Ink on my Apron: Charting food territory
Here’s a glimpse at some of the unique ways in which food is served in different countries.
How we choose to serve the food we cook seems to be an act closely linked to the actual semantics of eating in most cultures. It’s what makes hovering uncomfortably over a guest’s shoulder second nature in most parts of India, and why the art of perfecting delicate bird-sized plates is regarded as a matter of pride in France. It’s also why traditionally, in Muslim countries, no eyebrows will be raised at the thought of tucking into a communal-sized platter of rice and meat with one’s hands, all the while observing unspoken nuances of the geography of borders and not crossing a neighbour’s eating boundaries.
I think the reality of how differently we eat first really struck me when I visited a quaint Indian restaurant in Bath that in actual fact doubled as a façade for a backend Bangladeshi kitchen operation - a minor detail that was lost on all barring myself, while the all-encompassing generic “curry” was ladled on to welcoming plates. As we sat at our table - that looked like a healthy representation of what I imagine every self-respecting United Nations delegation should look like - I squirmed uncomfortably, watching friends order individual portions of “naan bread” and kormas. One even ventured so far as to settle upon both a biryani and the rather odd accompaniment of a roti, which went on to be eaten in a rather odd fashion where the bread was used as a nifty scoop to wrap around fluffy grains of “Bazzmati”.
“Would anyone like to try my curry?” I found myself tentatively asking before digging in without inhibitions. Years of deep-seated Indian conditioning and ensuring everyone had been served before oneself had an inopportune way of creeping up on me. My question was greeted with some quizzical looks. “We’re good thanks, mate. Need to get through this entire portion, don’t we.” Unable to wrap my head around the idea of even feigning a shot at a family-sized bowl of “pilau rice” and Rogan Ghosh, I finally found myself bravely asking, “So do you ever consider ordering a few mains and then just sharing them?”
My question that was posed in the guise of a healthy suggestion received a warm response. “What, do you mean like ordering for the table? There’s an idea! We could try bits of everything that way couldn’t we. Definitely need to give that a go next time.” This incident has always got me thinking as to how many of us find ourselves slipping away from the familiar rhythm of all things intrinsically “home”. Do we choose to adapt and integrate or teach other the ways of old? Here’s a glimpse at some of the unique ways in which food is served in different countries.
Meze or mezze
The absence of alcohol may well seem like a dampener to some but in many predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries, this only serves as more of a reason to pull out all the stops in the way of all things food-related. The word owes its roots to the Persian word maze meaning taste or snack. The term meze is loosely used across the Middle East, the Balkans, Greece and North Africa to refer to an elaborate selection of small dishes, which can hold their own or feature as part of a multi-course affair.
Every region has its own riff with both “hot” and “cold” vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Common fixtures across the board include items such as a salad, a variety of cheeses (which may be grilled or served in the manner of a cold cut), vine leaves and a textured dip that may feature ingredients such as chickpeas, eggplant, tahini and walnuts.
Delicacies that deserve a nod include stuffed or fried mussels known as midyetava in Turkey; fried or grilled cheeses referred to as assaganaki in Greece and Cyprus, and a roasted red pepper dip called Muhammara that originates from Aleppo, Syria, but has forged a place of permanence for itself in Levantine cuisine.
This buffet-style Scandinavian meal showcasing an array of hot and cold dishes first came into the public eye at the 1939 edition of the New York World’s Fair when it was served at the Swedish Pavilion’s Three Crowns Restaurant. Generally associated with a celebratory occasion, guests can indulge in a range of specialities and in restaurants the same is offered for a fixed price.
Etymologically, the word is a derivative of the Swedish word smörgås meaning an open-faced sandwich and bord, which translates to table. Neighbouring countries also have their own spins from koldtbord or kaldtbord in Norway to detkoldebord in Denmark.
Bread, butter, and cheese assume their pride of place in every true-to-form smörgåsbord. Cold fish dishes are what is usually in order while commencing the proceedings with various forms of herring, salmon and eel gracing the meal; this is followed by a second subsequent round of more cold dishes. To ensure a warm, fuzzy finale to all those who partake, a string of hot dishes rounds off things.
Fun festive fact – The Julbord is a seasonal smorgasbord edition and central to tradition Swedish cuisine. Delicacies reserved for this time of year include bread dipped in ham broth, baked ham, beetroot salad and various forms of boiled cabbage.
In a far cry from the traditional teetotalling mezze traditions of the Middle East, zakuski is the bold counterpart that makes no bones about what it is. A central part of Russian food culture and a term used across many Slavic-speaking countries to make reference to cold hors d’oeuvres, entrées and snacks, zakuski alludes to a course intended to follow every shot of vodka or alcoholic drink. The word itself means “something to bite after” and the custom is likely to hark back to an amalgamation of Slavic, Viking-Nordic and Oriental cultures.
Not uncommon at a zakuski spread would be items such as cold cuts, cured fish, kholodets or meat jelly, sauerkraut, pickled mushrooms and deviled eggs.
Deceptively “manageable” in appearance, thalis are often regarded as one of the best gateways into various regional Indian cuisines. Delicate portions of food are spooned into small bowls known as katoris in north India and are placed along the edge of a round tray, which is the thali itself. Some states rely, instead, on the use of sturdy multiple-compartment steel trays. The underlying philosophy behind a thali is simple – six different flavours of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, spicy and something with an astringent nature must be harmoniously brought together on a single plate. Rice or rotis feature as the fulfilling carbohydrate quotient and this is accompanied with lentils, dry vegetable dishes, meat, yoghurt, pickle and fried papad to provide some welcome textural relief. The opportunity to dive into a thali is also one that appeals to many diners because there is no preordained sequence or chronology to how items are eaten, with many choosing to plunge headlong into the dessert component.
Jehan Nizar is a Lifestyle Features Writer and Food Blogger at inkonmyapron.com.