Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Shawarma, Muhummara and the Osh Guys

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Shawarma, Muhummara and the Osh Guys

Article excerpt

I grew up in a multicultural part of Melbourne in the 1970s and 80s, so many of my school friends were non-English speaking migrants - 'New Australians' or 'wogs', as they were sometimes called. The differences in culture and religious practice did not matter too much to us, and we played football and cricket together, rode our bikes around the streets, poked fun at the local grump, 'Mr Froggy', and made a small contribution to the benign delinquency in our neighbourhood. I shared everything with my friends, especially food: white paper bags of mixed lollies, steaming butcher-paper packages of hot chips, cans of RC Cola, and other treats we bought after school from the numerous corner shops we used to call milk bars. But we never shared a homemade lunch, and I never visited a migrant friend's home for dinner. It was fine to play cricket and footy or go for long bike-rides with the Antons, Tonys and Spiros of my adolescent world, but that world had no place for their salami and smelly cheese. Migrant food was a cultural demarcation line that I instinctively would not cross.

Fast forward a few decades and I was an Italian food and sushi lover contemplating a new job and a new life in the Middle East. My Anglo-Celtic diet had been dormant if not extinct for some time, and I now faced a new culinary challenge. It is true that Middle Eastern food has been in Australia for a relatively long time but it is not a regular component of many Australian diets. But after my first few weeks in the Middle East, I felt like I was in the culinary equivalent of the fifty-first American state. The usual fast food chains were everywhere, plus a few new ones, and my American colleague and I ate a lot of meals in shopping malls that, apart from the abayas and dishdashers, didn't seem much different from those back home.

The supermarkets were also difficult to negotiate. They seemed to stock mostly Arabic food that I had never seen before, or canned, frozen or processed American food. The reasonablypriced meat did not look appetising, and the cost of some Australian beef was often prohibitive - over $100 per kg in one case. Occasionally, I saw a jar of Vegemite or Capilano honey, and I could always find 'Australian carrots', but I had to seriously re-evaluate my food purchasing regimen. For the first few months, my meals at home consisted mostly of broad beans and rice, and although I was pleased at my weight loss, it was clear that the highly toxic home environment resulting from my broad bean consumption had to be remedied.

As my circle of friends grew, my culinary experiences became more diverse. Eating out is a major activity in Kuwait (there is little else to do when it is 55 degrees) and my new friends began to invite me to restaurants, most of which were Middle-Eastern or Lebanese or Arabic, depending on who you asked.

'This food is Syrian,' one would say.

'No, it's Lebanese,' another would argue.

'Syria and Lebanon are the same'.

'Tell that to ISIS.'

'They would agree.'

I had eaten hummus in Australia, but that was the extent of my Middle-Eastern culinary adventuring, apart from the occasional 2 a.m. kebab - and I now know that no self-respecting Turk, Arab or Iranian would call the pita stuffed with meat sold outside nightclubs in Australia a 'kebab'. But I'll get to meat nomenclature later.

Of all the Middle Eastern dips, I knew only hummus. There are many varieties of hummus (is the plural hummi?), but I must confess that I cannot tell the difference. For example, to make 'Hummus Beiruty' it seems all you do is dice some tomatoes and arrange them on top. Of the non-hummus dips, I am almost as impressed by their names as I am by their taste: foul (pronounced 'fool'), Baba Ganoush, moutabal, mousaka 'a. But for me, the king of the dips is muhummara, made from roasted red capsicum and walnuts, often spiced with chilli. I truly believe that a bad day can be resurrected with some muhummara. …

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