A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Arabian nights, Christmas-style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 27, 2009

Santa stockings are a great source of fun for our family. Stocking stuffers run the gamut from nail files and travel earplugs to magazines and golf balls. And they include goofier thinking-of-you items as well. This year, my stocking included this bag of candy:
An “Arabian Nights” candy mix? Total, total mystery. All I see on the corporate website is that this is a “classic Christmas candy”. Perhaps it has something to do with the Nutcracker?

I have no idea, but I laughed with delight when I found this bag in my stocking. The more Arabian nights, the better!


Posted in Americans, Arab world, food, holidays | 2 Comments »

hummus: where satire and reality blur

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 25, 2009

Have you ever heard about someone reading an article from the Onion and mistaking it for a genuine news article?

Today J sent me a genuine AP article whose headline made me wish the reverse were true:

Lebanese to Israel: Hands off our hummus!

Ah yes: another bizarre Lebanese food contest. Poor Zeina Karam, having to report on this.

BEIRUT — Lebanese chefs prepared a massive plate of hummus weighing over two tons Saturday that broke a world record organizers said was previously held by Israel — a bid to reaffirm proprietorship over the popular Middle Eastern dip.

“Come and fight for your bite, you know you’re right!” was the slogan for the event — part of a simmering war over regional cuisine between Lebanon and Israel, which have had tense political relations for decades.

[I agree that having Israelis and pseudo-Israelis try to correct my pronunciation of “hummus” as “KHumus” – say it with extra phlegm for full effect – is beyond irritating. But claiming a dish by cooking an obscene amount of it? And being PROUD of this? And creating an embarrassingly lame slogan – in English, no less? Good God.]

Lebanese businessmen accuse Israel of stealing a host of traditional Middle Eastern dishes, particularly hummus, and marketing them worldwide as Israeli.

“Lebanon is trying to win a battle against Israel by registering this new Guinness World Record and telling the whole world that hummus is a Lebanese product, its part of our traditions,” said Fady Jreissati, vice president of operations at International Fairs and Promotions group, the event’s organizer.

[Ah yes, the Guinness World Record: a world-renowned battleground.What, the UN Security Council wouldn’t hear their case?]

Hummus — made from mashed chickpeas, sesame paste, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic — has been eaten in the Middle East for centuries. Its exact origin is unknown, though it’s generally seen as an Arab dish.

[Ooooooooooooh. An Arab dish. Zeina, did you warn your AP editors about the flow of Phoenician hate mail that’s about to start flooding them?]

But it is also immensely popular in Israel — served in everyday meals and at many restaurants — and its popularity is growing around the globe.

The issue of food copyright was raised last year by the head of Lebanon’s Association of Lebanese Industrialists, Fadi Abboud, when he announced plans to sue Israel to stop it from marketing hummus and other regional dishes as Israeli.

But to do that, Lebanon must formally register the product as Lebanese. The association is still in the process of collecting documents and proof supporting its claim for that purpose.

[I can’t wait until someone tries to register olives. We could witness a full-on Mediterranean war.]

Lebanese industrialists cite, as an example, the lawsuit over feta cheese in which a European Union court ruled in 2002 the cheese must be made with Greek sheep and goats milk to bear the name feta. That ruling is only valid for products sold in the EU.

Abboud says that process took seven years and realizes Lebanon’s fight with Israel is an uphill battle.

Meanwhile, he says, events like Saturday’s serve to remind the world that hummus is not Israeli.

“If we don’t tell Israel that enough is enough, and we don’t remind the world that it’s not true that hummus is an Israeli traditional dish, they (Israelis) will keep on marketing it as their own,” he said Saturday.

[Someone needs to tell this man that in the United States, the hummus contest is not between Lebanon and Israel. Its not between Lebanon and anyone. Hummus here is sold by nationality as Greek or Israeli, and by region as Arab or Mediterranean. No Lebanon. No cedars. No national dish awareness whatsoever.]

Some 300 chefs were involved in preparing Saturday’s massive ceramic plate of hummus in a huge tent set up in downtown Beirut. The white-uniformed chefs used 2,976 pounds (1,350 kilograms) of mashed chickpeas, 106 gallons (400 liters) of lemon juice and 57 pounds (26 kilograms) of salt to make the dish, weighing 4,532 pounds (2,056 kilograms).

It was not clear what the former Israeli record was, and organizers gave conflicting reports on when it was made.

But chefs and visitors broke into cheers and applause when a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records presented Abboud with a certificate verifying Lebanon had broken the previous record. The plate was then decorated with the red, green and white Lebanese flag.

A similar attempt to set a new world record will be held Sunday for the largest serving of tabbouleh, a salad made of chopped parsley and tomatoes, that Lebanon also claims as its own.

*Sigh*. So much food in one short weekend. But again, a bit misguided. Before Lebanon can claim tabbouleh, it needs to take it back from all the U.S. cooks who think of it as a bulgur-based side dish.

Since I’m now in mourning at missing my chance to attend an all-you-can-eat tabbouleh fest, I’ll let my friend B have the last word. B found Al-Manar’s take on the hummus-a-thon, which described it as “mark[ing] a new victory on Israel” and noted that “organizers have hailed this event as “a patriotic event of national scale”.”

Finally, B noted, Mughniyeh is at peace.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, food, friends, Israel, Lebanon | 8 Comments »

imagining a big bottle of water

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 28, 2009

Generally speaking, I prefer not to be a spectacle. In public, I like it best when people look at me once, decide that I am of no particular interest, and move on to look at other things.

But sometimes a little spectacle is a worthwhile price to pay for a great outing – as when my aunt and I go out with some of her Doha friends.

The morning after I arrived in Doha, we went to the beautifully restored Souk al Wakif for breakfast with Umm M and three of her daughters. I hadn’t seen any of the Umms in four years, and it was a delight to reconnect.

Our outing was a delight for everyone in the souk that morning as well. To the untrained eye, we don’t look like a group that should belong together. Some of the Umms wear niqab; some wear abayas with headscarves. I dress in the Gulf in what might be best described as “bohemian music teacher” style: long swoopy skirt, long-sleeved shirt, and hair left to its own messy devices. The khala wears tea-length linen or cotton dresses. As a group, we look like a live-action staging of Sesame Street‘s “One of these things is not like the other” series.

We know this, and we accept that together we are indeed spectacular. (The six of us think that the stares are kind of a hoot, actually.)

After gracing the souk with our collective presence, and providing its merchants and shoppers with ample topics for morning chats, we entered one of the nicer restaurants and sat down for a heart-healthy breakfast of hummus and falafel.

Our waiter, a young Levantine man with beautiful eyes, did his best to act nonchalant, and to cope with the fact that each item ordered prompted extensive discussion among the five of us, in a mixture of Arabic and English. And this is where things got tricky.

Umm M had been doing most of the ordering – in Arabic. But when he asked whether we wanted anything to drink, our ordering was derailed by the need to count and recount the number of women who wanted tea. I love tea, but only with milk, so I wanted to be sure that we had water as well.

Ou 2aninat mai2 kabireh, please, I said.

It didn’t seem like a difficult request. After all, I was the person nearest to him, I was speaking clearly, and I wasn’t whispering.

I’m sorry? the waiter said, looking at me as if I had just broken into Japanese.

Sigh. I’ve mentioned my troubles with the Arabic word for “water” before – but the problem was one of having a culturally awkward pronunciation (Syrian rather than Lebanese), not one of having an incomprehensible pronunciation. And “large bottle of water” is a phrase that I have said at least one thousand times – so I didn’t think that I had mucked it up too badly.

I tried again, in English, with Umm M backing me up in Arabic.

When the waiter left, she burst out laughing.

Did you see, IntlXpatr? she asked my aunt. The waiter looked at her and couldn’t imagine that she was speaking Arabic – so he didn’t understand her.

Thank you, I said. I was beginning to wonder whether I had really lost my Arabic.

I haven’t lost it, but I did forget how jarring it is for people when I speak – a total face and language disconnect. In Beirut I used to find that people were much more willing to take me as an Arabic-speaker when I kept my sunglasses on.

So: lesson learned. The next time we have breakfast with the Umms, I’m going to add to our collective spectacle by wearing a pair of massive sunglasses inside the restaurant :).

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, family, food, friends, Qatar, women | 2 Comments »

fancy falafel

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 4, 2009

I spent this past weekend at a kind of family-and-friends reunion – a hoot of a time, but one that left me little opportunity to get online.

And this morning I’m swamped with a combination of odds and ends, each claiming to be urgent and to require my immediate and personal attention. (Not to mention all the dying Kuwaitis/Cote d’Ivoireans/ Nigerians requiring other things from me.) I have my doubts about some of them, but I’m turning my attention to them anyway.

Before I do, I thought I would share with you a photo I took last week, when another division on our floor brought in an outside caterer to consider for a large event they are hosting later this summer. The would-be caterer brought an abundance of food, so they invited us over to taste the offerings as well.

All the food was fresh and well-spiced (no limp rubber chickens here!), but my favorites were the designer’y, cocktail falafel:


Aren’t they cute? They weren’t the world’s best falafel (the bad ones always stint on the bekdounes, I could hear H saying in my head), but I love their style-y shredded lettuce bed and mini-pita homes. Any chance of seeing this on Bliss Street one day?

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, food | 2 Comments »

the Levantine Easter Bunny

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 12, 2009

Last year, I celebrated Easter in Beirut with my parents and two friends, enjoying a rousing but sweet morning church service, followed by a melt-in-your-mouth salmon filet and hoots of laughter at brunch.

This year, the Easter bunny must have known that what I needed most wasn’t more chocolate, but a few easy-to-make reminders of the Levant (well, with a bit of maghrebi cuisine thrown in for variety). This is what I found when I opened my Easter “basket” – a big cardboard box that arrived courtesy of UPS:


Happy Easter to those of you who are celebrating, happy Palm Sunday to those of you who will celebrate next week, and happy Arabic-food-made-easy cooking to me 🙂 !

Posted in family, food, holidays | 2 Comments »

more fun with citrus fruits

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 12, 2009

Thanks to Qifa Nabki‘s very helpful comments on my last post, the bulk of my follow-up post on citrus fruits has already been covered: that pomegranates are called “roman” (rumman) not because they were thought to come from Rome, but from a common Hebrew/Arabic/Aramaic root r/m/n. As a charming Austrian site called “Spice Pages” notes:

In many European languages, the weapon shell has names similar to granate or grenade. These derive from the same Latin word granum grain: The reference is to the many fragments resulting from the detonation of a shell. Remarkably, also in Hebrew the word rimon [רימון] may mean both pomegranate fruit and shell. The underlying Semitic root, RMN, means high, exalted and does not refer to grainy-ness.

(While doing some pre-QN research online, I also came across a sweet, pomegranate-centered post by an Israeli Arab, which you might also enjoy reading.)

Okay – so pomegranates are covered. But what H and I really went to town about was the word for “grapefruit”.

I don’t remember ever buying or ordering grapefruit in Lebanon – I’m just not that into citrus. And if I did, the only way I would be able to do so would be in French. “Pamplemousse” is the only word I know for “grapefruit”. So when H told me what he learned as the Arabic term – hamoud something – I had nothing to say.

Instead, I went back to my dictionary, which identifies “grapefruit” as “laymun hindi”, “laymun al-janna”, or the slightly giggle-able “krabe froot”.

The Indian lemon? The paradise lemon? I needed another opinion – so I asked A, who was busy doing some real work.

What would you say for “grapefruit” in Arabic? I asked.

I’d have to use French, A replied, sighing at my interruption. I’d say “griffon”.

What? I asked. “Griffon” isn’t the French word for “grapefruit”.

Hmm, A replied. You’re right. I think a griffon is a kind of dog.

I sighed. The griffon is a dog: a small, Belgian breed.

I think I have it now, A said a bit later. I could say “bomelo”, but its not exactly a grapefruit.

Pomelos do seem to be related to grapefruits: this site describes them as grapefruit’s “ancient ancestor”. I thought at first that this might be the fruit that used to grow in M’s courtyard in Damascus, but it was sour and had a much more puckered surface. The sites I found claim that grapefruit was created when early medieval “Arab traders” brought grapefruits to Spain, where they were bred with oranges – but I’d like to see some footnotes before wholly buying into this story.

In any case, if you are interested in grapefruit from a more professional standpoint, you might enjoy purchasing a copy of this report: “The World Market for Fresh or Dried Grapefruit: A 2009 Global Trade Perspective“. At 637 Euros a copy, its a bargain.

Posted in Arabic, food, words | 4 Comments »

fun with citrus fruits

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 10, 2009

Earlier this week H and I had an argument about tabboule. Well, not really about tabboule: about what goes into tabboule. And not even that: what we argued about was the word.

H is teaching an Arabic course at a local institution, and this week they were focusing on food and kitchen words.

Sorry to bother you, H said when I answered the phone, but can you tell me what “parsley” is in Arabic?

H doesn’t cook, clearly. And nor does he remember the name of my laptop: Bekdounes.

But isn’t that also cilantro? H continued. I was stumped: I had no idea. But I knew how to find out – and so I looked it up.

Its kuzbara khudra2, I said. And coriander, cilantro’s cousin (coriander comes from the dried seeds; cilantro comes from the fresh leaves), is plain old kuzbara.

So: we were good with green things, and we were also good with banadoura and burghul, the other two critical components of a good tabboule. But then H said something I didn’t understand:

And of course zeit and hamoud, H finished.

What? I asked. What is that word?

Its lemon, H said, surprised.

Amoun? I asked. Can you say it again?

Hamoud, H said.

How do you spell that? I asked, still mystified.

I have no idea, H said – like many Lebanese, able to speak Arabic fluently, but unable to read or write.What would you say for “lemon”?

Um, I said. I would say “limon”.

Oh, you Frenchies, H said sighing. And I do like French: but “lemon” in French is “citron”. Where did I get “limon” from?

I looked up “lemon” in an English-Arabic dictionary, and found that – surprise, surprise – we were both partly right. According to my dictionary, the word for “lemon” is: حامض ليمون. “Hamid” means sour or bitter, and “limon” means “lemon”.

I’m still a bit confused, though. I thought that citrus fruits were effectively native to the region, or at least to North Africa and Palestine, having come over from the Iberian peninsula. Hence the name for “orange” in Arabic is “burtuqal”, i.e., “Portugal. Does “limon” indicate a Spanish/Portuguese origin for lemons, as well?

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, food, Iowa, words | 9 Comments »

expectations of abundance

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 22, 2009

I’ve written before about the mysterious ebbs and flows that characterized the stock on Beirut’s grocery store shelves – not to mention its Starbucks. The staples – locally produced goods – were always there, but imported or even semi-imported goods would sometimes disappear for ages. (Sietske has written about this as well, as has my aunt – apparently its a region-wide phenomenon.) When the shops were out of my favorite tea:


I would whine to myself for a while – but in the end, I would be fine.

Americans are, as the saying goes, spoiled for choice. We expect abundance in our mega-grocery stores, and we expect uninterrupted availability of our favorite brands. If a store carries product x by brand y, we expect the store to have it in stock all the time – and when it doesn’t, we expect an explanation and a re-stock within 24 hours (or a coupon to take away the pain). I never did get a coupon in Beirut, but I did get something better: the chance to develop a bit of consumer maturity.

There are no big-box stores in my current neighborhood, so – much as in Beirut – I shop for groceries at three smaller, local shops, each with a different selection of goods. From one I buy produce; from another, bread; and from the third, the staples: milk, yogurt, pasta, tea, etc.

But since Wednesday, my staple store has been yogurt-less. Well, there are a few lingering single-serve containers of fruit-flavored yogurt, but the two/three brands that the store carries in larger sizes have disappeared.

I thought nothing of it on Wednesday. On Thursday, I began to wonder. And yesterday, I asked the store owner when they would be getting more.

He gave me a look I know well from shopping in Beirut: a look that says: we carry yogurt [or whatever product has gone missing?

The yogurt that’s usually in the dairy section? I say, smiling awkwardly and putting an inept question-mark at the end of my sentence.

In the end, we agreed that the store does carry yogurt and that more will be in soon. And, as in Beirut, I whined to myself for a while – but in the end, I was fine :).

Posted in Americans, Beirut, food | 2 Comments »

the sajj-maker of D.C.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 18, 2009

On Sunday, A and I met M and two other friends for lunch at one of the several Lebanese Tavernas that pepper the D.C. metropolitan area.

Are you two going to be alright here? M asked kindly. M lived in Italy for several years, so she knows what it is like to face Americanized interpretations of cuisines one knows in their local forms.

Don’t worry about us, I said cheerfully. We’ll be fine.

And we were, at least until I discovered “Camel Wings” on the menu. There are no camels in Lebanon – well, except for the camel-for-tourists stationed outside Moussa’s Castle. But Americans know that the Middle East has camels, so I guess at some point the Lebanese owners of the Lebanese Taverna decided to put “camel wings” (i.e., buffalo wings) on their menus.

And we were okay again, until A discovered the mana2ish – or “Lebanese-style pizza”, as the menu describes them.

How much would you pay for a man2oushe? A stage-whispered to me from behind the menu.

Depends on the topping, I said.

How about $7.50 for a man2oushe with zaatar? A asked.

Good God. In my neighborhood, the street mana2eesh were sold for 750LL each, or about 50 cents. At Zaatar w Zeit, I think they were more like 1,750, or $2.16.

Sticker shock led me to revisit something A had mentioned earlier during my visit: that his mother had recently sent him a crepe-maker.

When am I ever going to make a crepe? A asked, showing the gadget to me.

As we looked at it, we realized that this was no ordinary crepe-maker. This was a potential sajj-maker, man2ouche-maker, and even mar2ou2-maker, all rolled into one.


At $7.50 per man2oushe, A could have an incredibly lucrative second job as the neighborhood sajjci. Even at $5 per man2oushe, if A worked for two hours and made twenty man2ouche per hour, that’s $200. (If a Beirut sajjci made the same number, that’s 2*20*$.50=$20.)

Nice work, if you can get it – or if your loving mother sends you the fruits of her kitchen shopping 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, economics, food, friends, Lebanon | 2 Comments »

the post-workout shwarma

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 14, 2009

We East Coasters have a three-day weekend in honor of Presidents’ Day, which is Monday. This wasn’t a holiday celebrated in the Midwest, for some reason. I remember asking my father, a native Bostonian, once as to why we didn’t celebrate Presidents’ Day in Iowa. We’re just more patriotic on the East Coast, was his tongue-in-cheek reply.

And since I am now in more patriotic parts, I decided to celebrate the holiday with a visit to A and our nation’s capital.

D.C. is much different from New York. For one thing, there seems to be much more sky here, courtesy of building laws that limit building heights. For another, the neighborhood food options – at least where A. lives – are a far cry from mine.

I feel like having a snack, A said as we walked back from a morning workout.

Mmmm, I said, surveying the street to see what portable, tasty options might be for sale at 10:00 on a Saturday morning. Where are the delis? I wondered to myself.

And then I saw a sure-fire option, one that would remind A. of many years spent in the Middle East.

How about a nice post-workout schwarma? I asked brightly.

How about we pretend not to know one another? A replied.

Sigh. As a vegetarian, what do I know about the eating habits of gym-going carnivores?

I do know where I am going for lunch today – a chance to reconnect at long last with J, another relocated American from Beirut. Its a Turkish restaurant that J likes – yum! – and appropriately enough, its motto is:

Mediterreanean bounty, beauty, and modernity.

Sigh, again. What a motto. If I were a pop psychologist, I would have a field day.

The “Mediterranean bounty” I can understand as a term to draw in foodies – after all, it sounds much more culinarily tempting than “Asiatic steppelands”.

And the “beauty” I can understand – with eye rolls – in much the same way that I could understand if a Lebanese restaurant put “beauty” in its motto. The bella figura impulse definitely seems to have made its way around the Mediterranean.

As for “modernity” – oh, you poor Turks. So much energy – first Ottoman, then Turkish – has been expended in trying to “prove” to Europe that Turks are modern.

No one “owns” modernity – not the French, not the British, not the Americans, not anyone. But the Mediterranean world definitely owns meze, and I am looking forward to lunch.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Beirut, food, friends | Leave a Comment »