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Do Nations Express Themselves In Their Foods?

posted on: Feb 14, 2015

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

Do nations express themselves in their foods? It is a question that I thought would be worth examining. Mulling over this interesting theory i n my mind led me to examine my own experiences during more than a quarter century of travel throughout the world. Looking back at the episodes and the many feasts which I relished during these travels, inspired me to relay my thoughts to others. ‘Perhaps, there is much to be read in this simple question’, I thought to myself.

My trail of memories begins in my own backyard – from a fine restaurant which I always patronize . ‘I love Japanese food! It’s my favourite! ‘ Jim, one of my colleagues, remarked when I asked him if he would like to join us for a meal at Toronto’s Memories of Japan Restaurant . Now, as we sat around a cook­ ing table, where food is cooked in front of a customer, the chef clowned around as he cooked our meal. Jim, between morsels, would come out with phrases such as: ‘Isn’t Toronto great? Where else would one find the food of the entire world in one city?’

Another time, at one of my other preferred gourmet dining places, The Jerusalem Restaurant, which, in view, serves the best Arab food in North America , I was enjoying my succulent meal, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Looking up, I was astonished to see a Palestinian friend who I knew worked in the United Arab Emirates.

‘What are you doing here?’, I asked as I jumped up to welcome him. He grinned as I warmly shook his hand . ‘In Toronto, I always come to this restaurant. Imagine! It serves great Arab food – better than the eating places in the Arab world’.
Sometime later, at one of the chain of Mandarin Restaurants in Toronto offering tasty Chinese buffet foods, I walked around surveying the customers as they tried to choose from the seemingly endless and enticing dishes. The mostly young men and women appeared to be as varied as the dishes. Asians, Africans and European-looking individuals made up the milling crowd. All seemed to be familiar with the delights of Chinese food. They were a fair representation of Toronto’s cosmopolitan population – like the city’s foods, a multi-national mixture of peoples.

The hundreds of ethnic eating places in the city have created a sophisticated Torontonian. It is said that, in Toronto, one can eat for the 365 days of the year at a different ethnic eating place and never eat the same food twice. Without doubt, the foods of the world, to be found in Canada’s larger cities, had a great hand in creating the modem Canadian – in the main, sophisticated and worldly.

It is a long way from Toronto to the Middle East, but food knows no bound­ aries. What we eat is one of the basic moulders of our culture. There i s no better illustration of this phenomena than the reflections about my countless trips to that part of the world.

During one of these trips, after enjoying a restful afternoon siesta, we were that evening seated in Abo Alez Restaurant, housed in a renovated, beautifully tiled old Arab home across the street from the renowned Umayyad Mosque in Damascus – the oldest inhabited city in the world. Here, surrounded by groups of tourists, a traveller can dine on the tastiest food in Damascus – a city noted for its fine dishes.

Nibbling on endless mazzas (appetizers), I looked around me as we gorged on these tidbits of food. In the background, the melodies of the muwashahiit (classical music and song developed in Arab Spain) soothed our nerves and this created an atmosphere conducive to friendly conversation. The captivating tunes of these classical songs and music from Andalusia were like sirens calling us to come and enjoy the pleasures of life as we relaxed and waited for the meal to come. Of course when, more than an hour later, the main course came, we could not do it justice. Like the others around us, we just nibbled on our newly served food.

This way of dining tells better than words the story of the Middle Eastern way of life. Dining is the essence of existence itself. Life revolves around food. The longer it takes to consume a meal, the more one is imbued with zest for living. The food itself, even though important, is, in the main, a way of coalescing social life.

The way Middle Easterners eat, indicates to the outsider that in this part of the world the people love to relax and eat while they enjoy each others company. In North America and the majority of European countries, people usually relax and converse while sipping their drinks; in the Arab East, it’s nibbling on food which brings social grace and contentment. In Europe and North America, the cities are saturated with fast-food outlets where people eat and run. This reflects their lifestyle – a fast pace of life where, in order to succeed, time means everything.

On the other hand, in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands, food and tradition go hand in hand. Take for example the hours it takes to make a meal in the Arab Middle East. It is as if time is of no essence. Cleaning, cutting and grind­ing meats and vegetables can take an entire morning, just for preparing the ingre­dients for a simple meal. In Europe and North America, preparation is effortless. One can buy the ingredients canned, frozen or prepared by the butcher, indicating a fast-moving society with hardly any time to spare.

In classical and medieval times, the Arabs and Chinese prepared sumptuous feasts and, in some cases, their recipes were recorded. Following these banquets of culinary delights, in poetry and prose, guests would laud the host and the pleasures they found in his food. In those eras, the opulence of culture was to be found in the dishes each nation could produce. As an example, the Chinese are said to have some 80,000 and the Arabs 40,000 dishes in their storehouses of foods. The leisurely ways of dining gave them the incentive to create countless dishes and this gave birth to a person and a lifestyle easygoing, friendly and hospitable.
In Spain, an Arab land for some 800 years, it is the same story. Abo Alez Restaurant and its mazzas came to mind as we dined in the Alhambra Palace Hotel – a Moorish style red-ochre palace overlooking the renowned Alhambra Palace. Nibbling on dish after dish of tapas, mazzas Spanish style, while sipping wine, I observed my co-diners as they conversed in a leisurely style. It was a Damascene scene with a unique Andalusian ornamentation.

Even though for centuries Spaniards and Arabs warred against each other, the basic way of life remains similar. Their siestas, their mazzas and tapas tell the same story. Leisurely dining is inbred into the culture. Conversing and enjoy­ ing tidbits of food is the core of the Spanish character.

Even more than in Spain, food in Morocco is the mirror of the nation. During my first visit to that country in the early 1960s, as we sat down to dine in a Moroccan friend’s home in Rabat, the beautiful capital of that country, I was astonished at the eating ritual. Living all my life in North America, I was ignorant of other people’s cultures.

I had become acquainted with my Moroccan friend, Idriss, during his student years in Canada. He had dined in our home many times and now I was enjoying his hospitality. Ina Moorish style dining room, made stunning by exquisitely tiled walls, we sat down on low stools around a huge copper platter on which course after course of different dishes was served. With the exception of the soup, everyone scooped up the food with their right hand from common dishes. It was a scene as old as time – going back to the very beginning of human civilization.

Idriss was a member of one of the aristocratic families in Morocco and his family followed the traditions of his ancestors in dining and food. His roots went back to medieval Arab Spain – to the time when Morocco and Spain were one nation. Proud of what the Arabs had accomplished in the Iberian Peninsula, he carried on the traditions of his ancestors.

That evening as we feasted with Idriss and his family, he talked about Andalusia and of how many of his relatives and friends still eat the same food and live as their forefathers had done in that once Arab land. Eating with his hand from a common dish and dining in the atmosphere of Moorish arches and seduc­ tive tiles was a way of keeping the pride and traditions of his ancestors alive. There is little doubt that these embellishments and the food, once eaten in Moor­ ish Spain, along with its traditions, gave him pride and kept his connections with the past alive. It moulded, to a great extent, his and his compatriots’ personalities and way of life.

A few years later, while vacationing in Acapulco, Mexico’s top resort, I was surprised to find a small restaurant edging the Z6calo, in the heart of the old city, with an Arab owner. Seemingly overjoyed at meeting us, he invited my daughter and myself to join him for breakfast a few days later.

During that morning’s repast I discussed with him Mexican food for an article I was in the process of writing. When I asked him about the original dishes of that country, he thought for awhile, then mischievously said, ‘Oh! I don’t know! All their foods are only touched up Arab dishes. One of their most favoured dishes is paella – a true Arab invention’. He went on, ‘What they eat here is only a version of what we eat in the Middle East’.

The Arab contributions to the Latin-speaking world, not only in the food arena but in almost all aspects of life has had a great hand in forming the Latin individual. It is said that inside every person with a Spanish or Portuguese ancestry, lies a hidden Arab still enjoying the dance, music, song and, above all, the food of the Arab lands.

I will never forget a beautiful tourist guide in one of Acapulco’s numerous travel agencies telling me, ‘Of course we are proud of the Arabs, and why should we not be? Here, many of us in Mexico say, “Our fathers were the Spaniards but our grandfathers were the Arabs”‘. Without doubt, her words and those of the restaurant owner reflect the Mexican personality. It is a combination of Arab. Iberian Peninsula and the American native cultures – its yeast, the foods con­sumed.

The combination of cultures and food is even more evident in southeast Asia, best reflected in Malaysia. The first time that I explored Kuala Lumpur, its dazzling capital, I was fascinated by its architecture, exuding the aura of the Arab/Islamic lands, China and India. It seemed to me that the city was an enchanted world of make-believe.

I felt even more of a thrill when I sampled that country’s exotic food. Malaysian cuisine is, if one is to somewhat exaggerate, a combination of the world’s culinary arts. The dishes of Malaysian indigenous people, the Arab lands, China, India, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, some of the European countries and a combination of these foods are to be found, not only in Kuala Lumpur, but in all the large cities throughout Malaysia.

The some 22 million people of the country consuming these foods are themselves as diverse as the cuisine they enjoy. Their foods reflect their personality – springing up from a Malaysian base and ornamented by the complexity of cultures which thrive in that tropical land.

In the words of a Malaysian acquaintance who said when I remarked on how the Malaysian had retained so much culture from the British, ‘We have not only inherited some of the British ways, but we have also retained parts of other cultures which passed through our country’. He smiled as he continued, ‘This is especially true when it comes to food. Note all the foreign dishes offered in our country! They have made us adaptable to foreign influences’.

From the words of my Malaysian acquaintance and from my own observations and sampling of Malaysian food, I am convinced that the culinary art of the country is one of the main elements in the evolution of its people. One can honestly say, without much contradiction, that food had a great hand in the formation of the modern Malaysian.

In the medieval ages, Arab writers wrote about peoples and their environ­ment. In the majority of cases, they stressed that climate. history, culture and food when combined create an individual’s culture and that humans with similar backgrounds usually become a part of the same nation.

These writers could have a point. I remember in the 1970s, during my travels through Communist Bulgaria, I found that the people, who dined on a very plain cuisine, seemed sad and unhappy. In contrast, travelling to Communist Cuba during the same era, I found the Cubans, whose main diet consisted of tasty beans and rice, always dancing and happy. Both peoples had very little to eat. However, was it the food they ate that made the difference? I cannot say, but it could very well have been.

The incidents which I have related are only a miniscule part of my encoun­ters with people throughout the world and I have written much about their culture and food. My travels and experiences with the inhabitants of other lands have left me with an indelible feeling that people express themselves, to a great extent, in their foods.

It appears that food, like education and experiences in life, lends a hand in the evolvement of human beings. Excitement, generosity, graciousness, hospital­ity, irritation and relaxation, all could have some connection to the food we eat. Collectively, the eatables of nations have a great hand in giving their people their uniqueness. The idea that ‘nations express themselves in their food’ has much merit.

Habeeb Salloum is a Canadian travel writer. His most recent book is Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa.

Salloum, H. (2001, 02). Do nations express themselves in their foods? Contemporary Review, 278, 107-111. Retrieved from