Migration, food and culture – a tale of two countries

The connection between a country’s culture, economy and its food is widely accepted, with the arrival of immigrants introducing new cuisines to their adopted homelands and changing global economic realities leading to new habits and realities.

So I was interested to read two very different takes on the issues this prompts by journalists writing from very different backgrounds and locations for this month’s Contributoria* issue and I thought them worth sharing with you here too.

In South Africa, Kim Harrisberg looked at the experiences of a Palestinian family arriving in the country and starting a business with a taste of home while Aurora Percannella takes a look at how the economic crisis in Europe is leading jobless youngsters to re-invent the food on offer.

I think they both detail experiences which in many ways relate to what we see happening here in the UK. The snippets below include links to read the articles in full.

In King Arabic Sandwiches: a taste of Palestine in Johannesburg Kim presents a touching portral of life in a new land where food briedges cutural difference.

Inside, maroon tiles cover the floor, jars filled with an assortment of Middle Eastern delicacies cover the shelves, Palestinian flags hang from the walls and pastries of different sizes greet you at the counter. The smell is rich and spicy, with the sounds of sizzling falafel being fried in the kitchen, and little girls whispering behind a curtain that leads to the back of the restaurant.

I am here to interview Mohammad Sultan and his wife Hanan Ahmed, refugees who fled Gaza just over a year ago to build a new life. I have so many questions involving politics, food, family and chance, and many of them involve my identity in relation to theirs. The questions swirl around my head like mosquitoes, but before I can ask them, Mohammad and Hanan place a glass of purple hibiscus juice in front of me and a warm, pickle-filled, hummus-infused falafel, wrapped and ready to be devoured. “First,” says Mohammad, smiling, “you eat. Then, we talk.”

In Food entrepreneurialism in Italy: mixing tradition and innovation to tackle the crisis Aurora finds a willingness to move away from the much revered Italian traditions to face up to the changing realities of life there.

“We live in an era where the typical restaurant where you pay 20 or 30 € for a meal struggles to survive,” explains Fabrizio, the 30-something entrepreneur who, in 2013, started his own successful food business in one of the cosy, often-crowded squares of Torino city centre. “People can’t afford to spend that much anymore, so we’ve focused on giving our customers a great quality meal for about 10-12 €.”

And in order to do that, these food entrepreneurs simplified the concept of eating out by going back to what their land had to offer, and simultaneously drawing inspiration from what their travels abroad had taught them.

Take Fabrizio’s business, for example. His restaurant – though it isn’t really a restaurant, just a simple place to sit down and eat – serves burgers and chips. Now, this wouldn’t probably sound too phenomenal to anyone coming from the rest of the planet. In Torino, however, it proved difficult to find a good quality burger until very recently. In fact, it was hard to even find a mediocre quality burger, limiting the options to McDonald’s or…McDonald’s.

* Disclosure – I’m editor and co-founder of the independent jorunalism network Contributoria.com where these articles were first published.

In praise of the American diner

sipbite
Sip and Bite, Baltimore

The all-American diner. A place were sustenance, company, warmth and companionship are available 24/7.

Or so the legend goes. The diner – complete with its booth seating and stark lighting – is an icon of movies and literature alike.

In fact fans of the American version of House of Cards might spot something familiar about this one – although this is Baltimore Inner Harbour, for the Netflix series, it was made out to be in nearby centre of power, Washington we were told by our AirBnB host in the city.

It’s easy to see why the television bosses chose Sip & Bite. It’s perfect. From the impressive external appearance to the strangely contradictory internal experience of cosiness within mirrors, tiles and that particular shade of lighting which gives everyone the pallor of the early hours at whatever time of day. Yes this IS the American diner.

What about the food?

Sip & Bite menu

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Alongside the inevitable burgers, chicken, steak and the ever-present crabcakes, this diner offers a lot of Greek options with huge salads vying for your interest alongside the fried and grilled options. Sadly we had a limited experience of this immense menu having simply popped in for a snack after work.

Oh how I would have loved to sample the ‘eggs over-easy with famous fries’, or smother some homemade buttermilk pancakes or even the DDD Combination platter. What a mixture!

We ended up with a Greek salad and something with fries and the cooking was nothing out of the ordinary, but the whole atmosphere and experience made up for it.

Greek salad
Greek salad

Unlike so many places in the UK, the staff aren’t surly teens starting out in the jobs market, the staff here are proper grown ups with rents and lives to pay for. And I know this because in the short time we were there, sitting under a Star Spangled Banner (another Maryland creation), I learned more about the waitresses love lives and domestic arrangements than I know about most friends.

This commenter on TripAdvisor sums up the experience of eating there at all times of day and night:

The Sip & Bite is a Baltimore tradition. I remember eating here with my parents as a kid, going there late nights as a college student and now taking my family there for a good meal. In fact, in all the times I have dined at the Sip & Bite, I have never had a bad meal. The staff is friendly and the service is always good. Everyone in our party very much enjoyed their meal. I got the seafood club special which was a three layer club sandwich with a crab cake and seafood salad on it. Wow, was it good. I strongly recommend the Sip & Bite for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

After our hurried meal, we intended to try to repeat the experience for that other great US dining experience of a leisurely Sunday, brunch.

No chance. The queue along the building said it all.

Gallery: A whirlwind food trip in Cannes and Montecarlo

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There’s the holiday over then. Rather than attempt to review places which many blog readers here are unlikely to visit I kept a short picture diary of places visited and food served up.

To see the locations and further details of any of the dishes just click on the image and the posting I made to my noticeboard while out and about in Cannes and MonteCarlo will open up.

Hope you enjoy – it’s made me hungry putting it together!

Making breakfast pastries, Istanbul style

On a couple of recent business trips to Istanbul I’ve been fortunate to stay in a residence where an amazing breakfast spread was prepared from the small kitchen each day.

breakfast

Cheeses, fruit, meat all laid out – plus some baked tasty, freshly-made that morning pastries of a different style every day but usually involving egg or cheese. The city that truly never sleeps has a great tradition of morning baked goods with shops and cafes selling filled pastries opening early in the day.

As the rest of the household slept, I ventured in to see what was cooking one morning and got this instruction on making the delicious hot cheese and dill pastries while sipping chai and being invited to take these pictures.

It starts with spreading out the large sheets of very thin floured pastry which is sold fresh.
pastry

Next comes the filling, but first each of the large sheets are cut into four squares. As far as I know, the exact ingredients aren’t easily available in the UK (or maybe they are in large cities with a Turkish population) but I think it would be possible to create something very similar using filo pastry and a 50/50 mix of mozerella cheese (in place of the stringy Turkish version) and a slightly sharper, harder cheese such as feta. It takes about half a cup of each plus a generous handful of dill only in the centre of the squares.
filling

Finally, each quarter is folded over itself before being brushed by bean egg and sprinkled with seseme seeds. It’s te little touches of seseme seeds or poppy seeds that really add to the pastry’s flavours. They are then cooked in a medium oven for about 10mins until golden on the top and gooey within. Serves hot. What could be a better start to a busy day!
turkishseseme

France, a land of sauces, Sandra and seafood

“What is that I enquired” pointing at the unfamiliar words on the menu. Pointy language being somewhat a speciality I’ve developed over the years having less than a schoolgirl grasp on French.

“It’s pike” the restraunteur helpfully translated “a freshwater fish, pike – you know it?”

Ah, pike. In that instant a whole world of assumptions flooded into my head. Pike – a vicious  predator which seeks out other smaller fish for snacks; a huge, dirty great river monster – maybe they even have teeth, like sharks? I’m really not sure about that but, when we used to live afloat on the UK’s canals and rivers, they were often spoken about it in feared terms.

I couldn’t quite reconcile my preconceptions  with the French word for the same thing ‘sandre’, like Sandra, a name that doesn’t conjure up anything more ominous than a middle aged lollipop lady or someone who might help out at a day centre or make a nice cup of tea.

pike

So I had to give it a try. The picture above is what arrived at the table. A fairly innocuous looking while fleshed fillet simply grilled. See, no teeth.

The texture was not dissimilar to seabass but the flesh was white like a sea fish. As far as flavour goes, not at all strong and certainly no sign of anything remotely muddy going on. It was delicate and pleasant served with a pretty strong, creamy vanilla sauce.

Ah……. the sauces. Last week in Brittany was our first visit to the region for more than 20 years and sauces is something that will remain with us. In fact they remain with the dining experience rather too fully.

Maybe it was  because we were in very rural locations rather than refined city eateries, but just about everywhere we went, the food was lavishly, richly sauced. From the  oven-baked gratins to roasted meats – everything accompanied with rich creamy sauces. It made me realise how used to low, or at least lower, fat menu styles we’re now accustomed to in Britain.

I know I’m risking the wrath of one the great culinary nations here, but it did seem somewhat overkill. With such fantastic produce the general tone of many of our meals could have been lighter. IMHO 😉

seafood

Still, you can’t beat the variety and care shown in even the humblest cafe….the freshness of the produce and the attention to detail on absolutely everything served from pizza to simple salads.

With seafood and fresh air aplenty, there was certainly nothing to complain about.

Brittany remains a region of feasting and relaxation, a true holiday and discussions about the finer points of sauce-making will, I’m certain, seem a long way off with my next visit to whichever train station fayre I encounter now I’m back at work.