I always try and make my blog posts light, even when I'm talking about something vaguely serious. This is because when I take time out of my day to read someone else's blog, a magazine or a book, I like it to be lighthearted and I want it to take me away from the stresses of the day and, more importantly, the news.
That being said, I feel like this one blog post has to be a bit more serious. Lighthearted content will continue in the future, I promise, but this one is topical and something that has hurt me in the past and continues to flare up every so often.
People are always surprised when I get so passionate about shawarma and I always talk about how I've never had a good one in the UK. By 'good' I don't mean 'good tasting', I mean authentic. There are many, many places offering "shawarma" because the owners once had it on holiday in Dubai and saw a gap in the market in the UK. This is cultural appropriation through food. If you are not Arab - particularly from the Levant based on what's on offer in the UK - and if you have not been trained in how to make proper shawarma by an Arab, you are not making shawarma. You are making grilled, spiced meat in a sandwich with mayonnaise. I am telling you now, mayonnaise categorically does NOT belong in a shawarma. I don't care if you lace it with garlic, it's not shawarma.
The same goes for people who make "hummus" with anything other than chickpeas. The word "hummus" MEANS chickpea in Arabic. If you make hummus with beetroot, avocado or - my all time favourite gripe - any other pulse, it is a dip. It is not hummus. And while I'm on a dip tirade, just because you mash up a smoked aubergine, it does not mean you've made baba ghannouj. In fact, if you've even added tahini to it, you've made mtabbal, not baba ghannouj.
Why have I suddenly decided to rant about cultural appropriation in food? Because it happens far too often. And not just to Arabs. How many times have you put peanut butter in a curry and called it satay? This is not satay. I have a Malaysian friend who will quite happily make authentic satay for you and force feed you to show you what real satay tastes like. Equally, adding soy sauce to a dish does not make it Chinese.
Speaking for myself, I am so incredibly glad that Arab food is liked and appreciated in the West. If it wasn't, it would make my job a lot harder because I would have to go a lot further for my ingredients. And I would have a significantly smaller audience. I am hugely grateful that Levantine food is being recognised for what it is - one of the simplest, most satisfying comfort foods in the world. But when a non-Arab audience starts to forget where these dishes come from and start to change the recipes without changing their names, this erases an entire culture. It diminishes the traditions of an entire section of the world and the thousands of years of development that has gone into the culinary traditions.
The recent explosion in Beirut has highlighted the West's attitude to the Middle East in general. It is not a "problem region". Beirut is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. As well as that, it is one that has managed to keep it's history whilst becoming a destination - much like Paris, Rome, London and Prague. The explosion devastated a huge portion of Lebanon's capital city. Hundreds of lives were lost, thousands of homes were destroyed and a decent portion of the city's population have been displaced. But aid has not been forthcoming. Not like, for example, when Notre Dame in Paris caught alight and millions of Euros were raised for its reconstruction. I'm Catholic, I like a church as much as the next person. But it was just a building.
Next time you buy a mediocre shawarma, think about the Lebanese mu'alims whose restaurants are now under rubble. Next time you make a batch of hummus, think about the Palestinian grandmother who had her home illegally raided. The next time you grill your aubergines for "baba ghannouj", think about the Syrian mother who sent her only child out of the country in the hope that they'll get a better education and live a longer life.
I am providing my za'atar manasseh recipe as part of an initiative called Sahtain Beirut, where people are encouraged to cook Levantine food, particularly dishes popular in Lebanon, and donate to one of the MANY charities helping in the Beirut crisis at the current time. If you do make this, please do tag me on instagram (@feedingtherest) or send me an e-mail with your picture and donate to one of the Beirut based charities listed below.
Thank you for making it this far through the post! Here is the recipe as promised and any future blog posts will be lighthearted as usual. Also, if you feel like your culture has been appropriated in any way, please do share your story with me. I am always keen to learn.
500g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp fast action dried yeast
250ml tepid water
4 tbsp good quality za’atar
6 tbsp olive oil
This recipe will make eight rounds. To the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, add the flour, salt, sugar and yeast and set the mixer on a medium speed. Slowly pour in the tepid water as it’s mixing and continue to knead for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the olive oil and za’atar together in a bowl and set aside.
When you have a soft dough, divide it into balls of 8, about 120g in weight. To do this, pull and tuck the dough under itself to create a rough ball shape and then mould the ball with your hand by rubbing it in a circular motion on a floured counter top. Leave the dough balls under a lightly damp tea towel to prove for 30 minutes.
Dust the counter with flour. When the dough balls have risen, roll them out into flat circles until they are about the thickness of a pound coin or around 15cm in diameter. Place each round onto it’s own sheet of greaseproof paper for ease of transfer. Let them prove under a dry tea towel for another 30 minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 200 degrees C, gas mark 6, and place a flat oven tray or pizza stone on the top shelf to warm up with it.
When the dough has finished it’s prove, Add a tablespoon of the za’atar mixture on top of each one and spread it round so it covers the whole surface. I find it easier to do this with my fingers. Using the greaseproof paper, shuffle the rounds one or two at a time onto your oven tray/pizza stone and bake for 10-12 minutes until the edge is a light brown colour. Use one of your proving tea towels to help fold the bread in half while it’s still hot. Wait for it to cool down slightly so as you don’t burn your mouth and then enjoy with a glass of hot, strong, sweet tea. If you’re planning to bake them all off before you serve them, cover them with a clean, dry tea towel once you’ve folded them to stop them drying up.