Middle of what?
East of whom?
Table Talk chats with Rana as she explores the multiple narratives that surround her homeland, wondering if we can see a new reality through a plate of food.
I stir my hot cup of adrak chai, hoping the aroma spurs me into literary genius. I’ve had a whirlwind of an experience, immersed in learning about one of the world’s greatest and lesser-known culinary traditions. A culture that’s heavily appropriated, shrouded in colonizer terms and today burns with political colouring.
I’m so glad to have met Rana a few years ago, bonding over making sure our hips did justice to Bollywood beats at an Indian wedding in the US. Today, we were both happy to leave that pressure behind and happier still to be reconnected in these strange times. You see, Rana is half Syrian and half Palestinian. So when I decided to explore the food of the Levant, I knew her memories of home and family would be the perfect gateway to understanding the region. Side note, as I re-read Rana’s description, I’m struck by how ridiculous it is to describe one’s ancestry, one’s identity as if it were as simple as a numerical quantity – half and a half?
“It’s important to talk about culture divorced from politics and propaganda; it’s so much more.”
Right off the bat, it was clear that Rana and I had one intention as we glided into the conversation; an honest, humble attempt to look for an alternative narrative for a people usually associated with war, loss and displacement. Rana confidently claims, “It’s important to talk about culture divorced from politics and propaganda; it’s so much more. It’s not just a story about what we’ve lost but that of a culture of resistance, joy, family, food, flavour. It’s not just a pity party. And I think food is a great way for everyone to understand that.”
Rana was born to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father. Her father was born and raised in the US and her mother moved to the US later on, to further her study in solar engineering. Rana shares how this legacy, this difference in the journey, showed up in small and big ways in their home in New Jersey, where the family grew and deepened their roots. While her father found it more in his stride to embrace America as his home, the word “home” for her mother, even today, is reserved only for the city of Damascus, tinged with a sense of loss.
“I loved my summers in Damascus”, Rana gushes and I see a familiar glow of nostalgia sweep over her. She shares that growing up, every Summer, they would make trips to Damascus to see her maternal grandparents. Rana describes her Damascus as a buzzing, energetic city – trendy restaurants and discos refurbished from old buildings serving BBQs, tartars and fish, streets alive with the sounds and smells of sizzling shawarmas and sausage rolls, bakeries laden with knafeh and other sweet treats. She also talks of luxurious, traditionally cooked meals at her granduncle’s in Deir Atiyeh, a city little outside Damascus, where she remembers eating kibbeh or ‘meat pies’ stuffed with yoghurt to make them decadent and melt-in-the-mouth. As she talks without a pause, I’m hanging on to every word, trying to taste every food item described by borrowing references from my flavour bank. I’m right there with Rana, walking the streets of a city I’ve never been to and tasting food I’ve only had mediocre versions of.
As we flip through this memory album, we stumble upon the question, does food belong to countries or to people? With a laugh, Rana proclaims, “In the universe of tabouleh, only my mum’s tabouleh matters. And that’s on American soil.” Tabouleh, is a Levantine salad, made with bulgar, onions, cucumbers and mint. Rana’s mum made sure her children grew up knowing the tastes of a homeland she had painstakingly tried to preserve. And what seems like a common “moment of reckoning” among third culture kids, Rana realized early on that her lunchbox looked different. She soon started seeing the food on her table as “her food”, unpacking a hidden part of her identity. Kibbeh was a staple on their table, given its “easy to freeze” attribute lent itself easily to the hustle of American life. In addition to that, there were a variety of meat stews, salads like fattoush made from toasted bread and summer greens and freekah, a grain dish with lamb, traditionally made for Christmas or Thanksgiving.
But the glow of nostalgia slowly wears off as we’re brought to this moment in time, when today a plate of falafel, or a steaming roll of shawarma is a form of expression and more importantly assertion of identity and heritage. While on one hand, Gazan cuisine is at the brink of extinction with entire generations displaced, on the other hand, one cannot talk about the food of Syria without referencing its political history. “Remembering recipes is an act of resistance”, shares Rana and as an adult in modern America, she feels that responsibility. She shares how she feels a deep kinship with the larger Arab community in the US as they collectively attempt to wade through multiple narratives of their homeland. She fondly talks of cooking mulukhiya, an Egyptian dish made of mulukhiya leaves cooked with meat. She reflects on how she now craves “her food” a lot more than before and notices her transition from not cooking at all to now actively seeking out recipes that remind her of home. I ask her what she’s cooked recently, and she shares with exasperation, “I have so many recipes, but Arab cooking is made quite complicated because no one measures anything! What does “enough onions” even mean!?”
And maybe there’s something there. Recipes don’t end with cooking. There’s always room for restraint and indulgence, and there is wisdom in that. Maybe these are the hidden clues passed on from generation to generation, surpassing geographical boundaries, redefying culinary borders and telling us a story that can’t be found in history books. Maybe when you cook, what you’re actually doing is tracing the lifeline of people through a bowl of chickpeas.
And then, half and a half, really and truly does seem ridiculous.