By Glenda Bartosh
The rum was from Cuba, the two kinds
of halvah from Lebanon. The assortment of dates, the tamarind-flavoured
almonds, the pomegranates, pistachios and the barberries, which added a sharp
zing to the basmati rice, were all from Iran. The sweet but tart raisins we
used in the lamb stew were from Afghanistan.
I’m sure we wouldn’t have won any
points from the 100-mile diet club for our little dinner party, but the
simplicity and exoticism combined with the fabulous tastes made it a lot of fun
to share with friends.
We cheekily dubbed it “the terrorist
dinner”, since most of the ingredients were from “axis of evil” countries or
ones known to harbour “terrorists”. We’d obtained them from a lovely little
Vancouver shop run by a family from Iran.
Shopping in a store where most of the
products come from places that have been written off as evil or been reduced to
blood-laced sound bites on the news is a real eye-opener. Holding a
brightly-labeled tin of three-bean salad from Palestine, for instance, gives
cause for immediate and visceral pause.
Somewhere, a group of Palestinians
washed and cooked and seasoned, then tinned the beans. Or they ran the
machinery that did. I try to picture them: did they have to wear sanitary
uniforms? Hair nets? Are they middle-aged? Young? Happy?
Presumably, a Palestinian designed
the green and white label. A Palestinian
photographer took the photo of the bean salad. Does she shoot digitally,
or with film? Maybe they even hired a food stylist, since the salad looked
pretty darn good. For a humble tin of beans, it goes a long way toward
dismantling stereotypes of Palestinians as suicide bombers or Hamas and
Hezbollah fighters lobbing rockets at each other, or into Israel.
So what else can we learn through
food about the humanness of people living in places we usually see through
veils of apprehension or misunderstanding or uncertainty?
Start with Mesopotamia, dubbed the
“fertile crescent”: Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Three out of four have
been reduced to headlines alternately sensational, fearsome or tragic. But they
gave us agriculture itself, not to mention olive oil, baklava, hummus — and,
the biggest equalizer of all, ice cream.
Ice cream was the favourite dessert
of the ancient caliphs of Baghdad. Sure, people later added eggs and milk and
dressed it up a bit, but the earliest ice cream likely came from Mesopotamia —
either that or China, now smack dab in the middle of the biggest Communist
operation on Earth.
The best ice cream scoop I’ve ever
used came from Syria, a place of simple, relatively austere cuisine — lots of
bean stews and lentil soups — shaped by poverty and the largely agrarian
economy (three out of four workers are farmers). The scoop is a piece of design
genius, a simple piece of gently-curving, wedge-shaped brass with a stubby
handle of the same metal, as contemporary as it is ancient. Super easy to wash
and super easy to use, it effortlessly scoops out the hardest of ice cream.
Try a block of halvah flavoured with
rose water from Iran — simple, sophisticated, surprising. You just know the
complex taste and texture have been painstakingly refined over the last
thousand years or two. And pomegranates. Never mind those hybridized ones from
California. Get your hands on a juicy, sweet one from Iran, where the plant
originated right through to northern India.
How lucky we Canadians are to be able
to trade with and visit Cuba. Dubbed by John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to
the U.N., as “beyond the axis of evil” along with Libya and Syria (Libya has
since redeemed itself and gotten off the list), Cuba remains dangerous and,
well, evil, in the minds of most Americans.
But we get to toast our friends in
Havana with rich, golden 16-year-old Cuban rum and genuine
, or sample Cuban melons from our local store shelves.
There’s something very grounding and connective about hefting a nice-looking
cantaloupe and then seeing a label, “Product of Cuba”. Who was the farmer who
grew it? Did he use mulch or irrigate? Is it from one of those organic farms
that sprang up after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the capital for
fertilizers and pesticides dried up?
Enjoy a big
pancake or a bowl of
bi bim bap
with the raw egg on top at a Korean restaurant, and you
can’t help but wonder if they eat similar dishes in North Korea. If they do,
who can afford them? What do they know about us?
But going back to our terrorist
dinner, I still can’t get those Afghani raisins out of my mind. Fragrant, a
hazy violet/magenta in colour with a bit of desert dust still clinging to some
of the creases, they were light years away from the shiny, industrialized,
oil-coated raisins we get here. They seemed to say something about the high
desert wind and sun, a weathered hand and a scratchy dry, burlap sack. That
might be just another stereotype, but at least it’s a more humanistic one.
Rice with Saffron, Almonds and
If you’d like to try a dish from Iraq
that might anchor a dinner party and lead to a deconstruction or two, such as
discussing the 655,000 Iraqis the Lancet medical journal estimates have been
killed by the American-led invasion, this recipe from Eating the Iraqi Way is
simple to make and delicious.
4 cups water (use less for drier rice)
1 tbsp rose water
Pinch of saffron
4 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cups long-grain basmati rice
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/4 cup raw, unsalted, slivered
1/4 cup raisins
In a large saucepan, mix the water,
rose water, saffron, salt and 4 tbsp of oil. Bring to a boil on high heat. Add
the rice. Return to a boil, then lower to medium heat. Cook, uncovered, until
most of the water has been absorbed. Stir from the bottom up, lower the heat,
cover, and let simmer for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tbsp of
oil in a small pan. Fry the almonds until slightly brown. Add the raisins,
stirring for a few seconds until fluffy. Remove from heat. Serve the rice on a
platter, garnished with the almond-raisin mixture.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning
freelance writer who likes to zoom in for a different take.