as did poems about being a host/ guest such as Abu al Hakam Al Maghribi’s “A Domestic Disaster” which is too ribald to teach but is a good match with Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” Perhaps at some point I can look more closely at this type of writing.

I have also realized that I was never able to find government documents about the number of animals (cows, camels, goats) in Dhofar – that was on my to-do list, but got lost in the shuffle of work and dealing with corona. I also wanted to go to a fish market and meat market and write a lot more about cuts of meat/ types of seafood in terms of prices, how they are prepared and sold but the markets didn’t re-open until after the books was sent to press.

Another topic I want to reflect about more is cultural issues relating to TIME and PLACE of eating, i.e. [pre-corona] my surprise that many of my students do not eat or drink anything before coming to class while they are surprised to see me eating lunch at my desk (“Why don’t you have lunch at home? How can you eat in your office?” they wonder.) Or the surprise of me drinking or eating while walking, something that is not done here. Another difference is my habit of making a cup of coffee last over an hour, while most Dhofaris will finish their drink quickly. A small cup of tea is usually gone in three sips, while I nurse mine until it is cold.

Lastly, I wanted to do interviews with Dhofaris who made/ sold food on Instagram, at festivals and small stores. I have heard of one Dhofari man who opened his own restaurant where he not only supervised, but cooked. However, between the public and private mourning for Sultan Qaboos and the on-set of corona, spring 2020 was not the time to ask strangers to help with my research. I hope 2021 affords more chances to write, research, think and discuss about foodways!

y - meat rice and fruit

Foodways and Teaching Culture

Food appears at unexpected times while teaching. I was discussing color metaphors (What does it mean to say, “she’s blue” or “he’s green with envy”?) and brought up “peachy” as a slang response to “How are you?” Then I had to stop to describe a ‘peach,’ not a common fruit on the Arabian Peninsula. I tried to triangulate as I know the Arabic words for orange and apricot but it turns out that no one in the class has seen a fresh apricot; they only know the dried ones. Getting the word “dried” straight somehow led to talking about how raisins are dried grapes and prunes are dried plums, but no one knew plums. So I tried to go by colors, looking around the class to see if anyone had ‘peach-’ or ‘plum-’ colored pen or notebook.

In one class we were confronted with the metaphor “chill iron,” so I did a quick run through the differences between chill (verb, to make cold), chill (verb, slang – to relax) and chilly (adjective). And then chili (similar to stew) and chili peppers.

Getting the vocabulary down is only the first step, as food interactions in stories almost always bring out cultural differences. Reading Peter Pan meant discussing that Mr. and Mrs. Darling were not horrible parents for leaving their children at home (and with a dog!) while they went out to eat. In Oman, children are almost always with their parents or relatives in the evening and would normally go out to dinner with the family.

Even my everyday actions spark conversations as bringing a cup of coffee with me to class and drinking it while teaching is not normal teacher behavior on the Arabian Peninsula. And I warn students that if they visit an American family, they will probably not be pushed again and again to eat. I tell them the story of one Arab administrator who, when he arrived at his host family in America, was asked if he wanted dinner once and only once. As he was expecting the offer to be repeated and food to be given to him as a matter of course, he refused. The Americans did not repeat the offer and he went to bed hungry.

This photo is from social media and I love it because the food in the back-left corner could be ‘read’ as pita (Lebanese  bread) rolled with processed cheese or fried bread with cinnamon and sugar depending on your cultural back-ground.

y - good morning

 

 

 

 

Foodways and Literature – Food Stories and Poems

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I teach literature classes but my most recent book is on foodways, which might seem like two dissimilar topics but food is omnipresent in poems, stories and dramas so my students and I often have conversations that include foodways, literature and cultural differences. Explaining a reference to Persephone in a poem led to my telling the story of Demeter/ Ceres, which led to a conversation about cereals.

Sometimes I focus simply to the vocabulary aspect: explicating “civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion” in Much Ado about Nothing or “cucumber sandwiches”  and “sugar tongs” in The Importance of Being Earnest. But occasionally food takes center stage as with the fishing with a sword scene in Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Princess Sunshine when the question of ‘who makes dinner’ helps carry the theme of the play. Another food-centered example is the dual breakfast scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. On our first run-through, it’s simply a confusing jumble of random statements. But when we have read it a few times and then ‘perform’ it with one student per character, the beauty (and sadness) of that section shine through. Students often remark, “it’s like that at my home.”

Some stories show cultural similarities, such as Laura bringing food to the widow in Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” but they can also show differences. Unlike in Oman, only Laura visits the house (not with her mother and older sister) and she only stays a brief time.

Another Mansfield story “The Doll’s House” uses food to give insights into the social standing of the schoolgirls – having a sandwich with meat shows wealth while a jam sandwich wrapped in newspaper points to poverty. Similarly, the social niceties observed in the dining room at the beginning of Room with a View preview the theme of the novel. Who sits at which table reveals the hierarchies which Lucy will eventually break.

Food issues can even be the comic element of a story as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s magnificent Cranford with its details of manage your cook, take care of your cow and why you should eat your orange in your room (so you can roll it under your bed to check if anyone is hiding there and then slurp the orange sections in private).

Food essays are also wonderful for sparking good student writing. “Jam” and “A Thing Shared” from The Gastronomical Me  by M. F. K. Fisher, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker are great example texts to help students see how to write about their own food experiences.

As for poems about food, we have to start with

“Talk,” Gökhan Tok

You never hear it

but at breakfast the sweetest talk

is between the jam and the honey.

and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “Arabic Coffee,” “My Father and the Fig Tree,” “Sifter,” “The Traveling Onion” and “The Tray.” For more, please see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye and https://poets.org/poet/naomi-shihab-nye

Other poems include:

  • “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost
  • “The Angler,” Thomas Buchanan Read
  • “The Bean-Stalk,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
  • “Coolness of the Melons,” Matsuo Basho
  • “Cynddylan on a Tractor,” R.S. Thomas
  • “The [Date] Palm Tree,” Adnan Mohsin
  • “The Fisherman,” Goethe
  • “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee
  • “I Return to the Place I was Born,” T’ao Yuan Ming
  • “Love Poem With Toast,” Miller Williams
  • “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost
  • “The Solitary Reaper,” William Wordsworth
  • “Sorry I Spilled It,” Shel Silverstein
  • “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” Marge Piercy

A few food-oriented short stories include: “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour, “A Cup of Tea” by  Katherine Mansfield and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, as well as several by Mohammed al Murr including “A Late Dinner,” “The Night’s Catch,” “Look After Yourself” and my favorite: “Dinner by Candlelight.”

y - morning coffee

Foodways – Perceptions of “Old”/ “Fresh” Food

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

It is always interesting to have cross-cultural discussions of timing words such as “late” and “early.” If you say that you ate dinner “late,” do you mean 9pm or 2am? If you had breakfast “early,” did you eat at 5am or 8am?

In the same way, perceptions of when food is “fresh” varies widely between cultures. For example in Dhofar a meal of rice and meat, fish or chicken should be eaten right away. After 1 to 3 hours, it is seen as “old,” i.e. not edible/ not suitable to be given away to others and should be put out for animals.

However during Ramadan, the food cooked for iftar is usually left out for snacking for several hours. It is often covered with plastic wrap and placed on a side table but could also be simply left on the ‘table’ (thin plastic drop-cloth) on the ground for a few hours. For example, set out before the sunset call to prayer then people would eat, pray, perhaps eat again, relatives/ friends might stop by to eat, and the food is finally cleaned up/ thrown out/ given away at 10 or 11pm.

How is one meal “old” and another not “old” after several hours? This difference is partially because of method of serving and food choices. A rice and protein for lunch is usually served on a platter with a few sides dishes/ condiments, but iftars should have a much wider variety of food but with fewer portions, thus there is not usually one platter, but many plates (holding, for example, samosas) and small, glass open-proof dishes which are easy to cover.

Rice with protein on a platter is eaten with hands, but iftar choices are usually spooned out of a container or finger food so that when a person takes something, nothing else on the plate is touched. Examples of typical food served at an iftar – spooned out of baking dish: mashed potatoes spread on top of tuna with tomatoes and spices, baked macaroni with white sauce, shredded chicken with tomato and spices, baked compilation of vegetables (pieces of potatoes, onion, carrots, green peppers);  by hand: samosas, baked potatoes wedges, pieces of watermelon and melon.

The same idea obtains for water. On a picnic, water and drinks are usually give out of a coolbox (cooler) or a plastic bag, signaling that they were just bought and hence “fresh.” Since my friends know I always carry water in my car, if I offer anyone a bottle of water that they have not seen me take out of a bag from a store, they will ask, “How long was it in your car?” If I say, “a few days,” they will decline as they don’t want “old” water.

A related cultural construct is what happens when people finish eating? When I have dinner with Italian friends, we talk while eating and then sit at the dinner table for at least an hour after we are done. Dhofaris usually refrain from long conversations while eating and so soon as everyone is finished, the food is taken back to the kitchen or, on a picnic, covered and set aside. One doesn’t talk over the remains of a meal.

meat rice and solona

(photo by Salwa Hubais)