07 March 2015

Filed Under Deep Thoughts

 photo 1
I made a comment on Instagram recently about a cookbook I had received, very kindly, as a gift. The whole pan-Arab Mediterranean Israeli cooking thing has become extremely popular in the wake of the Ottolenghi boom, and I receive and read a lot of those cookbooks. I commented that this book in particular, a sort of Middle Eastern Iranian Ottoman mish-mash, had some lovely looking recipes, but that I felt by lumping all of the Levant, North Africa, Turkey, the Gulf and Persia together,  something really got lost in the middle. It probably helped that I thought the book badly needed a copy editor, as there were numerous seemingly strange observations in the book. (My favorite of which, the statement that "potatoes aren't very common in Middle Eastern dishes," made me laugh out loud for its bizarreness. These are the same people who invented the french fry sandwich, but I digress.)

This is not meant to be a criticism of any one cook or cookbook, and I should add that I have tried a few recipes from this cookbook that came out wonderfully. Part of my criticism comes from a frustration that the approach to the Middle Eastern cooking trend is all about cherry-picking. Everyone talks about harissa, preserved lemons, za'atar, dukkah, and labne. No one talks about jameed, ashta, qawarma, malawach, or home-made couscous. Those are all great ingredients, wonderful things, but each one comes from a unique tradition and a different style of cooking.  And yes I know, some things will always be more popular than others. But, would you call something an Asian dish just because it involved a bit of soy sauce?

Of course, I don't expect anyone to be as nerdily excited as me in studying Middle Eastern food traditions, nor should they be. But, I do think there is the responsibility on the part of the cookbook writers who write about these foods, and their editors, to dig a little deeper. I expect more than just some pretty pictures and four sentences about sour cherries. Maybe I'm asking too much.  Maybe 90% of your readers just want to look at the pictures, but what about the 10% who bought your book because they actually wanted to learn something. It takes a lot for someone to buy a real hard-copy cookbook these days, and I want the author to make it worth my while.

The thing is, it's sad if people only know about harissa sold in jars. If someone has gone far enough to buy your book about Middle Eastern foods, then they deserve to learn about hand-rolled barley flour couscous and cooking with argan oil and salty creamy ijben cheese (all those are Moroccan, but you get my drift). I think you should explain to them that good labne and good preserved lemons, one from North Africa and one from the Levant, would not historically have found their way into the same dish. Innovate with knowledge of tradition.

There is a lot of pressure on cookbook writers, Instagrammers,  bloggers, chefs, to produce food that is PRETTY. The NYTimes Pete Wells has talked about that here, and I loved Tim's recent thoughts about the boringness of pretty things here. I don't want food to only be pretty, I want it to taste good and if it's a really good meal or a good cookbook, it should be food that makes me think. My recent meal at Lokanta Yeni in Istanbul was an example of that, modern food rooted in Turkish tradition, with a carrot dip that made you rethink everything you knew about carrots. If you're a chef that's using the traditional spice blend dukkah on your menu, but that's the only thing you know about Egyptian food, then I think there's something wrong with that. Maybe that makes me obnoxious, or a snob, or maybe just someone with really high standards. I'm okay with that.

I read an interview with Anissa Helou recently, where she was asked if anyone was doing really truly innovative modern Middle Eastern cuisine, and she answered honestly, no she could not think of anyone. There are plenty of Middle Eastern influences in restaurant food these days, especially with some well-known chefs, but I'm inclined to agree with her opinion. Because there is very little understanding of the depth and history of these food traditions, there cannot be real innovation. Your food cannot make someone think if you do not know what you are saying, and if you do not know how the ingredients you are using are traditionally used, then how do you know what you are saying with them? I think often of a profile of the Italian chef Massimo Bottura that ran in the New Yorker last year.

However, all is not lost when it comes to this (endlessly long rant by yours truly). Greg Malouf's books always ring true to me, as someone who has traveled and researched the food he writes about, but takes the flavors in a new direction. (His salmon samkeh harra recipe is a classic example of this.) Leila's Haddad's wonderful Gaza Kitchen book, that introduced the world to roast baby watermelon fetteh, is another example. I love reading Joumana's Taste of Beirut, which highlights both traditional and contemporary Lebanese foods, and I'm looking forward to Felicia Campbell's Taste of Oman coming out this year.

This is all just a long winded way of saying that all these articles, these books that arrive in my mail box, the food I eat in restaurants, have gotten me thinking about demanding higher standards for myself, and for this blog. I write this unpopular food blog out of love and joy and occasionally out of frustration and a sense of duty to my six readers. But mainly, I write it to keep track of things I've liked and things I've learned. I work full time, commute battling donkey carts in the streets, spend an inordinate amount of time scrubbing vegetables, and don't have time to photograph perfectly styled shots of what I cook in my late night dimly lit kitchen. I routinely search twitter to find out if the explosion I just heard was an IED, a transformer exploding, or fireworks (all are regular occurrences). In between all that, I hope that I can write something meaningful for a few people in this tiny corner of the internet.

back soon with something tasty.....
photo 2
Photos from Wadi Degla, Cairo, Egypt.

25 comments:

Meeta K said...

Mercedes its people like you who remind uscto keep the focus and not to forget the history and traditional dishes and recipes. Love Malouf and Joumana rocks!

Meeta K said...

Mercedes its people like you who remind uscto keep the focus and not to forget the history and traditional dishes and recipes. Love Malouf and Joumana rocks!

flowergarden129 said...

Count me as another loyal reader. I receive your blog via a feed, so you may not know I exist, but I read you faithfully. Yours is actually one of my favorite blogs. Thanks for your thoughts on this matter. I plan to check out your recommendations!

Nabokov said...

I just wanted to say that I've been an avid reader of your blog for many years now and I really appreciate your thoughts on this matter. I'm British-Moroccan and couldn't agree more on the lack of understanding of the history and tradition of the food and recipes that these modern Western chefs have when it comes to their 'influences'.

Kayak Soup said...

I'm a chef living in Vancouver BC and your blog is the only one in my RSS feed right now. Don't get me wrong, I read other blogs. But yours is the only one that I don't want to miss out on every single post. I love your stories, I love the recipes you share, I love the heartfelt honesty in your posts and I look forward to reading many more.

wordstothateffect said...

Another regular reader here. Your response to this trend definitely chimes with me, though I've only flicked through the book you mention. I have started to gravitate towards food blogs and cookbooks which give me not just a recipe and a nice picture, but also an understanding of where the ingredients come from, what regional variations you might find on the recipe, etc. It is infinitely more interesting, and I think empowers you as a cook as well to understand techniques and traditions in order to be able to use those ingredients to the best effect.

I don't buy so many cookbooks (I try to keep it to ones I know I will use!) but I feel like a high proportion of recipes I see from blogs feature a fairly simple, well-known (in the US/UK) base recipe and then add on a couple of fiddly and complicated twists featuring whatever ingredient is fashionable at the time (which might well be preserved lemons or zaatar at the moment!). It's nice to introduce wider audiences to these ingredients, but this type of recipe doesn't feel like learning something new to me.

I had dinner recently at a very well-reviewed, popular restaurant in London that does what it describes as 'British and European cuisine', with 'small plate' dishes inspired by lots of different traditions. Everyone I knew raved about it, which obviously made it much more of a let down when we had a meal that felt incredibly disjointed. Each dish tasted individually very good, but I felt so frustrated that they didn't really fit together in any way - a bit of Italian style bread, a rich French style sauce with fish balls, an american diner dish with a fancy french twist.

I don't want to fetishise authenticity in cooking, but I do enjoy much more a meal or dish which is clearly rooted in a particular regional tradition. I can only think that it must be something to do with the understanding of the ingredients and techniques which are used, and how the different dishes in a meal can complement each other.

OK, this was slightly off topic, but your post really set me thinking! As other commenters have said, your blog is hugely enjoyable. As someone who has lived in the middle east and travels there frequently, I feel like I learn something new with each of your recipes.

Dee said...

I don't know how I found your blog, because I've been reading it as you meander from country to country. I eagerly anticipate each post, your thoughts and recipes. Thank you for your wonderful blog. P.S. I read many dozens of food blogs and the perfectly styled pictures, although sometimes nice to look at, are not reality in our kitchens. I prefer your artistic take on your food, honestly.

Mercedes said...

Thank you all for your wonderfully kind and encouraging words. It really means the world.

wordstothateffect -- I totally know what you mean about eating at a certain hyped restaurant and being underwhelmed, and feeling alone in your disappointment. There is another v popular London restaurant that I feel the same way about (a bit of fishsauce and nam pla here, then some chestnut pasta and radicchio there, each individually good, but the meal just didn't come together for me.)

lynn2mary said...

Thank you for your thoughts

Dad said...

"Unpopular"?

"Six readers"?

You're being far too modest Mercedes. I'm sure you're well aware of the disappointment many of us - including myself - face, each day we check back to see if you've updated, only to find you haven't!

Very thoughtful and accurate post.


(no relation)

CHN said...

Very good post. (Much better than the one you cited by the other blogger.) I think people start learning from a broader perspective ("Middle Eastern food"), but as they become more involved in the subject, they also become more interested in the distinctions. So it slowly develops contours and becomes Iraqi food or Moroccan food, etc. It can be very exciting to learn about those distinctions and then recognize them. I agree that most blogs and many cookbooks (which is particularly inexcusable) do not approach food from this perspective. But those are the ones that make my eyes glaze over. Your blog makes me stop and read.

Helena Cobban said...

Hi, Mercedes. I'm the publisher of Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt's The Gaza Kitchen, which you were kind enough to praise here. I think the richness of their approach lies primarily in their insistence that it be an ethnographic cookbook, that pays as much attention to the people of Gaza who uphold the region's fine and distinctive culinary heritage, and to the way their food system works (or, as currently, is constrained from working), as it does to the recipes... which of course are very fine and well-presented, in themselves, too.

I'm also writing, though, to say I'll be coming to Algiers at the end of April on book business, and if you're there I'd love to arrange to meet. If you're interested, send me an email to owner-at-justworldbooks.com...

Tibik said...

I found your blog through a link on hummus about a year back and now keep checking regularly for updates. Thank you for blogging and sharing your world with us.I love that you share the philosophy of the food.. that is far more useful to me than pretty pictures.

Lee said...

Only 6 followers? You have hundreds of lurkers who are too respectfully abashed to even try to comment. But we read, we do read...

Lakshmi said...

I am your seventh reader. :)

Mama Ghanoush said...

I'm a longtime reader of your blog (since 2009!) I have to say that I'm a big fan of Persiana (the book you were referring to in your instagram post) because of the miss mash of lumping different "middle eastern" foods together to create something that's new and delicious.

I get what you're saying, teach as well as innovate. And you're right, Malouf does do this (although I personally don't find his recipes anywhere near as exciting as Ghayour's).

My main wish (as an Egyptian foodie) is that the "Middle Eastern" recipes brought to Western audiences go beyond the typical hummus, baklava (which are delicious) and show the enormous range of food we have in the region. I'd love to see a book that tackled some more unheard of recipes like mom bar (rice filled sheep intestines).

Sajal Chowdhury said...

These things look gorgeous and I am sure are delicious. I’m bookmarking these to try this weekend.
I’m really excited you’re sharing this food. But I want to be sure about Digestive Enzymes. Can you inform me this is no problem for digestive in human body?

Mercedes said...

Mama Ghanoush -- I'm glad you like the book and you added a dissenting voice here! I think my problem was more with the copy editing than the book itself, and mainly it just reminded me of a lot of my other pet peeves of writing about Middle Eastern issues. I totally agree with you, I wish more people went beyond hummus to discover other wonderful dishes from the region.

Helena -- Thank you for your note. I am no longer in Algiers, but I'd recommend eating at Restaurant Sophia in Sidi Yahyia, they do great home-style Algerian food (think chlita, couscous, sfyria).

thedevilcorp said...

Good site. Great pics.

G. McM said...

Dear Mercedes,

We've been reading your blog for the past four years, and we always find it such a pleasure to see where you are and what you're cooking. We've prepared many of your recipes, and a number of them have become our household staples. Thanks for offering such an interesting window on the beauty of the Middle East and North Africa. We really feel deprived of it here in the States.

Gloria and Peter

Alicia Diaz said...

Your blog is amazing!!! Being half Syrian with family that still live there, you blog has given me insight into the food of that region and the difference baba ghanoush versus moutabal.

Alicia Diaz said...

PS:Whoops, I look forward to reading your new posts and love sharing them with family and friends.

calliet said...

I too have been reading your blog for years and love the insight you give into Middle Eastern cooking and culture. Please keep writing!

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Loretta said...

Love your blog! Your kubbe recipe is one of my favorite of all time. Best to you and your family