Obviously, we are always what we eat

By Elizabeth Luard, August 9, 2013
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Tempting delights at a Jerusalem market

Tempting delights at a Jerusalem market

Food is political – and nowhere are politics more evident that in The Gaza Kitchen, an everyday story of life and cooking in that narrow strip of fertility that separates the desert from the sea, served as a link between Europe and Asia and allowed Damascus to trade with Venice. Or perhaps not so everyday, since circumstances in a war-zone are scarcely conducive to a tranquil wander round the shelves of the neighbourhood supermarket, let alone a trip to the farmer’s market for seasonal vegetables and organic free-range eggs.

The recipes — classic dishes of the regional kitchen found in similar form throughout the Middle East including Israel — deliver good food using local ingredients authentically prepared under circumstances of unimaginable difficulty. But the power lies in the subtext, that this is a nation/people/group whose way of life is under threat, which sees itself on the verge of vanishing for good.

The book is subtitled A Palestinian Culinary Journey: both authors, Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, were visitors to Gaza from the relative safety of the United States, though El-Haddad spent childhood summers in the “sliver of green between the desert and the sea”. The recipes are mainly drawn from the authors’ conversations and observations in the kitchen at the Zeitun Womens’ Co-operative just outside Gaza City.

If the history of a nation can be read in the dishes they remember in exile, Palestinians grow nostalgic over maqlouba, a slow-cooked dish of lamb and vegetables prepared with olive oil, coloured with turmeric, flavoured with mastic and turned out from the pot as a cake — crisp on the outside and soft within in much the same way as Iranian celebration rices coloured with saffron and enriched with butter.

Gaza’s flavouring spice-mix, qidra, varies from household to household, but cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are always present — evidence of accessibility to the trade-routes of the East. While citrus fruits and Mediterranean herbs are native to the region, those who appreciate their flavours will explain that these are more fragrant — or sweeter, or more delicious — when gathered from Palestinian hillsides.

Such distinctions make reproducing a dish through following a recipe something of a problem: there’s a very good reason why no one makes maqlouba like your mother made it. The memory of what we ate as children returns to us as adults. I once asked the distinguished culinary historian, Claudia Roden, chronicler of the cooking of the Middle East and author of The Book of Jewish Food, why so many of us who write cookbooks are Jewish by descent, as am I, even if this is not immediately apparent in our work.

“Diaspora,” she said without hesitation. “We need to remember who we are.”

The subtitle of Ms Roden’s masterwork, An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day, explains the extraordinary diversity of the recipes included, the result of applying Jewish dietary rules to the raw materials and culinary habit wherever the wanderers settled. This is the link, say, between the chopped liver and latkes supplied by a New York deli and the felafel in pita available from a garage forecourt on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

An unusual degree of flexibility in matters of gastronomy might also account for the extraordinary survival of Jewish table-traditions, the rituals through which stories of long-ago events familiar since childhood are told and retold — and all the more powerful for the memories they evoke, present as well as past. If food is political in its ability to separate one group from another, it’s also a way in which we can demonstrate our status as outsiders.

Gatherings such as The Gaza Cookbook — recipes from many hands collected at moments of change — are a natural response to a fear that something precious will be lost. Whether the disaster that triggers this is man-made or natural — earthquake, famine, invasion, civil war — such cookbooks rapidly acquire the status of culinary bibles, consulted and followed even by those who’ve cooked the same recipe with minor variations all their lives. Through the authority conveyed by authenticity, the books themselves become instruments of change, allowing evolution of culinary habit in much the same way as a living language has no difficulty in appropriating words from elsewhere.

Works such as Mrs Beeton’s original Household Management are a reflection of social upheaval as a result of the newly-affluent middle-class, others are the direct result of political change. Not long after the death of General Franco, Catalunya acquired its own thousand-recipe cookbook written in Catalan — a forbidden language under the 40-year dictatorship.

In 1982, shortly after the fall of Salazar in Portugal, Maria de Lourdes Modesto, a TV cook in Lisbon, asked for contributions to a book on regional Portuguese cookery. Six thousand recipes flooded in within a week, 1,000 of which were for salt-cod, bacalhau, the fast-day food ordered by the Catholic Church, another thousand offered variations on a bread-paella, açorda — poor folks’ food— and a few gave recipes for wind-dried smoked-cured sausage, chouriço, made by Jewish households in the mountain villages with game rather than Christian pork, at a time when Portugal’s Inquisition was inspecting national larders.

In the Library of the Americas in Seville, records of Spain’s own Inquisition provide details of questions asked of those suspected of religious transgression, a high proportion of which have to do with methods of cooking as well as choice of ingredient.

Food as propaganda, a sub-genre which can tip over into farce, is magnificently presented in the irresistibly-titled Tito’s Cookbook, a fully-illustrated collection of recipes designed to reflect Josip Broz’s influence on international affairs and on sale last year at the entrance to the dicator’s marble-and-glass mausoleum overlooking Belgrade. Lunch at Buckingham Palace with Her Majesty apparently consisted of fried egg, bacon, steak, prunes and boiled carrots, while dinner with Saddam Hussein was mutton stew with dates, a suitably modest dish shared by a self-avowed supporter of the Communist cause with a fellow dictator.

Cooking can also reflect rejection — particularly when the national mood turns against minorities. My mother, born of a successful Jewish family of refugees in the 1880s from Eastern Europe, half of whom settled in London and the other in Baltimore, hated her line of descent and married “out” — twice. And yet, tidying up her tiny kitchen when she was bed-ridden towards her life’s end, I found a battered copy of The Settlement Cookbook, published in Milwaukee in 1914, the year my American grandmother married my London-born grandfather, her second cousin. Flicking through its yellowing pages, I noticed a recipe for American apple pie annotated in my mother’s hand. The pastry recommended was a choice of matzo pie-crust or muerbeteig (German shortcrust pastry) — my mother preferred the latter — evidence of allegiances otherwise denied.

The power of particular foodstuffs to remind us who we are, is all too easily overlooked by politicians. Despots ignore it at their peril. In Ceaucescu’s Romania, what was known as the Turkish market in Sibiu was removed from the square in front of the Lutheran church, resulting in the absence of the merchant from Istanbul, purveyor of carpets and coffee as well as cinnamon and cloves for the Sibiu Saxons’ traditional Christmas sausage.

“Without our spices we are unable to celebrate the birth of Christ,” explained the wife of the Lutheran bishop sadly when I visited the town in the early 1980s. “The people will revolt.” Indeed they did, and Sibiu was the place from which the fire of revolution spread.

Certain foods are a reminder of bad times. To Tiger Woods, the offer of fried chicken by fellow-golfer Sergio Garcia was insulting not simply as a reference to skin-colour but a reminder of an era of slavery and shame.
Taboos, religious prohibitions, are a powerful weapon in proving difference. And from establishing difference it’s a short step to disapproval, and from disapproval to superiority. By complaining that the neighbours use too much garlic, cook with too much olive oil, are over-enthusiastic with the spice-jar, we register disapproval.

And by announcing we keep kosher – or only eat halal or declare ourselves vegan – we claim not only that we are different, we occupy the moral high ground.

In spite of the global supermarket, we remain resolutely tribal when we cook. This is the message delivered by The Gaza Cookbook, set fair to become a culinary bible in its land of origin and among those who have made a new life elsewhere.

But the way of life it celebrates is already obsolete. If the popularity of smuggled Kentucky Fried Chicken is a sign of the times, the Zeitun Women’s Co-operative may soon be forming an orderly queue at the Egyptian border, dollars in hand.

Elisabeth Luard is Trustee Director of the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery

Last updated: 4:45pm, August 9 2013