When I think of Arabic cuisine (and by Arabic cuisine I mean food that stems from North Africa, the Levant, and the Arab Gulf) I think of a kitchen that is wide and varied and full of culinary delights. The Arabic kitchen is, for me, like walking into a neatly filed archiving room where meat dishes are in one filing system, poutlry dishes are in another, seafood is a category of its own etc. etc. This is entirely different when visiting the African cuisine (and west is entirely different from north as north is entirely different from the east coast of Africa, and so forth and so forth) and in particular west African cuisine.
Assembling ingredients for a west African dish is for an Arab, breaking all the rules. This idea of a neatly organized and filed office room flies out the window. You are bringing a giant empty pot, you are going to put it on your stove, and you will be putting things down that pot that will make all of your Arab ancestors (if you are Arab but if you are Asian you would probably shrug your shoulders, go “meh”, and move on with your life) twist and turn in their graves. Oh my goodness, I remember the first time I made Okro soup….I felt like Mickey Mouse in the role of the magician’s apprentice in Disney’s movie Fantasia. I stood there with all of these marvelous, beautiful, and colorful ingredients and my empty pot, about to brew a powerful magical stew. Small, small processes within a larger process…and every time you add a new ingredient…and you take a small spoon to taste it…the stew has been coaxed to further tell its secrets. This comforting sea of Okra that embraces the flesh of lamb, fish, smoked fish, crab, and shrimp that is further spiced with ginger, habanero pepper, onion, ginger, anise seeds (yes! anise seeds!) tomato sauce and beef broth. A stew that brings together the fruits of the sea and the creatures of the earth. All tied together with the powerful, intensely red, and spicy palm oil.
As I add, what seems to be an insane amount of habanero pepper, I remember that this is quite common for someone in Ghana. Spicy is good. It gives food character, edge, and what else? what is it about food, ingredients, and using spices to coax all the levels of taste possible in a product? what is it that we look for when we cook? what is it that we want to taste in our own creations, what do we want others to feel, taste, and smell when we share our time and love by cooking for those we love? What is it we are trying to preserve? What is it we want others to remember?
I am excited when I prepare dishes from other parts of the world. It is like traveling to me. I believe that food builds bridges and that culture is preserved in the kitchen. Further exciting is when I meet people from the part of the world whose cuisine I find interesting. Part of me wants to go up to them and say, ” I have tasted a part of your culture”, “It is already inside me”, “It is already a part of me”.