My friend Tariq had a small restaurant, he is Lebanese and his food was as authentic as could be. Emma worked there and was quite literally one of the family, the similarities in Lebanese and Sicilian personalities are remarkable.
I learned a great deal from Tariq’s father, “Baba”, about Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as from his mother, “Mimi”. Over the years I picked up quite a bit about life in the Middle East, and attitudes about that life. The emigrant point of view is always interesting, a mixture of love of country and self preservation.
I found the restaurant because I love gyros (that is pronounced “yee ro”, not “ji ro”), and when Tariq opened at the end of the block I was in heaven. The variety of other dishes, plus knowing the chefs, caused me to try new things (along with Mimi’s pushing). One dish I found intriguing was tabouleh, a mixture of bulgar wheat (or cous cous), parsley, mint, tomato, lemon juice, and spices. I’ve never been a huge fan of mint, but Mimi’s recipe was very nice.
I was inspired to make my own version. I used cilantro instead of parsley and mint, lime juice instead of lemon juice, sundried tomato and kalamata olives, red onion instead of spring onion, some diced red bell pepper, and my spices were more cumin and chili powder instead of allspice and cinnamon. Emma loved it, as did Tariq and Baba, but Mimi hated it. “That’s not tabouleh!” she exclaimed, and she was of course correct, but it was still very good. It was more a “Southwest” version, I tend to blend cultures, I always have.
I use Mediterranean spices in tuna salad, Oriental spices in meatloaf, and what I have found to be curry spices in chili. I’m perfectly adept at making dishes in their original style, but there is an “a la Blake” version that is interesting and well received of just about everything. It’s not really “international” until there is more than one nation represented. As I’ve converted to vegetarian cooking, the ability to adapt has become crucial.
Food nourishes the soul as well as the body, so I pick up ideas everywhere and combine them in ways people haven’t considered. One of the things I love about the program “Top Chef” is learning new techniques and working them into old favorites. Some people do it very well, Marcus Samuelsson was great at bringing an Ethiopian feel to traditional dishes, Richard Blais worked his interest in molecular gastronomy into nearly everything, and Carla Hall showed that the most important ingredient is always love. Some chefs fail. I recall one woman making a bad dish and saying “I don’t like that dish, I never eat it”. She had failed to include love, as well as an understanding that you cook for your audience’s benefit, not your own.
We feed each other in many ways, each with their own talent. Some are chefs, some musicians, some poets, some illustrators, and some architects. All of these arts, and most others, have a base in mathematics, the universal language.
Enjoy your weekend, feed the hungry.