May Bsisu’s The Arab Table – Reading Recipes for Cultural Understandings

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.

https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/00000144-0a39-d3cb-a96c-7b3d746a0000

(photo above is from social media, I didn’t want to take images from her book without permission)

 

Food Here and There/ Missing Food

While traveling recently I was thinking about how people miss foods when they are not in their home culture, but it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes you miss a certain taste (Diet Coke served with a lime slice and a lot of ice) and sometimes it’s a food experience (food + activity, walking around a mall with a Diet Coke in hand).

When I am not in Oman, I don’t miss food – I miss food experiences. I don’t like rice, but I miss white rice with grilled fresh fish served with dates, eaten on a beach with friends next to a campfire. I miss the way of eating: eating with my hands and the knowledge that all food is communal, that I can take something from another person’s plate without worrying that they will be upset and all my food is up for grabs from someone else. I don’t miss hummus, but I miss how hummus (and all appetizers) are shared. There’s no ‘I ordered this, it’s mine, if you want to try you have to ask my permisson’ but you ask for hummus and fatoush, the person you are with gets vine leaves and baba ganoush and you each take as much as you want from any dish.

When I am in Oman, I really miss coffee, the joy of a waiter or waitress walking towards me with a large carafe of coffee that will be put on my table. I have had more than my fill of “espresso-coffee” (espresso with hot water is not really coffee!). And I miss food. I miss pie. I miss raspberries, big salads with 25 ingredients, cheese plates and Mexican food. I miss a real breakfast: eggs, toast, hash browns and all the trimmings. I miss the taste of cranberries: cranberry juice and cranberry/ orange muffins.

Thinking about ‘missing’ reminds me of a great quote from Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon (2001)

The things an American who is abroad for a very long time misses—or at least the things I missed—I was discovering, weren’t the things you were supposed to miss. We are supposed to come to Europe for leisure, sunshine, a more civilized pace, for slowness of various kinds. America we are supposed to miss for its speed, its friendliness, for the independence of its people and the individualism of their lives. Yet these were not the things I missed, and when I speak to Americans who have lived abroad for a long time, those are not the things they seem to miss either. I didn’t miss crosstown traffic, New York taxicabs, talk radio or talk television, or the constant, appalling flow of opinion that spills out like dirty floodwater…

I found, to my surprise, that what I missed and longed for was the comforting loneliness of life in New York, a certain kind of scuffed-up soulfulness. In Paris no relationship, even one with a postman or a dry cleaner, is abstract or anonymous; human relations are carved out in a perpetual present tense. There’s an intricacy of debits and credits. Things have histories…The things Americans miss tend to involve that kind of formlessness, small, casual, and solitary pleasures. A psychoanalyst misses walking up Lafayette Street in her tracksuit, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup with the little plastic piece that pops up. My wife, having been sent the carrot cake that she missed from New York, discovered that what she really missed was standing up at the counter and eating carrot cake in the company of strangers at the Bon Vivant coffee shop.

 

 

 

 

“Arabic Coffee,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

A lovely poem by a wonderful poet.   (complete image is below)

 

It was never too strong for us:

make it blacker, Papa,

thick in the bottom,

tell again how the years will gather

in small white cups,

how luck lives in a spot of grounds.

 

Leaning over the stove, he let it

boil to the top, and down again.

Two times. No sugar in his pot.

And the place where men and women

break off from one another

was not present in that room.

The hundred disappointments,

fire swallowing olive-wood beads

at the warehouse, and the dreams

tucked like pocket handkerchiefs

into each day, took their places

on the table, near the half-empty

dish of corn. And none was

more important than the others,

and all were guests. When

he carried the tray into the room,

high and balanced in his hands,

it was an offering to all of them,

stay, be seated, follow the talk

wherever it goes. The coffee was

the center of the flower.

Like clothes on a line saying

You will live long enough to wear me,

a motion of faith. There is this,

and there is more.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. (2002). Arabic Coffee. Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Now Classroom. http://www.pbs.org/now/arts/nyepoems2.html

 

gm - coffee 2

Cooking in a Chair?!? – Abductive Reasoning and Foodways in Khareef

In “Ethnography Is an Option,” Yadav discusses abductive reasoning, which she describes as:

an iterative process of “sense-making.” Rather than beginning with a research question and testable hypothesis, abductive inquiry rests on the articulation of a puzzle, where what “makes a puzzle ‘anomalous’ is a misfit between experience and expectations.”

This is good way of thinking about how I try to understand foodways and cultures, although I don’t always get to “sense-making.” Sometimes I end up still confused as I try to catch and hold onto those moments in which my expectations are not met; sometimes a new level of understanding opens up. A week or so after I moved into a villa, I heard loud thuds and rustling from outside my window. I forced myself to open the curtain and look – there was nothing in my yard, but the sound was loud and frightening. I decided the safest thing was to go up on the roof, so I could look down at whatever it was. It was a herd of donkeys eating the grass on the other side of my garden wall. Once I saw them, the sounds which were discordant and scary coalesced into stamping, breathing, tearing grass and rubbing against the wall.

So when those moments of perplexity come, I need to stop and reflect. For example, in this video a man is pouring honey on small brown objects.

honey on dates 1

Certain things I can ‘read’ – that’s a man’s hand, he’s wearing a dishdash, that mat is typically used in Dhofari picnics, the background looks like Dhofar in khareef. Certain things I can guess from experience: the man is not from Dhofar because Dhofari men on picnics will usually take off their dishdash and wear t-shirts and wizar, a sarong-like item of clothing made of thick cotton with a plaid pattern. The honey is in an unlabeled, Vimto-style bottle which means it is local honey, from the mountains, perhaps from Yemen. It is expensive and not commercially produced, hence probably not bought in a store but at a roadside stand or from a local contact.

It’s slightly odd to me that there is nothing else in the photo. There is a habit of showing a cup of tea alone (as above), or a tea kettle with cups, but usually shots of eating during khareef have more food items (like the photo below, which has its own mystery: why are there potato chips with the ‘good morning’ sign and pancakes, which signify that this is breakfast. Is it because they are ‘Chips Oman’ and the photographer wanted to emphasize that this is Oman?)

bkfst khareef1

But the biggest question is – what is he pouring the honey on? It that dates or meat? I asked an Omani friend who said, “dates, people from the north do that.” But when I sent the photo to another friend, I got the response, “honey and meat.” So this is something I need to do more research on.

More moments of abductive reasoning come up when looking at photos of foodways in khareef and I have to catch myself when I think, “Why are they doing that?” For example, seeing a video of a man cooking meat while sitting in a chair made me surprised. Cooking in a chair?!? How odd. Then I had to process my surprise – I have never seen a man cook while sitting in a chair in Dhofar, why was that?

A partial answer is in what is cooked and how. In Dhofar, most food I have seen prepared is time-, but not labor-, intensive for cooks. Fish or lobster, for example, can be wrapped in foil, placed in coals and left to cook. Curries require a lot of cutting and then stirring for a few moments, but then can be left to simmer. Cooking meat on heated rocks (madhbi) requires that the cook be next to the rocks, sitting in a chair would be too far away. But visitors in khareef often cook 1) on gas rings or with small metal BBQs, not a fire, and 2) prepared foods which need careful watching such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, and meat kebabs. Further, when Dhofar men have a picnic, they are usually stream-lined: in addition to the food stuffs (meat, vegetables, salt, tea bags, sugar, bottled water, rice and/ or bread) one needs a mat, some wood, a tea kettle, cups, a pot, a knife, and a round plate to cut meat and vegetables on and to eat off of. A big spoon to stir is helpful, but the knife can be used in a pinch; extras like canned milk, fruit, limes, spices, spicy sauce, biscuits etc. are welcome but not necessary. Thus what strikes me as odd in the photo below is not the cows, but the windscreen for the fire. What a luxury to have a metal windscreen instead of tearing cardboard from the box holding the water bottles and propping it up with rocks to screen the fire!

khareef cows

The last photo stunned me: tables! for a picnic! and bolster pillows! My first thought was ‘I want to go on a picnic with you!’ My second was ‘good grief, it must take ages to get the car unpacked and then packed again, and to get those pillows dry.’ This led me to considering the connection between food and relaxation in Dhofar: what is needed to make one comfortable while cooking and eating? Why do I see spartan picnics as preferable? It’s partially because that’s what I am used to, but also a factor of time. I once watched a group of western expats take over an hour to set-up a camp site: foldable picnic table, table for food, table to cook on, tent with groundsheet, chairs, multiple mats. The pièce de résistance was a wooden caddy with two kinds of ketchup, 2 kinds of brown sauce and 2 kinds of mustard.

meal khareef

In Oman, hospitality is linked to speed – the good host gives everything that is available happily, quickly and gracefully. A guest who arrives should not have to wait for the host to produce something intricate or expensive, a simple cup of tea served with kindness is the mark of generosity.

(photos from social media)

Yadav, Stacey Philbrick. Ethnography Is an Option: Learning to Learn in/through Practice. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190882969.003.0014

Food Tastes Better in the Rain – Khareef in Salalah

I had been in Salalah about ten months and it was the first day of my first khareef (the word means ‘autumn’ in Arabic, it’s used in Salalah to mean the monsoon season from the end of June until the end of August). I walked outside my house, felt the drizzle on my face and walked back in. With a washcloth I dried my face and thought about how could I possibly keep my hair de-frizzed in such humidity.

A few hours later, some of the Omani men in my research group stopped by. I made tea and set the carafe on a tray with cups and cookies and brought it into the majlis. One of the men picked up the tray and brought it out to the garden.

“We are NOT eating out there, it’s wet!” I yelled.

Oh, we were most certainly eating out there; it’s khareef. Time to eat outside.

For me then (and to a certain extent, even now) I don’t get it. Omanis are always so clean, so well-turned out: impeccable clothes, gorgeous perfumes and everything spotless. Why would you want to go sit in muddy fields and get rained on? And the mosquitos! Let’s not forget the mosquitos and some other smaller insect that leaves a welt that lasts for three days. And what happens to the food? Rained on. Damp cookies, soggy bread, a film of water on everything and you have to constantly drink tea to stay warm in your damp clothes.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Omanis say to me.

I try to smile, using a mushy Kleenex to dry off my face, “Oh lovely!” And it is, the grass turning green, the fog rolling in, that wonderful damp earth smell – but could we not enjoy this through a plate glass window? No, we could not.

I have bowed to the inevitable and bought a water-proof purse; I wear washable Crocs. I have learned to always keep a stick or two of wood in my car so that it stays dry enough to get a fire started. I used to try to keep all the food covered but have given on that. Rain on the kabsa, rain on the briyani, rain on the mandi, rain on the mishgak (meat kebabs).

I have been on magical picnics. If you are sitting near the edge of a cliff, the clouds move in and out, opening and closing the vista down to the sea or over the plains. In the mountains, the ground is a carpet of green, with beautiful white flowers and purple flowers later in the season.

The culture you are born into is hard to shake; there are times I long for an umbrella, a rain jacket and a crisp cookie. But, food tastes better in the rain, or so I am told.

IMG_3202

(photo from social media)

 

Cognitive Dissonance and Food Identification

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.

good morning - wood

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.

tea with chips

 

‘Little c’ Culture: Flooded Roads and Cheese Triangles

I am interested in ‘little c’ culture – everyday life examples of the values and principles of a culture, not the grand statements. For example, I love this ‘good morning’ greeting. It looks odd at first: “Good morning! the road is flooded and you can’t drive!” In some cultures it might be seen as sarcastic, but here it is heartfelt. Water is a blessing and it’s wonderful to have the wadis full. On the other hand, flooding can be dangerous and both the central government and civic entities work to limit damage by installing flood markers along roads; giving frequent forecasts and warnings; sending military personal to make sure no one attempts to go into flooded areas; and maintaining and training rescue teams, including helicopters.

Two keys to the image (which is don’t think is from Dhofar) are the trees and the clouds. The trees give the reason that the flood is good – periodic inundation means healthy plants and abundant crops. In Western cultures, clouds are a negative symbol, meaning something unclear, blighted, disappointing, but on the Arabian Peninsula clouds are positive. These clouds (which might be a little photoshopped) bring joy, not just for the rain but a respite from the sun. It’s telling that Arab cultures celebrate the moon (the nicest compliment for a woman is that she looks like the moon) while Western songs and poems celebrate the sun (“You are My Sunshine,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by Emily Dickinson, “The Sun Rising” by John Donne and “Solar” by Philip Larkin:

Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding.
Heat is the echo of your
Gold.

Coined there among
Lonely horizontals
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.

Another examples of  “little c” culture is the cheese sambosas that are a common Iftar treat in Dhofar. My first year here, I attended an all expat women’s Iftar and someone brought cheese sambosas. I was in heaven! Fried cheese pastries, what more could I want? I asked where they came from and was told a bakery. A few days later, I went to a bakery to buy some but none were available. I checked several more places and no luck.

I asked a Dhofari and was told that they usually made at home. Only a few places sold them and then only during Ramadan, which by now had ended. So I waited until the next Ramadan and went searching again, no luck. WHERE ARE THEY HIDING? I asked Dhofari friends and finally learned that they are usually only sold in the 2 hours before Iftar, and only in bakeries with special outdoor stands. I had been walking into bakeries during the morning when I should gone looking at 5pm for bakeries with sloping glass-front display cases set up outside the store.The clues had been there – but I hadn’t read them correctly. Now I am an expert at buying cheese sambosas, but I will never ever tell a Dhofari how I eat them (cold for breakfast with English-style chutney).

Foodways Images – Humor, Disseminating Information, and the Instagram Food/ Money Connection

Since Ramadan is the time for religious devotion, reflection and family, I have not been able to meet with my research groups so I have spent a lot of time over the last 4 weeks looking for images connected to food. These posts are a kind of rough draft of research as the first step is to gather data, then comes the comparisons and analysis. I have had a lot of fun, some of the images (like the sheep cake) are amusing, But I am also gathering insights into how social media is connected to foodways in Oman. One thread that has become clear is that varies entities use images to help spread useful information (halal Oreos, raising food prices, etc.) A second thread is that people use social media to monetize food (catering ads and fish prices, etc.).  This will be the last ‘images’ post for awhile and I hope you enjoyed the brief excursion from words to pictures.

Getting creative with cakes:

funny cake

Joke – “the proper treatment for hands after making sambosas,” i.e. buy gold for the women who worked hard to make good Iftars

sambosa-gold.jpg

Notices about food price increases

Warnings about food

Advertisements for home-based catering companies

Food images from home-based catering companies

Announcing fish prices:

 

Research questions – this image caught my eye because, during more than ten years in Oman, I have never seen fish presented like this. When I looked closely, it was was ad for a Kuwaiti restaurant so I wonder if this is, in fact, a difference of presentation or if I have simply not had the chance to see Omanis serve fish in this manner.

kuweit

Food Perceptions – Honey

honey - wooden bowl!

The role of a food product often changes between cultures and sometimes even within a culture. A friend from India once complained to me about how many American desserts and breakfast products and were flavored with cinnamon, explaining that cinnamon is, “not for sweets!”

In Dhofar, local honey is mainly a medicinal product, taken straight by the spoonful for coughs, upper respiratory and stomach ailments. Honey from hives in the mountains is usually bottled into glass bottles (often Vimto) and given to family, friends and neighbors; sometimes a few bottles are sold. This honey is taken in small amounts daily or when a person is sick.

There are also stores and booths at local festivals staffed by Yemenis and selling Yemeni honey. Rodionov has an excellent article discussing the cultural practices with respect to honey in Hadramawt (see below). The Yemeni dish, bint al Sahn, is not served as dessert normally in Dhofar, but it can be found in Yemeni restaurants.

On the other hand, commercially produced honey is bought at a grocery store and drizzled liberally as a sweetener on bread at breakfast. It is not expensive, for example if non-local honey is brought on a camping trip, whatever is not used is often poured out and the container thrown away.

Thus honey inhabits two separate spheres with a huge difference in the cultural importance  and function. Honey from Yemen or Dhofar is valuable, not just in price but in worth. A bottle of local honey is a treasured gift, consumed slowly and entirely over weeks or months. The tall glass bottles are kept out in a safe place, out of reach of children. Honey bought at the grocery store usually comes in plastic squeeze bottles and if it is spilled or wasted, it is not perceived as a great loss.

The Omani government supports bee-keeping both in terms of honey production and protecting/ increasing the bee population.

bees

 

Rodionov, Mikhail. “Honey, Coffee, and Tea in Cultural Practices of Ḥaḍramawt,” in Herbal Medicines in Yemen: Traditional Knowledge and Practice, and Their Value for Today’s World. Ingrid Hehmeyer and Hanne Schönig, eds. Brill: Boston, 2012, 143-152.