above: Machbous from "Cardamom and Lime"
Bridging cultures through food
Saudi Gazette 30March 2009
So many cookery books have been published in the past few years on the cuisines of different countries and regions that one might wonder whether much fresh culinary territory remains uncharted.
Two recently published books, “Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf” and “The Settler’s Cookbook: A Memoir of Love, Migration and Food”, show that writing about personal food experiences can still open up new vistas and introduce readers to unfamiliar cultures.
Sarah Al-Hamad [pictured above], author of “Cardamom and Lime”, is of Kuwaiti origin and divides her time between London and Kuwait. Her book is published in the UK by New Holland Publishers and in the US by Interlink Books of Northampton, Massachusetts.
The beautifully-designed book is illustrated by numerous dazzling photographs taken by Al-Hamad of the food markets and shops in the Gulf, and of the dishes for which she provides recipes.
Traditional Gulf cuisine is little known outside the Gulf. Al-Hamad identifies the region’s food as a mixture of Indian, Persian and Turkish cuisine overlying the traditional Bedouin diet of dates and dairy products.
The Gulf’s strategic position on the ancient spice routes between Africa and India introduced a range of spices into its food. Taste combinations of sweet and savory are characteristic in its cuisine, as is the use of dried limes.
Al-Hamad collected most of the recipes in her book from family members and friends, who in turn introduced her to their friends.
“One cook led me to another, and wherever I went there was great generosity in discussions about food and the sharing of culinary tidbits and recipes,” she writes.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown [pictured below], author of “The Settler’s Cookbook”, is a writer and commentator on race, politics and human rights, and the first British Muslim to become a regular newspaper columnist, in the Independent. Published in London by Portobello Books, her book is an autobiography in which recipes are inserted at key points.
Alibhai-Brown was born in Uganda to a family of Indian origin which, like other Ugandan Asians, had been taken to work there under the British Empire.
The interaction between Indian settlers and native Africans led to the creation of some fusion dishes, such as matoke (plantains) with peanut curry.
In 1972 Alibhai-Brown followed her true love (abbreviated to TL) from Uganda to pursue postgraduate studies at Oxford University, just months before President Idi Amin announced that Ugandan Asians must leave the country.
Yasmin married TL and had a son, but TL found a new love and the marriage broke up in 1987 when their son was only 10. Alibhai-Brown subsequently married an Englishman and had a daughter.
A number of Alibhai-Brown’s recipes originated from her late mother Jena. When she first got married she could not cook, and had to ask her mother over the phone for recipes such as a dozen ways to make spicy potatoes.
Various kinds of daal feature in her recipes. Dee Aunti’s Dhansak (named after a family friend) is a sweet and spicy mix of lamb, several kinds of daal, tamarind and a long list of spices. There are recipes for different varieties of pickle, biryanis and pilaus scattered through the book.
Alibhai-Brown’s ’fierce sense of humor shines through in her creation of certain recipes. She devised ‘Retribution Beef’ after the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she said that she sympathized with indigenous British people who were being swamped by people of another culture.
Yasmin invited her white British friends over to meet her baby and to tuck into the curry which she had made so hot, her unsuspecting friends burned their tongues. “Too polite to refuse or too addicted to stop, they ate and cried. I made them cry, paid them back for Thatcher’s words,” she writes.
There are common threads between the two books. In both, travel, trade and the migrations of people and communities have influenced cuisine. Both portray cultures in which food traditionally plays a strong social function.
For Ugandan Asians living in exile, East African-Asian food “expressed both desperate nostalgia and hardship”, writes Alibhai-Brown. But such food could also help in the making of friends. In Oxford student days, “carrot halva was much appreciated by our skint guests, cheap, buttery and wickedly sweet,” she adds.
Sarah Al-Hamad writes that in the Gulf, food “occupies a central position in local life and culture. It is a means of communication and a peace-offering, a way of demonstrating largesse and hospitality to friends and family, a form of one-upmanship, a conversation starter, a boredom buster, and an arena for female competitiveness.”
As with the recipes in “A Settler’s Cookbook”, there is considerable South Asian influence in Al-Hamad’s recipes. Most of the cooks Al-Hamad met while collecting recipes were from India or Bangladesh. Bengalis in the Gulf are famed for their potato “chops”, or batata chab, potato cakes filled with minced meat and fried. Al-Hamad’s recipe for Chicken Biryani came from a South Indian chef who had worked for many years in Bahrain.
Both authors include recipes along a sponge cake theme. Al-Hamad’s is an egg-rich sponge which includes dates, walnuts and sesame seeds and is flavored with cardamom and saffron.
Alibhai-Brown notes that Ugandan Indians would “lift” Victoria sponge cake with lime juice or saffron, and would pep up shortbread with grainy cardamom seeds. In this way they subverted bland English food. Yasmin’s mother transformed English shepherd’s pie – which tasted to Yasmin like “milky newspapers” – into an Indian version through the addition of spices, fresh ginger and garlic.
Al-Hamad regards the famous meat and rice dish Machbous, known as Kabsa in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as typifying Gulf cuisine. Her book starts with a section on rice dishes such as Mu’adas (rice and lentils), Mumawash (mushy rice with mung beans), and Muhammar (date-sweetened rice).
The meat dishes include kebabs, and Marag Shabzi – a lamb and herb stew she learned from a Kuwaiti friend of Iranian descent. The fish section has splendid-looking dishes such as “ultimate fish on rice” (made with local Zubaidi fish), aromatic fish stew and baked fish with nut stuffing.
There are substantial vegetables dishes such as Shilla (grains and spinach porridge) and Gaboot dumplings with a sweet-sour vegetable stuffing. Desserts range from Balaleet – sweet vermicelli topped with omelet – to date-based ‘Afoosa’, and ‘Aseeda’ and the crunchy dough balls in syrup known as Gaimat.
The intimacy of the writing and attractiveness of the recipes in “The Settler’s Cookbook” and “Cardamom and Lime” lend the books much charm. In these days of economic uncertainty many people are shunning restaurants and cooking more at home. The two books should provide practical inspiration, as well as being splendidly good reads.