By Khaled Diab
The migratory history of foodstuffs and cuisines reveals that our dinner tables, like our societies, are both melting pots and salad bowls of ingredients from many different civilisations.
Wednesday 8 December 2021
Arabs are convinced they speak the same language, yet they cannot agree on what to call many foods, including cauliflower, watermelon or tomato, sometimes even in the same country.
In Egypt, for example, the tomato has two names. One is quite simply tamatem, which is derived from the original Mesoamerican name, which meant ‘fat water with navel’. The other is outa or qouta, which originally meant, apparently, a reed fruit basket but went on to refer to just tomatoes, presumably because of the abundance of tomatoes stored in them.
In Levantine dialects, tomato is known as bandora. One etymological theory is that this name is a bastardisation of the Italian pomodoro, which could indicate that the tomato arrived there on merchant ships from Venice or Genoa or one of the other Italian city states.
However, one source has it that the tomato became known in Syria thanks to one man, and he was not an Italian but the British Consul John Barker at the end of the 18th century. Of course, Barker could have introduced it, then Syrians picked up the name from local Italians living in the Levant. Alternatively, this could be another example of imperial hubris, the British taking credit for something that was already present like, say, civilisation.
While it is clear that Europeans introduced Arabs and Turks to the tomato, it may have been the Arabs and Turks who taught Europeans to appreciate the fruity vegetable as a food. The western appreciation of the dietary importance of the tomato is “quite modern”, according to the American botanist Edgar Anderson. “It came to us, not from Mexico, but by way of the Italians and the French… the French in turn took over the use of tomatoes from the Italians and that the Italians themselves acquired it from the Turks, or at least from the peoples of the Levant,” he wrote in the 1952 edition of the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
To confuse matters further, Anderson reportedly posited that the Italian pomodoro (which means ‘golden apple’) is actually a bastardisation of pomo dei mori (‘Moor’s apple’) because the now-familiar red variety of tomatoes was first cultivated in North Africa, then imported into Italy. In French, the word further mutated to become pommes d’amour (‘love apple’).
This kind of word migration and mutation is common in the world of food. Take oranges. The word ‘orange’ arrived into European languages via Arabic (naranj) which in turn borrowed it from the Sanskrit for orange tree (naranga). However, while orange remains in use in parts of Europe, it has fallen into disuse in modern Arabic. Today, Arabs call oranges bortuqal, in reference to Portugal, probably because this was where sweet oranges, as opposed to the sour ones Arabs used to cultivate, were first grown in our part of the world.
The Arabic word sharab (meaning drink) has spawned many mutations including sharbat, sherbet, sorbette, sorbet and syrup. Some food names return home, after centuries traversing the globe, to be reintegrated into their native language, giving us two similar words for the same ingredient. A striking example of this is the artichoke, which began life as the Arabic al-kharshufa. It became alcarchofa in Spanish, carciofo in Italian and artichaut in French. The English artichoke somehow travelled back and was re-Arabised in the Levant as “ardi” (earth) “shoki” (prickly or thorny), in a process known as phonosemantic matching.
While this proposed direction of travel of the tomato as a foodstuff is surprising, it is not unprecedented. In fact, as the menu of wandering food words above suggests, the migratory history of foodstuffs and cuisines reveals that our dinner tables are both melting pots and salad bowls of ingredients from many different civilisations.
Some didn’t even start out as food. In Europe, for instance, the tomato was, for centuries, mostly used as an ornamental plant, with the reluctance to eat it stemming from the fear that it was a “poison apple” or even from its resemblance to the nightshade, the “devil’s fruit.”
Regardless of who around the Mediterranean basin discovered the culinary use of tomatoes first, it is now ubiquitous in the region’s cuisine, including in the areas once part of or influenced by the Ottoman empire, for all its faults and foibles.
Moreover, the spread of the tomato appears to have occurred not as a trickle but as a flood. The use of tomato sauce with pasta did not occur until the end of the 18th century and recipes for pizza with tomato toppings did not emerge until the 1830s, with the famous Margherita only appearing at the end of the 19th century.
My son, who finds the taste of this fruity veg or veggie fruit hellish, would be quite happy if they had remained ornamental, though he would then miss out on his beloved ketchup. However, he was mystified to learn that a similar fear attached itself to another ‘New World’ import, that global crowd pleaser, the potato.
Today, we regard potatoes as one of the world’s main staples, but it took a very long time for commonfolk to accept them on their plates. Superstitious European farmers believed potatoes to be a product of witchcraft and some refused to eat them because they did not appear in the Bible. It took a monumental persuasion campaign on the part of the aristocracy and royalty (Louis XVI wore a potato flower in his buttonhole while Marie-Antoinette adorned her hair with it) to get the poor to eat this ugly-looking, subterranean tuber.
And these efforts paid off. The potato has become so assimilated into the diets of many European countries that many locals are unaware of or ignore this tuber’s foreign roots – even racists don’t ask this brown-skinned root vegetable questions like “Where are you really from?” or “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”.
Belgium is so crazy about potatoes that it has elevated the fried variety (frieten/frites) to the status of national fast food dish, the perfect accompaniment to a Belgian beer. Not only are there shops selling fries on almost every street corner, there is an annual quest to find the best ‘frietkot’ in the land. One Belgian top chef shut down his Michelin-starred restaurant to open up an upmarket burger joint served with his own special signature chips.
When some Belgian youth in 2011 were inspired by their Arab counterparts to take to the streets to protest the failure of politicians to form a government, they jokingly called their uprising the “Fries Revolution”. In this case, potatoes were a tongue-in-cheek cause of unrest but in the 1840s it was a true trigger of social and political revolution. The potato crop failures across the continent, most acutely felt in Ireland and Scotland, coupled with massive inequalities, led to food shortages, famine and political upheaval, culminating in the so-called Springtime of the Nations revolutions in 1848.
Interestingly, what has been labelled by Western commentators, inspired by the European uprisings of 1848, as the ‘Arab Spring’ was also preceded by food shortages, though not of potatoes, and high food prices.
A similar distaste afflicted the aubergine in the Middle East until the royal touch elevated it to the status of the caviar of vegetables, as described by Reem Kassis in the New Lines magazine. It was scorned by some ninth-century Arabs as having “the colour of a scorpion’s abdomen and a taste like its sting”. But when, in December 825, the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun threw a lavish banquet to mark his marriage to his vizier’s daughter, Khadija, the presence of an aubergine dish changed the fate of this vegetable forever.
In early modern Europe, Satan and sorcerers did not confine themselves to foreign foodstuffs, they also haunted alien beverages. This included the devil’s own brew, coffee, which was invented by those heathen Muslims. Although modern-day Italians happily sip on their light-heartedly named cappuccinos (because they resemble the attire of Capuchin friars), the Italian clergy once regarded coffee as satanic because of the demonic buzz it gave drinkers and because it originated in Muslim lands.
But as is often the case with this kind of demonisation, it was fear not of Satan but of sedition that was the primary motivator. Coffee (derived from the Arabic word qahwa, which also gives us the word ‘café’) not only made its drinker more alert, it also attracted them to the newly imported Arab-style coffeehouses or cafes, which had become popular dens of dissent for intellectuals and artists. The disruptive potential of coffee and cafes was so feared by some rulers that it had led to bans or attempts to ban these establishments in places as far-flung as Mecca, Istanbul, Italy, England, Sweden and Prussia.
Luckily for us caffeine lovers in Europe relief came in the unlikely form of Pope Clement VIII. The pontiff, as legend would have it, tasted coffee and liked it so much that he decided to baptise the Muslim bean, converting it into a Christian beverage.
Arabs and Muslims did not just influence what Europeans ate and drank, they also influenced how they did it. The quintessential image of Arabs and Muslims sitting on the floor eating with their hands or using a loop of bread to scoop up their food is so prevalent that I was surprised when I learnt that the use of the fork to spear food and spare the fingers from contamination was not a European innovation but, like the high heel, a Persian one.
Moreover, the medieval obsession with spices amongst the European elite was not to mask the taste of vulgar food, as some have argued, but due to a vogue for the “luxurious dining” of the Arabs, concluded one researcher who compared recipes in historic European cookbooks with those in Arab ones.
Today we may use French to describe the courses of dinner, but the idea of eating our food in separate stages originated in Arabic. It was introduced to Europe in the court of then Muslim Cordoba by a certain medieval dandy known as Ziryab (Black Bird) , who had moved there from the Baghdad court of al-Ma’mun – the aubergine-serving caliph mentioned above. Ziryab also gave us fashion seasons, developed his own form of deodorant, reinvented the Arab oud as the Spanish lute and revolutionised musical theory.
What the above reveals is food, like people, is a great migrator, not just in the form of ingredients but also of entire recipes. In this great mash of civilisations, fusion cuisine is nothing new – it is, in fact, the default condition of food culture. There is barely a dish in the world that does not include ingredients and influences from elsewhere in the world – not just borrowed from friends but also surreptitiously acquired from despised enemies.
Food often travels on the back of imperialism but tends to outlive the empire that spread it. The Ottomans, French and British are prime examples of this. This helps explain how it is that the countries of the Mediterranean, for example, have much in common in terms of cuisine, even if each jealously claims it as their own.
One culinary wave that Brittania spearheaded was the spread of tea. It is well-known that the British, looking to sate their thirst for cuppas away from Chinese domination, established tea plantations in South Asia, where a passion for milky Masala chai still exists, and exported it across their empire and beyond.
Less well-known is that the Egyptian love affair with tea began under British rule. Although tea had been available before then, it was not popular, with most Egyptians preferring the electric jolt of coffee.
I did not know of Britain’s role in popularising tea when I was growing up in London. In my child and teenage eyes, Egyptian and British tea rituals appeared worlds apart. At home, shai was sweet with a reddish complexion – this was colour coded as ‘black’. Outside our doors, tea tended to shade between dark brown and beige, depending on the amount of milk added – this was colour coded as ‘white’.
Milky tea I found so stomach-wrenchingly revolting that, when asked if I wanted a cuppa, I would clearly but politely stress that I drank mine black, if it wasn’t too much trouble, which it never was. Although my friends’ parents sometimes looked a little startled or quizzical when I revealed my exotic drinking habits, they weren’t half as startled as I was on the odd occasion when I would forget to express my preference or they would forget my request and bring me white tea anyway.
Sometimes, I would pipe up and apologetically admit that I didn’t drink tea with milk to which my host would apologetically apologise for forgetting and go off to fetch me unwhitened tea sweetened with several lumps of sorry. At other times, I would swallow my distaste but try as much as possible not to swallow the tea, except for a few cursory, diplomatic sips.
Fortunately for me, the British introduced Egyptians to tea but my ancestors also politely refused the milk.
Interestingly, tea in Egypt did not overtake coffee in the popularity stakes until a century ago, in the 1920s. This means that when my grandparents were born, tea was still a relatively new-fangled fad in Egypt but rapidly became the country’s unofficial national beverage, as popular amongst farmers in the field as it was amongst city dwellers in teahouses. Actually, teahouse is the wrong word. Egyptians still consume their tea in qahwas (coffeehouses) – which did originally serve only coffee when they were first established, reaching over 600 bayt qahwa by the end of the 17th century.
This illusion of longevity does not just relate to tea, it is a common feature of national cuisine – people tend to assume because a food or drink is popular and common in a certain place then it must have an ancient pedigree.
Consider, for instance, the quintessential scene of Egyptians strolling along the banks of the Nile nibbling on steaming hot baked sweet potatoes or grilled sweet corn. This may appear to be a timeless tradition, and perhaps it is but not with these two ingredients, as both maize and the sweet potato were unknown in Egypt until after the so-called Columbian Exchange.
Egypt’s most popular dishes, koshari, a zany mix of pastas, rice, garlic, chickpeas, fried onions, chilli sauce and a garlicy vinegar is an incredibly recent innovation. Nobody knows for certain exactly how and when it originated, but it appears to have been a product of Egypt’s multicultural melting pot in the first half of the 20th century – some believe it goes back to the mid-19th century.
Although the mysteriously named koshari used to evoke images of kosher food in my mind, a British-Indian friend once pointed out the similarities in the name and composition between it and the popular Indian khichri. And one of the theories is that Indian soldiers brought khichri with them when stationed by the British in Egypt. It blended with Arab mujaddara and Italian pasta to give us the distinctive mix we know today.
What the case of koshari and many other dishes illustrates is that food influences and culinary culture are often carried across borders in the hearts and minds of oft-poor migrants. Some of the world’s most popular cuisines became that way not only because of the intrinsic quality of the food but also because of the arrival of waves of immigrants ready, willing and able to establish eateries in far off places. Examples include Italian, Indian (mostly Punjabi), Irish and Lebanese food.
The profusion of pubs from tiny Ireland and restaurants from tiny Lebanon around the world would not have been possible without the waves of economic misery and political upheaval that had driven numerous generations of Lebanese and Irish to depart their homelands to such an extent that the diasporas of both these countries outnumber manifold the populations left at home.
This migration, rather than quality, explains the global dominance of Lebanese restaurants compared with Syrian ones. In fact, there are those who claim Syrian cuisine is better. And it’s not just Syrians. When I lived in Jerusalem and praised Palestinian cuisine, some Palestinians would point out that Syrian food was the regional champion.
The last decade or so of war and political torment in Syria has seen a similar process set in. Whereas it was next to impossible to find a Syrian restaurant outside Syria when I was growing up, today Syrian restaurants have been opening up all over the place. In the mid-sized Belgian town of Ghent, where I live, a sumptuous Syrian restaurant opened up a few years ago just down the road from where I live. Sadly, the outside world’s gain is Syria’s loss, as its diverse food culture becomes as shattered as the war-ravaged country itself.
Of course, whether Syrian food is better than Lebanese or Lebanese food is better than Syrian is a matter of personal taste, given how closely the two neighbouring cuisines resemble each other. However, in the minds of food nationalists, it is a question of collective identity and pride and politics, which is often underscored by conflict. This kind of food rivalry, with its hummus wars, is quite prevalent in the contemporary Levant, riven as it is by political faultlines, especially when you throw Israel into the mix.
But it doesn’t stop there. Other food conflicts grind on. Notable examples include India and Pakistan as well as Turkey and Greece. Being anti-nationalist and curious, I wondered when holidaying in Crete last summer what would happen if a person ordered Turkish coffee in Greece or Greek coffee in Turkey – two brews which are nearly identical.
The close resemblance between many national dishes in areas like the Mediterranean make schemes such as the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin seem rather iffy. Take the case of halloumi. Earlier this year, the EU awarded Cyprus the sole right to use the name for the chewy, almost unmeltable cheese.
This means that halloumi cheese made outside Cyprus must go by another name. Meanwhile, because the countries which produce hummus are not members of the European Union, a dizzying (and sometimes sickening) plethora of dips and pastes are allowed to call themselves hummus, even when they contain no chickpeas (called ‘hummus’ in Arabic), which are the vital ingredient of this Levantine puree.
This illustrates the central snag to Cyprus taking out what amounts to a registered trademark on the name halloumi. This variety of cheese goes back centuries and is loved in many parts of the Mediterranean, including in the Levant. Its name is even of Arabic origin, which is in turn derived from Coptic, and a recipe for halloumi appears in a medieval Egyptian cookbook.
Despite this evidence, it is entirely possible that Cyprus is where what we call halloumi today originated. But where it originated is besides the point. The issue is that halloumi is considered to be local outside Cyprus too and for other producers of halloumi to be unable to market their cheese in Europe using that name is unfair. Besides, as food is part of our open source cultural heritage, should any country or region be able to effectively take out a patent on it and monetise food nationalism?
The most distasteful variety of food nationalism is, without doubt, food supremacy. While I can understand that it is easy to develop a soft spot for the food you grew up with and that not all cuisines are created equally delicious and that taste, like love, is a subjective matter, I fail to understand how someone can be so enamoured of their own cuisine that they dismiss all others as inferior and refuse to allow a morsel of foreign food to pass their lips. After all, pretty much all cuisines are a hodgepodge of mostly foreign ingredients and influences.
The same goes for culture as a whole. While the particular flavour of a culture is unique to each place and time, the ingredients and recipes that compose it are sourced from all over the world. Although petty nationalists and chauvinists believe we live in a clash of civilisations, the reality is it is interests that clash, whereas civilisations for the most part mash.
This essay first appeared in New Lines magazine on 25 November 2021.