Eating at our Common Table (of Universal Food Culture)

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On a trip to Greece, I once made the phenomenal mistake of ordering ‘Turkish’ coffee in a country that proudly boasts its Greek coffee as one of the world’s finest caffeine-denominated beverages.

Greek coffee (photo: greekaura)

I did this while actually thinking of the Egyptian-style coffee that is famously known as Turkish coffee (ahwa Torky) among Egyptians.  

After the initial misunderstanding was set straight, I was courteously served the frothy beverage on a small tray along with a glass of cold water.

(photo: tnnegypt )

 The 60 year-old Greek coffee-shop proprietor told me that he was born in Alexandria and had spent his youth there.

He forgave me for the culinary gaffe. Since he was, as he said, ‘half-Egyptian’ he knew the diverse influences that Greek, Turkish, European and Asian cuisines had on Egyptian culture.

In writing this article, I do not mean to pour oil over troubled waters. But one cannot help but reflect upon the question of ‘cultural food wars’ through which food becomes an incendiary issue pertaining to national pride.

It becomes all the more so when, due to migrations, invasions or colonisation, political tensions riddle countries’ ties, as they stake claims on the origins of various culinary products.

We thus find ‘dolma’, an assortment of vegetables stuffed with rice and herbs, turning up by the very same name in the kitchens of Egypt, Turkey and Greece (where it is known as ‘dolmades’).

Greek dolmades wrapped with vine leaves and rice with salad (photo: thecyprusgarden)

Kofta, a dish of minced meat typically prepared with or without tomato sauce, is also known by this name in Egypt, Turkey, and Afghanistan as well as India and Pakistan. It features as ‘keftethes’ in Greece.

Egypt’s version of kofta (photo: migrationology)

Greek meatballs also known as keftethes (photo: mygreekdish)

All of these dishes pertain to a geographically situated space wherein age-old civilisations resided. As such, these cuisines evolved over thousands of years and at moments when borders were more so porous than today. The demographic cross-currents between countries stretching from Morocco in the west to India and Abkhazia to the east and north-east resulted in a food culture where many dishes replicated themselves. Consequently, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the ‘genesis’ of every dish, and where and when exactly it originated.

One instance of this may be ‘kishk’, which has existed in Egypt in its ‘saeedi’ (Upper Egyptian) version for  thousands of years since the reign of Ahmes I. Kishk, however, which is essentially made from a base of fermented milk, is also to be found – with variations – in the rural communities stretching from the Yemen to Armenia, Afghanistan and Iran, and on to Iraq, Turkey and other countries of Central Asia.

Kishk 

Raw ingredients for kishk

Within this context, it is interesting to note that while Egyptians have for millenia assimilated foreign elements into their local cuisine, ‘food as national pride’ does not seem to figure prominently in their social and political discourse.

For example, in Egypt, there is a mellow acceptance of ‘sharkaseya’ as an indigenous dish that has clear foreign roots. Sharkaseya is a dish comprised of chicken smothered in a rich almond-based sauce.

Chicken sharkaseya (photo: mutfakzevki)

It was introduced into Egypt by the Circassian ruling caste (1382-1517 AD). The explicit acknowledgement by Egyptians that it was a food introduced to them by the Circassians, (as its name sharkaseya, which means Circassian, denotes) in no way detracts from its enjoyment as a typically Egyptian dish.

Chicken sharkaseya

Egyptians also consider stuffed vine leaves, “waraq enab” to be a very popular Egyptian dish. They nevertheless concede that no one prepares vine leaves with the excellence that the Lebanese, who boast it as their quintessential food, do.

Stuffed vine leaves, or ‘Waraq Enab’ (photo: houdatraiteur)

Stuffed vine leaves in Lebanon (photo: z4ar)

I do not mean to plunge into the simmering terrain of food politics, but as I sipped my fragrant coffee on that sunny morning in Athens, I wondered why it is that something like food, which is universally enjoyed by people of different cultures, could be so divisive.

I visualised an imaginary, universal table where peoples of all nationalities sat. They were enjoying a meal of kofta, kebab, dolma and kishk. They had oriental pastries and fried bananas with ice cream as desert, and concluded it with an excellent and fragrant black coffee served in little cups accompanied by adorned saucers.

(photo: ytrecipes)

(photo: joanransley)

They would sip the coffee while not prescribing its origins as Turkish, Greek, or even Italian.

It would be a Zen moment with no labels.

In this imagined moment, the people of the world would savour their food along with their shared heritage.

Instead of seeing divides, they would see themselves as one.