Arab Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook
Arab Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook
When I was a child in the 1960s, my family lived in the Middle East for several years. We lived in Lebanon and Egypt and in what is now the occupied territories of the West Bank which is where my father had grown up. I well-remember the penchant for story-telling. In the evenings, after supper, when everyone was nibbling on fruit, nuts, and dates, my grandfather’s cousin would pour himself a glass of mint tea, sweetened with an impressive four sugar cubes, take a sip, clear his throat, and start a story. When I was older, I rediscovered these stories, taken mostly from the one thousand and one nights of Scheherazade (like Sinbad and his voyages or Ali Baba). Another source are the instructive fables of Haroun al-Rashid, the just caliph, who, in order to learn what life was like for his subjects, would disguise himself and spend time among his courtiers as well as the people who lived in the city of Baghdad. These stories always held a lesson, often expounded upon by the grown-ups who were present.
In Arab Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook, Karim Alrawi presents 14 stories that Arab children across North Africa and the Middle East have heard. This book is part of Tradewind’s “Fairy Tale Feasts” series of international stories that are accompanied by traditional recipes. In his introduction, Alrawi notes that the stories he presents come from Arabs who live in “…diverse communities with long histories and many different beliefs and customs.” (p. 10). What unites them is their common language, Arabic, and the culture closely associated with that language. He reminds readers that these communities have housed important libraries, built in ancient times, of which many are still in existence today. From these collections, we know that cookbooks in Arabic were first published about a thousand years ago. The stories are older; those from One Thousand and One Nights likely originated in India and Persia and were collected in a process that took hundreds of years before eventually being published. Alrawi provides a helpful context-setting introduction. By placing the stories within Arab culture, Alrawi helps readers recognize that the stories transcend current national boundaries and religious fault lines. He provides an important introduction to a culture that is not well understood or appreciated, except, ironically enough, for its food.
The themes that Alrawi highlights resonate with the stories that I grew up hearing. The lessons in Arab Fairy Tale Feasts includes the necessity of offering and providing hospitality and expressing appreciation and gratitude to one’s hosts, encapsulating the ancient tradition of welcoming travellers with shelter, food and drink. There are cautionary tales, full of genies and ghouls, which described what happens to those who behave well and those who don’t. Often, a child or a man, seen as naïve or easily duped, is able to see the world for what it is and point out the truth of the matter, even if others fail to pay attention. These are the stories that are still used to teach children and to both amaze and amuse them. As is often the case with ‘fairy tales’, there is an applicability for adults as well. These stories are not always easy reading, and many younger readers will benefit from reflection and guided discussion in order to be fully appreciated. While the language used in this book is accessible, some of the aphorisms are more formally stated. For instance, when a man failed to thank a host for his hospitality, it came to pass that he forever missed the opportunity to do so. The moral of the story is: ‘postponing a good deed can make of the deed no deed at all’ (p. 113). While this sounds stiff when stated in English, I suspect that it has a more poetic flow when spoken in classical Arabic.
Each story in Arab Fairy Tale Feasts concludes with an aphorism and is accompanied by the whimsical illustrations of Nahid Kazemi. Following each story are a few recipes for traditional Arabic dishes, the recipes having been put together by Sobhi al-Zobaidi, Vancouver restauranteur Tamam Qanembou-Zobaidi and Karim Alrawi. Most of the dishes are mentioned in the story that precedes the recipes. The recipes are also illustrated, and the directions are simple enough for older children to follow with adult guidance and support. While some recipes are likely to be new to non-Arab readers (e.g., lamb puffballs and the desserts which do not feature baklawa), others will be familiar (e.g., hummus, baba ghanoush, and tabouli as it is meant to be, primarily a parsley centred salad and not a grain salad). With the exception of the desserts, all of the recipes represent typical, everyday fare. The authors provide descriptions of the foods and how they are prepared, as well as the origins of the foods. While most of the Arabic ingredients are explained, some are not (for instance, for Persian or Lebanese cucumbers, just go ahead and use smaller, thin skinned varieties as a substitute).
In the conclusion to Arab Fairy Tale Feasts, Alrawi discusses the different types of story found in Arabic. The stories in this book are hadduta, “…a short tale that enchants and instructs all at the same time…we could also call it a pleasurable parable or a bewitching fable.” (p. 142). This book serves as a gesture of hospitality to those who want to begin to develop an appreciation of Arab culture. Read the stories and make the meals, but be sure to share both with your family or friends, or most importantly of all, with strangers.
Now retired, Zana Marie Lutfiyya taught in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba