Residues in the Kitchen, or The Flavour of Home(sickness) Za'atar or wild thyme

Residues in the Kitchen, or The Flavour of Home(sickness)

Cookbooks are more than instructions for recipes: they are also a collection of memories, journeys, and experiences. Erica Moukarzel describes the taste of home and how it travels.

The intimate relationship between one’s kitchen and one’s cookbooks is intricately sensory: filled with love, longing, occasional frustration, and lots and lots of residue. Understanding the sense of place created between the stories in a cookbook and our own kitchens requires examining the cookbook’s role in sustaining it.

In his essay on Indian cookbooks Arjun Appadurai writes, “Cookbooks, which usually belong to the humble literature of complex civilizations, tell unusual cultural tales.” The genre of cookbooks first begins with what Appadurai describes as “the oral exchange of recipes” which becomes “the elementary process that underlies the production of these cookbooks.” Once written down and preserved, the narratives embedded in cookbooks’ introductions and recipes are both instructions for cooking certain dishes or cuisines, and a collection of memories, journeys and experiences translated into the language of taste. Highly personal, and often published in the diasporic context, the memories behind the narratives in cookbooks rely on food as a prompt to recall the places that host them.

A sub-genre of regional cookbooks, anglophone Middle Eastern cookbooks reveal a new cuisine in al-Mashriq that speaks an international, diasporic tongue. These books mark a generation of Middle Easterners whose authors are first- or second-generation immigrants, and whose children are of a ‘third culture,’ growing up in closer contact to the places where they were born and inheriting the tastes of their lineage through their elders. The gustatory character of this heritage is very much dependent on its locale, differing from kitchen to kitchen, and on an assemblage of different lived experiences and versions of the same dish. A cookbook records its author’s ancestral culinary heritage and story; its existence generates conversations through, about, and around the dishes’ iterations in different kitchens. The situatedness of the food, where it is cooked, served, and eaten, can be read through the flavours and smells, experiences and memories, customs and celebrations, recipes—whose ingredients vary in accessibility, logistical or seasonal—that all attach to these various cookbooks.

The cookbook creates a world that mirrors home, and in this parallel, it reflects a sense of longing for a place. To those who see its symbolic values, a dish indexes memories of kitchens, gardens, and people through its ingredients, smells, textures, colors, and, naturally, its flavors. This spatial contiguity could include practical foodways through which the ingredients arrive at the stores, the various labours of production—from picking to packaging—that got them there, the solace of finding them in a new setting. As a combination of ingredients, food speaks of the contrasts between distance and locality, trade history and industrialization, and place-making. Spice mixtures, ingredients and flavours, or the description of a dish tell a story of home, of diaspora, of longing.

The experiences in the cookbooks describe their authors' processes of taking root in their new worlds, away from their typical local ingredients. Generally, it is not uncommon for people who migrate to gain a heightened sense of nostalgia for objects that codify the departed home. Collecting these objects, which reflect memories and evoke familiar senses, is an act of place-making which human geographer Ben Coles defines as the human engagements that transform space from the unknown to the inhabitable. The authors cook to make sense of their new world, giving meaning to and taking control of their yearning for their old home’s foods. For instance, introducing her chapter on bread, Palestinian author Reem Kassis in The Palestinian Table writes “food was the tie that brought me back. On those days I missed home the most, I would take a few leaves of za’atar my mother had packed off with me and rub them in my hand; the scent would take me straight back to her kitchen again.” Later, in a paratext to the recipe for za’atar filled flatbreads, she says her mother’s uncle had not seen his family in twenty years, living in political exile in the United States. When her mother finally visited him, “He had one request—to bring him some of his mother’s akras za’atar.”

Ben Coles writes, “The materiality of a foodstuff is constituted from the biophysical properties of place—energy from the sun, minerals, moisture, and so on. These properties are ingested into the body when we eat.” Along with these biophysical properties, the constellation of places food—and its ingredients—has occupied and currently occupies, is also consumed. In this act of ingestion in a new place, Middle Eastern migrants “embody these geographies,” and become part of their contemporary local foodways through recipes of old. Facilitated by the internet and generations of diaspora migrants who are now established enough for ingredients and tools to be more easily accessible in Middle Eastern stores or websites, these dishes not only represent the connections made between the many spaces these members of the diaspora dwell in and make place in, but also the routes that ingredients have moved through to reach each of these places. They combine the new place, wherever it currently is, and ‘home.’