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Do Nations Express Themselves in Their Foods?

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Do Nations Express Themselves in Their Foods?

Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review

Do nations express themselves in their foods? It is a question that I thought would be worth examining. Mulling over this interesting theory in my mind led me to examine my own experiences during more than a quarter century of travel throughout the world. Looking back at the episodes and the many feasts which I relished during these travels, inspired me to relay my thoughts to others. 'Perhaps, there is much to be read in this simple question', I thought to myself.

My trail of memories begins in my own backyard -- from a fine restaurant which I always patronize. 'I love Japanese food! It's my favourite!' Jim, one of my colleagues, remarked when I asked him if he would like to join us for a meal at Toronto's Memories of Japan Restaurant. Now, as we sat around a cooking table, where food is cooked in front of a customer, the chef downed around as he cooked our meal. Jim, between morsels, would come out with phrases such as: 'Isn't Toronto great? Where else would one find the food of the entire world in one city?'

Another time, at one of my other preferred gourmet dining places, The Jerusalem Restaurant, which, in view, serves the best Arab food in North America, I was enjoying my succulent meal, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Looking up, I was astonished to see a Palestinian friend who I knew worked in the United Arab Emirates.

'What are you doing here?', I asked as I jumped up to welcome him. He grinned as I warmly shook his hand. 'In Toronto, I always come to this restaurant. Imagine! It serves great Arab food -- better than the eating places in the Arab world'.

Sometime later, at one of the chain of Mandarin Restaurants in Toronto offering tasty Chinese buffet foods, I walked around surveying the customers as they tried to choose from the seemingly endless and enticing dishes. The mostly young men and women appeared to be as varied as the dishes. Asians, Africans and European-looking individuals made up the milling crowd. All seemed to be familiar with the delights of Chinese food. They were a fair representation of Toronto's cosmopolitan population -- like the city's foods, a multi-national mixture of peoples.

The hundreds of ethnic eating places in the city have created a sophisticated Torontonian. It is said that, in Toronto, one can eat for the 365 days of the year at a different ethnic eating place and never eat the same food twice. Without doubt, the foods of the world, to be found in Canada's larger cities, had a great hand in creating the modern Canadian -- in the main, sophisticated and worldly.

It is a long way from Toronto to the Middle East, but food knows no boundaries. What we eat is one of the basic moulders of our culture. There is no better illustration of this phenomena than the reflections about my countless trips to that part of the world.

During one of these trips, after enjoying a restful afternoon siesta, we were that evening seated in Abo Alez Restaurant, housed in a renovated, beautifully tiled old Arab home across the street from the renowned Umayyad Mosque in Damascus -- the oldest inhabited city in the world. Here, surrounded by groups of tourists, a traveller can dine on the tastiest food in Damascus -- a city noted for its fine dishes.

Nibbling on endless mazzas (appetizers), I looked around me as we gorged on these tidbits of food. In the background, the melodies of the muwashahat (classical music and song developed in Arab Spain) soothed our nerves and this created an atmosphere conducive to friendly conversation. The captivating tunes of these classical songs and music from Andalusia were like sirens calling us to come and enjoy the pleasures of life as we relaxed and waited for the meal to come. Of course when, more than an hour later, the main course came, we could not do it justice. Like the others around us, we just nibbled on our newly served food.

This way of dining tells better than words the story of the Middle Eastern way of life.

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