A Palestinian-born friend said to me recently, “Our food is a source of pride, even with our pain and suffering. I want us to be known for our cuisine as much as we are known for our problems."
Here's my small contribution to her worthy cause:
Should a Middle Easterner be down to their last dollar, they'd instinctively spend it on a bounty for their guests. Hospitality is a cornerstone of the culture and one that transcends status. I do not remember one family meal or invitation by an Arab friend that was potluck or bring-your-own, that did not have its ample share of proteins, starches, greens, and sweets sponsored by the hosts. And the good stuff, too: plates full of shrimp, steak and lamb, homemade cheese, rightly dressed salads, marinated olives and roasted peppers, creamy hummus, honey-soaked baqlawa (or, baklava) and kunafa.
Day-to-day staples may be lacking in such decadence but offer nutritional value. In my late grandmother's refrigerator, you’d always find a container of fresh molokhayia, an Egyptian soup of minced greens flavored with garlic and lemon and served over rice. I was adventurous enough to try it only in my older years, which I regret as someone whose immune system would have benefited from the nutrient-dense jute mallow plant. What health experts admiringly call the “Mediterranean diet” (referring to the cuisine’s emphasis on greens, lean meat and fish, nuts and healthy fats) we simply call “home cooking.”
This same grandmother, my Taeta, did the honors of reading fingaan over dessert. It’s a somewhat controversial activity to religious folks but something we always kept in proper perspective. She'd interpret the spaces made by coffee grinds against the white porcelain of a demitasse cup, predicting the drinker’s next big trip, the coming or going of a jealous foe, or a surprise cash infusion. My Egyptian family laughed off her predictions most times, while my non-Egyptian family would get in line for a cup reading at mixed gatherings, enthralled by having their real-own fortune teller on hand. I, for one, took her readings seriously, and wouldn’t you know that if she saw a tall man in my cup, we’d get a new hire at work the next week; or if she saw a piece of paper, some kind of announcement or refund check came my way soon thereafter. What I would give for another reading…
It's likely no surprise that, in a culture where being late is acceptable, meals are likewise enjoyed over the span of hours. You marinate meat for hours if not days. You grill it low and slow. You enjoy small plate by small plate to digest and savor, enjoying wine or araq or tea along the way. I recall a barbeque in Abu Dhabi hosted by a young Jordanian couple. We sat around the grill's flames late into the evening and exchanged stories as we waited. Like many things in life, the taste of the kebab, prepared artfully by the hostess, was exquisite after the drawn-out anticipation. The American diaspora may compromise on this time-unbound tradition, but the reminder to slow down and smell the rose(water) is precious.
No matter the context, Middle Eastern meals are an expression of love. We share the best of our weekly grocery budget and our time with our blood or chosen family. There is immense pride in both our food and hospitality, things we'll gladly be known for.