The Unknown Mediterranean

09 Jan 2004

I have just returned from a trip across the Atlantic which took me to the West Coast of the New World, as far as the verdant Napa valley and the headquarters of the Culinary Institute of America. I was there to take part in an event entitled ‘The Unknown Mediterranean’.

For three days from 6 to 8 November 2003, the Culinary Institute of America hosted a range of lectures, cooking demonstrations and tastings focusing on little known aspects of Mediterranean cuisine. ‘Mediterranean flavors, American menus… tasting the future’ proclaimed the brochure. In other words, an occasion to discover the best flavors of yesterday and today and, especially, the less familiar aspects of the Mediterranean and our much celebrated Old World.

An old world surrounding a sea—and in early times this sea was its central focus and the unknown definitely elsewhere. Great empires and ancient civilizations were born around this sea. The hot lands of Africa stood across from the young cold mountains of Europe, to the west was a strait leading to the unknown, to the east lay a mild and welcoming coast, a land where trade routes, human beings, religions, deserts and mountains met. Almost as though it were the heart of this old world (while endeavoring to avoid this role as far as it could).

These eastern regions of the Mediterranean are lands of encounter. The unknown does not really have a meaning here, given that everything exists, tries to exist or asserts its right to exist. Unfortunately, recent political events suggest we cannot but expect the opposite.

If we talk about something unknown, we should first define what we mean. It is simply that which is ‘other’, something strange or alien. But other or strange compared to whom and what?
We can see that it is just a relative concept.

To come back to our ‘Unknown Mediterranean’, on the east coast is Lebanon, a country in the very center of the region. It is in fact the most unknown, at least for Western and American culture, where Mediterranean cuisine is synonymous with Italian cuisine (from southern Italy, of course), Provençal, Spanish, sometimes Greek, Moroccan, Tunisian, and maybe Turkish. But never from the Levant, never from these eastern coastlines in the heart of the Old World.

The Mediterranean nowadays arouses passionate feelings and incredible enthusiasm. Remote islands, preserved traditions, age-old cultures, unique products and ingredients, food customs that have defied time and disease—just what is needed to attract the curious and aficionados alike. So the last few decades have seen the modern myth of the Mediterranean develop, a cuisine of sun, infused with flavors, colors, traditions and benefits…

Trying to make Levantine cuisine less unknown mainly involved me having to describe and present the completely unknown land that created it. During one of my first talks I decided to show images of Lebanon: a blue sea, fertile coastal plains, snow-capped mountains rising sharply behind, inland highlands giving way to the deserts further inland. I wanted to help people understand the mixture of traditions, cultures, religions and peoples making up the country—and also the cuisines and culinary traditions.

I might also have made a comparison between Lebanese cuisine and the most important archeological exhibit in Beirut Museum: the sarcophagus of Ahiram, a king of Byblos, dating back to the twelfth century B.C. On it is engraved the oldest alphabetic inscription in the world. The museum also houses other examples of a style which might be considered completely Egyptian, or maybe completely Mesopotamian, but is in fact neither, being completely Lebanese (or rather, at the time, Phoenician or Canaanite): it is a mixture of various styles, cultures and traditions. We shouldn’t try to trace things back in isolation but should combine them as appropriate.

Returning to cuisine, the situation is very similar. All ‘Lebanese’ people describe the cuisine of their country in terms of who they are—in terms of their roots. Beirut, Tripoli, Christian, Islam, Armenia, Aleppo, the coastal port towns, the high mountains, the inland areas—the list would be endless.

And yet, Lebanese cuisine, like everything that distinguishes and is created by this country, is a mixture of everything. Lebanese cuisine is the cuisine of ‘Ahiram’!

The question of the unknown was again the problematic issue addressed in ‘Politics, war, marketing and the future’, a round table discussion of several topics, chaired by R. W. Apple, Jr. Nancy Harmon Jenkins highlighted how the notion of ‘other’ was demarcated from ‘American’ .

Once again we have a relative definition, with the lands of the Mediterranean, the meeting point between East and West, exemplifying this idea and its inhabitants, as I can personally testify, carrying the experiences of wars and conflicts.

And if we come back to the cuisine of the ‘other’, we have to ask ourselves whether the ‘other’ is actually accepted or whether it isn’t perceived as an enemy or a danger. And if the latter is the case, how can we come to accept this cuisine and share a meal? Cuisine and food are above all about sharing and accepting. You share food, a table, a way of life.

To sum up, this event (organized by the Culinary Institute of America) was a veritable melting pot with an intermingling of the whole Mediterranean.

The organization and lavish facilities measured up to the large scale typical of America. And yet, the biggest feature of the event was the interest shown in the unknown and awareness of the ‘other’—a real desire to meet the ‘other’, to learn about the other and, not least, share the other’s cuisine..

Kamal Mouzawak is a contributor toSaveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, Lebanon’s most important f&w monthly.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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