Exploring Culture and Conversion Through Food
BY ANISA ABEYTIA
Exploring other cultures always implies a culinary exchange to me. When I meet someone from an unfamiliar culture the first thing I ask is, “So, what do you eat?” I ask this because food holds our history and can reveal a story with each bite. It can take the global and exotic and turn it into the local and the intimate. Also, we usually do not try new foods alone. Many times a friend introduces us to new foods along with an explanation of the way a food is prepared or how it holds a special significance in the culture, like couscous on Friday in Morocco or tamales for Christmas in Mexico. This turns something novel or strange into an intimate and nonconfrontational introduction. Food was one of the ways I was first introduced to Islam.
There is no such thing as “Islamic cuisine” or “Muslim food,” but Muslims do eat and each Muslim ethnic group has a culinary tradition that oftentimes predates Islam. What binds all of these culinary traditions together is Islam and the guidelines offered about food and food preparation in the Quran (halal) and by the prophet Mohamed (Sunnah).
I was introduced to Islam by Pakistanis and the first halal food I encountered was at a Pakistani restaurant. Actually, I was unable to enter the restaurant. The moment the door was opened, the pungent and hot spices hit my eyes and within minutes I could not see through my tears. We left and found something a little more “American.” Converting to Islam was a bit like this experience.
The changes I made were monumental, and they stung. They stung because I was entering uncharted territory and I did not know if I would make it out all right. On the surface there was nothing familiar to guide me or comfort me. The languages I was hearing, primarily Urdu and Arabic (the universal Muslim language), the dress, the ways of living, and of course, the food, were out of my experience. I tried to fit in, but even as I understood that Islam is not about conformity, I sensed that I made people as uncomfortable as they made me. My food was different and so was theirs, but over the years it was through sharing culinary wisdom and just sitting down to a good meal that made Islam and Muslims more welcoming.
I am a third-generation Mexican American who grew up eating the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.). After my conversion to Islam nine years ago, that way of eating was no longer acceptable to me. I was determined to find a new way to cook to match my new life. With my husband, I lived on the premise, “if it is halal, eat it.” Yet, despite my best efforts, the practicality of daily life intervened—what was my growing family going to eat? I was forced to look at what nourished us in the past, and Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions was a great help, as were Anissa Helou’s cookbooks.
My husband is from Morocco, so in preparation for my new life as a Muslim wife, I bought a Moroccan cookbook. I cloistered myself in my bedroom for hours studying it and would carefully reproduce what I found in those pages each day like a monk illuminating a text. I lovingly tended to each pot and sliced and diced for hours. I would start food preparation at noon to get dinner on the table by 6 p.m. After a month of marriage, my husband asked me, “Why do you make wedding food every day?” I was floored! So that is why it took me so long. I asked my husband what he “typically” ate growing up in Tangier. He said they ate mostly seafood, since in that port city, fresh seafood came in from both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. I searched for cookbooks that fit his description of everyday foods, but I did not find anything satisfactory. Meal preparation became a chore and I did not feel well-nourished, and in fact I felt over-nourished.
After our first year of marriage, we moved to Petaluma and there was no halal market in the area. Eventually I learned about one in Berkeley, and with my husband, baby girl, and a pregnancy in progress, made the journey to Berkeley to discover Indus Village market. We continued making that trip every few months, but since Indus caters to a mostly Indo/Pakistani clientele, it did not have many of the spices and supplies I wanted.
I began to delve deeper into the meaning of halal. Was it simply a way of slaughtering an animal, turning it toward Mecca, saying bismillah (in the name of God) over it and ensuring it does not suffer? Or was it more than that? Does not suffering include the living conditions of the animal as well? The prophet Mohammed said that anything that is harmful to a human is by default not halal. Were industrially raised meat and non-organic foods halal in the truest spirit of the word? My questions about food and health led me to farmers’ markets and through the California School of Herbal Studies and into a program in Islamic medicine. I began to understand that halal is not something I could find at Costco or most supermarkets. I was learning that the whole point of halal, and Islam in general, was to be conscious of one’s actions and to consider what the personal and global repercussions of those actions might be. Maintaining the human organism via consciousness is the goal.
I wanted hormone- and antibiotic-free halal meat, but no one carried it, so I went back to a mostly vegetarian diet. I eventually found Halal Market (on San Pablo in Berkeley). It is run by a Palestinian family and was one of the first, if not the first halal market in Northern California to carry organic and hormone-/antibiotic-free goat, lamb, beef, and chicken. The market also caters to a Middle Eastern/North African and Indo/Pakistani clientele. Here you will find the ingredients to fix a tajeen, curry, or basbusah. Faziah, the wife of the husband-and-wife team, also runs a catering business and cooks wonderfully. She prepared a whole stuffed lamb, chickens, and all the fixings for the celebration of the birth of our fourth child (aqueqah), and again for Eid-al Fitr (the end of Ramadan) for an interfaith group of which my husband is a member.
Even though I was spending many hours in the kitchen, I still left time to learn about Islam. I became curious about the people and events through history that molded modern Muslims. I read history books and fiction by modern Muslim writers and looked for recipes from Islam’s past. What I found was that many of the culinary traditions had changed since the 10th century A.D., but so had people’s interpretations of Islam. During the time of the Crusades, Muslims focused on Mohammed as a warrior, in early Andalus (Spain) he was the just seeker of knowledge (see Carl Ernest, Following Mohammad I). This is not to say that there were drastic revisions, not in the least, but things were recombined and reinterpreted to match the people. Just like food, Islam is meant to be eaten several times a day or more appropriately, lived.
Not all Muslims do the same thing; they are not homogenous, not now or in the past. They also do not eat the same food, so why was I giving myself a hard time preparing wedding food every day? Could I not make Islam “practical,” for lack of a better word? Did Islam have to be something foreign? Islam and all of its “practical” manifestations could be extremely foreign because they are expressions of cultures and not universal truths, but it was the universal truths found in Islam that gave rise to these cultures. I had to make Islam real to me. I had to make dinner.
At first dishes I prepared did not always turn out tasty, but I practiced and I looked to the foods that traditionally nourished Mexicans and Moroccans. Tajeens and moles were a few dishes that I discovered. They are similar to curries. Moles come from Mexico and tajeens from Morocco. They are slow-cooked pots of delicious meat and/or vegetables, with special spices that just melt away in the mouth. Each region and each family has its own way of integrating spices and other ingredients. These dishes are passed from generation to generation because they work for the ones preparing them, just like daily worship. We usually inherit these practices, but some times, as in my case, we must rediscover them. As I looked into my family’s culinary heritage, I began to cook things my great-grandmother cooked. I learned that the mole from my Grandmother’s region in Mexico is different from other moles in other regions of Mexico, and is regarded as a relic of her time 100 years ago.
Today I remain partial to the food served at Indus Village, especially their sizzling lamb chops with onions and fresh cilantro sprigs and their chicken tikka masala with fresh naan. Ten years ago I could not even walk into a Pakistani restaurant, but a lot has changed. I eventually made my own version of curry. Is it exactly like a traditional curry? No, but it is my version. It is true that to call something a curry does not make it a curry. It has to include all the basic ingredients of a curry. The same is true for a religion. If one removes one or more of the fundamentals or pillars of Islam, say, prayer, for instance, one cannot really call herself a Muslim. However as Muslims we all find ways to make Islam a living and breathing way of life and it is a day-to-day struggle that sometimes takes an unexpected turn and ends up on our plates.
I would like to share a few of my recipes with you. Enjoy and bismillah (in the name of God)! •
Anisa Abeytia is a member of the Islamic Writers Alliance and is pursuing her M.S. in Holistic Nutrition. Learn more at womenshealingcircle.org.