By Glenda Bartosh
The rum was from Cuba, the two kinds
of halvah from Lebanon. The assortment of dates, the tamarind-flavoured
almonds, the pomegranates, pistachios and the barberries, which added a sharp
zing to the basmati rice, were all from Iran. The sweet but tart raisins we
used in the lamb stew were from Afghanistan.
I’m sure we wouldn’t have won any
points from the 100-mile diet club for our little dinner party, but the
simplicity and exoticism combined with the fabulous tastes made it a lot of fun
to share with friends.
We cheekily dubbed it “the terrorist
dinner”, since most of the ingredients were from “axis of evil” countries or
ones known to harbour “terrorists”. We’d obtained them from a lovely little
Vancouver shop run by a family from Iran.
Shopping in a store where most of the
products come from places that have been written off as evil or been reduced to
blood-laced sound bites on the news is a real eye-opener. Holding a
brightly-labeled tin of three-bean salad from Palestine, for instance, gives
cause for immediate and visceral pause.
Somewhere, a group of Palestinians
washed and cooked and seasoned, then tinned the beans. Or they ran the
machinery that did. I try to picture them: did they have to wear sanitary
uniforms? Hair nets? Are they middle-aged? Young? Happy?
Presumably, a Palestinian designed
the green and white label. A Palestinian
photographer took the photo of the bean salad. Does she shoot digitally,
or with film? Maybe they even hired a food stylist, since the salad looked
pretty darn good. For a humble tin of beans, it goes a long way toward
dismantling stereotypes of Palestinians as suicide bombers or Hamas and
Hezbollah fighters lobbing rockets at each other, or into Israel.
So what else can we learn through
food about the humanness of people living in places we usually see through
veils of apprehension or misunderstanding or uncertainty?
Start with Mesopotamia, dubbed the
“fertile crescent”: Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. Three out of four have
been reduced to headlines alternately sensational, fearsome or tragic. But they
gave us agriculture itself, not to mention olive oil, baklava, hummus — and,
the biggest equalizer of all, ice cream.
Ice cream was the favourite dessert
of the ancient caliphs of Baghdad. Sure, people later added eggs and milk and
dressed it up a bit, but the earliest ice cream likely came from Mesopotamia —
either that or China, now smack dab in the middle of the biggest Communist
operation on Earth.