Food Plays Its Role in a Borderless World

The migratory history of foodstuffs and cuisines reveals that our dinner tables are both melting pots and salad bowls of ingredients from many different civilizations

Food Plays Its Role in a Borderless World
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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,” 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 bastardization 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 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, civilization.

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. 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 the Italians themselves acquired it from the Turks, or at least from the peoples of the Levant,” he wrote in the 1952 edition of “Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden.”

To confuse matters further, Anderson reportedly posited that the Italian pomodoro (which means “golden apple”) is actually a bastardization 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 “pomme d’amour” (“love apple”).

This kind of word migration and mutation is common in the world of food. Take oranges. The word “orange” migrated 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 that’s where sweet oranges, as opposed to the sour ones Arabs used to cultivate, were first grown in the Mediterranean region.

The Arabic word “sharab” (meaning drink) has spawned many mutations including sharbat, sherbet, sorbette, sorbet and syrup. Some food names return home, after centuries traveling 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 traveled back and was re-Arabized in the Levant as “ardi” (earth) “shoki” (prickly or thorny), in a process known as phonosemantic matching.

While the 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 civilizations. Many ingredients that Europeans take for granted today, including the spices that were once highly lucrative in the trading world, were either introduced or developed by Arabs and Muslims.

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.

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 appearing only at the end of the 19th century.

My son, who finds the taste of this fruity vegetable or veggie fruit hellish, would be quite happy if it 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 import from the New World, that global crowd-pleaser, the potato.

Today, we regard potatoes as one of the world’s staples, but it took a very long time for commonfolk to accept them on their plates. Superstitious European farmers believed them to be a product of witchcraft; 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 in the diets of Europeans that many locals are unaware of, or ignore, its foreign roots.

Belgium, the country where I live, is so crazy about potatoes that it has elevated the fried variety (“frieten” or “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 an upmarket burger joint where his own special signature chips accompany the meat.

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.”

A similar distaste afflicted the aubergine (known as eggplant in the U.S.) 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 pages of this publication.

It was scorned by some ninth-century Arabs as having “the color 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 like the potato; 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 lightheartedly named cappuccinos (because the color of the coffee resembles that of 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 demonization, 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, but it also attracted them to the newly imported Arab-style coffee houses or cafés, which had become popular dens of dissent for intellectuals and artists. The disruptive potential of coffee and cafés was so feared by some rulers that, at various times, 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 baptize 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 learned 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 among 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 terms to describe the courses of dinner, but the idea of eating our food in separate stages was an Arab innovation. It was introduced to Europe in the court of Abdel-Rahman II in 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 revolutionized musical theory.

What the above reveals is that food, like people, is a great migrator, not just in the form of ingredients but also of entire recipes. In this great mash of civilizations, 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 its own.

One culinary wave that Britannia 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 popularizing 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 color-coded as “black.” Outside our doors, tea tended to shade between dark brown and beige, depending on the amount of milk added — this was color-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 apologize 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 it rapidly became the country’s unofficial national beverage, as popular among farmers in the field as it was among 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” houses 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 that 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.

One of Egypt’s most popular dishes, “koshari” — a zany mix of pastas, rice, garlic, chickpeas, fried onions, chili sauce and a garlicky vinegar — is a very 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, though 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 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 economic misery and political upheaval that had driven numerous generations from those two countries to depart their homelands to such an extent that the diasporas of both vastly outnumber 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 past 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 midsize Belgian town of Ghent, a sumptuous Syrian restaurant opened up a few years ago just down the road from my house. 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 neighboring 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, driven as it is by political fault lines, 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 while holidaying in Crete last summer what would happen if a person ordered Turkish coffee in Greece or Greek coffee in Turkey — two brews that are nearly identical. But, contrary to my mischievous urges, I decided, on this occasion, to keep my curiosity to myself.

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 made outside Cyprus must go by another name. Meanwhile, because the countries that 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. This variety of cheese goes back centuries and is loved in many parts of the Mediterranean, including 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 beside 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 monetize 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 enamored of their own cuisine that they dismiss all others as inferior. 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 flavor 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 civilizations, the reality is it is interests that clash, whereas civilizations for the most part mash.

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