Monday, July 7, 2014

Arab spring chickens come to India

...[Islam] encouraged the westward transfer of 'Indian' crops.... sorghum, rice, sugarcane, citrus (Seville oranges, lemons, limes, pomelos), banana, plantain, watermelon, spinach, eggplant.....Apart from fruits and vegetables, Laudan lists some key foods Islam helped spread: wheat, sugar and coffee...

We admit it, we are first class foodies. And celebrations, celebrations of food, the more exotic the better, are always a good thing.

OTOH have you seen how teenage girls eat these days? One spoon of ice-cream, plus two thimbles of carrot juice......thanks so much for the lunch. And this was a girl who used to love, really really love eating, from the time she was a toddling toddler. We do not get this emphasis on thin is beautiful, size zero that percolates from the Western world to ours ( we understand that the trend was driven by gay men who dominate the fashion world). Boys and girls should be happy about their bodies and throw all that self-hate into the (arabian) sea.
Ramzan during the rainy season may not tempt many to leave home to have a street-side iftar meal. But if you do venture out — and even many non-Muslims have started going out at least once in the season to sample the food — then you might notice a relatively new trend among the food stalls. Among the usual sellers of kebabs, tandoori chicken, mutton rolls, khichada or haleem and other specialties, a few now advertise themselves as "Arab" restaurants.

This is particularly evident in South India, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but you find them in Mumbai as well. How Arab these restaurants really are is debatable — many of them take on the name with just a shawarma grill and a chicken rotisserie. At most, they might also add a vaguely hummus-like concoction of chickpeas and a yoghurt raita, renamed labneh sauce.

Most of them have been started by Indians with connections in the Gulf, whose travels back and forth have led to the idea that there is a market for mostly grilled meat dishes that are well priced and convenient to order.

But the Arab label still seems to be a draw, and it is a reminder of how Islam and the Arab world (not always the same thing) have been major routes to transmit trends, especially through its institutions of Ramzan and the Haj. This is easy to forget in a world dominated by European and American trends.

We tend to think of fried chicken as KFC, soft drinks as Pepsi or Coke and Mexican food as Tex-Mex cuisine. European empires like the Portuguese or the British are credited with spreading foods like chillies and tea, while the great exchange of foods from the 16th century onwards between the Old and New Worlds is called the Columbian Exchange after the Italian explorer. Yet Islam was a route for culinary transitions from long before.

Rachel Laudan, in her new work Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, describes the successive waves of religion-directed change that spread from Asia — Buddhist, Islamic and finally Christian: "Islamic rulers and their agronomists, according to historian Andrew Watson, pulled off an agricultural revolution in the arid and often exhausted landscapes of the Islamic empires.

They encouraged the westward transfer of 'Indian' crops as they were then called — sorghum [jowar], rice, sugarcane, citrus (Seville oranges, lemons, limes, pomelos), banana, plantain, watermelon (from Africa via India), spinach and eggplant."

Laudan suggests that the Islamic route influenced places not usually associated with the religion. Mexican food, for example, with its complex blends of spices in curry-like dishes called moles, could show the influence of the world of al-Andalus.

This was the Islamic empire that flourished in Spain till 1492, the same year Columbus first sailed for the New World. The food of Islamic Spain, which linked east to Mughal India, would have lingered long enough to be transferred to Spain's new American empire.

Apart from fruits and vegetables, Laudan lists some key foods Islam helped spread: wheat, sugar and coffee. Wheat grains were cooked whole in porridges, ground into flour for flatbreads and noodles and made into starch that was cooked into gelatinous sweets.

Sugarcane came from India, but was processed here into jaggery, and the techniques for further crystallising and refining sugar were possibly developed in places like Egypt (brown sugar is called misri in India). 

Coffee was providentially discovered by the Islamic world just when it was moving away from an earlier tolerance of wine — the berries from Yemen or Ethiopia provided an alternative, non-alcoholic stimulation.

In all these cases, it is easy to see how the Haj and Ramzan accelerated the regular pace of movement. Mecca had always been an important trading centre, and its focal point for the Islamic world made it a central point from which products could spread.

Past centuries might not have seen as many Haj pilgrims as seen today, but those who did manage would have carried products with them, possibly to trade and finance the trip. (The downside of centrality of pilgrimage centres is that they become ideal places to transmit diseases, and there are now fears of the MERS virus spreading from Mecca).

Ramzan, or Ramadan as it's known outside India, is a major way to spread foods both due to its predictability, which helps traders plan stock movements, and the need for feeding large numbers when the fast is broken.

Dates are the most obvious commodity traded for Ramzaan, thanks to the belief that the Prophet broke his fast with them. But other products also benefit from the Ramzaan feast, such as oats from Scotland which are seen as a healthier way to make the porridges, both sweet and meaty, that help people go through the day-long fast. Before oats were available, it was wheat that benefitted from Ramzaan.

Wheat was historically rarely consumed in South India, but Kerala's Moplah Muslims made some of their most characteristic dishes from it, like gothamba kanji, a wheat- based soup, and alisa, wheat cooked with meat, both of which were Ramzaan specialties.

Fine wheat noodles called seviyan are cooked by Muslim communities across India, especially for the Eid feast that ends the month. Sweets of all kinds, of course, are part of the evening's feasting, including the sticky wheat halvas made in South India. Jalebi is another sweet that has origins in the zalabiyya of the Islamic world. 

The great wave of Islamic transmission that Laudan details started tailing off with the rise of Christian empires from the 15th century onwards. But different kinds of trends have continued to travel the Islamic route, in more low-profile ways. One example is kushari, one of the most popular street foods of Egypt - a mix of rice, macaroni and lentils eaten with aspicy tomato sauce.

It is very likely a form of Indian khichri that may have travelled with soldiers of the British Empire in the 19th century. It is part of a tradition of working class contacts between Egyptians and Indians that has continued in the Gulf today, where both communities work side by side, in the hard situations that build bonds.

Gary Nabhan, an American writer whose family has Syrian roots, has chronicled a surprising route of food travel in his book Arab/American: Landscape, Culture and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts.

In the 19th century, Arabs came to the US with camels to help make the great deserts of the American South West navigable. The scheme was pushed in particular by Jefferson Davis, who became the President of the rebel Confederacy during the American Civil War, as a way to create a supply route that bypassed the Northern states. (Camels from Rajasthan went to Australia for a similar purpose).

This never worked out, but much later Nabhan came across a Northern Mexican cafe serving Arab dishes with Spanish names like jumus bi-tajin con limon (hummus bin tahina), quebbe (kibbe) and berenja asada (grilled brinjals) and jocoque (a yoghurt-based drink)!

The new Arab restaurants in India are, in a way, coming up in this tradition of culinary transfer that has always run through the Islamic world and which is worth celebrating this Ramzan.





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