Why do we assume people know about steak tartare but not yukhoe? Or that fine dining usually means French or Italian and not Middle Eastern?
Food and culture are deeply connected and it is important to consider the larger contexts of what we eat. It’s more than food because it’s a central part of who we are and how we grew up.
Culture must be part of the food discourse
“I think for a lot of cultures, especially mine, the whole culture revolves around food,” said Jess Ho, food journalist and podcast host. Bad taste.
For Jess when people see “food [as] just food,” it feels like they “don’t care about the culture” of food.
The customs of what and how we eat are just as important as the food itself. And it’s often a memorable moment when you realize how different they can be for Executive Chef Paul Farag.
He described an element of Middle Eastern cuisine as the table always being pre-set “with a few little things” that you can nibble on before the main course arrives.
“Bread is a huge part, rice is a huge part. We don’t have dessert, it’s fruit at the end of the meal and some pastries. The first time I went to a western home when I was a kid, I got a plate and had the meat and three vegetables. And I was like I had never experienced this before.
Paul has developed his menu to connect with his own Egyptian heritage as well as to explore the unique flavors of Middle Eastern cuisines.
“From North Africa to the traditional Middle East, to Iran, the cuisine is changing, the dishes are changing. JThe further east you go, the more subcontinent flavors there are with more spice, more darker and deeper flavors.
Redefining what the public knows about food
paul said junkee that he is particularly passionate about breaking the mold and redefining what people expect from Middle Eastern cuisine.
Redefining what people want from food in general is also a subject of Jess’s work in food journalism as she explores what it means to write about food for a particular audience.
“You expect to be familiar with cuisines like French or Italian, but not so much with other cultures. It’s kind of a constant juggling between why can I say something like steak tartare and assuming everyone knows what it is. But if I say yukhoe, you have to define that. IIt’s always explaining someone else’s culture or my own culture through the white gaze.
This idea of assuming knowledge of cultural cuisines was a key part of Paul’s work at AALIA, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Martin Place.
“Everything is like Middle Eastern cuisine, it’s typical. It was always something I never wanted to do because I didn’t want to be typecast with my looks,” he said.
“I’m trying to pioneer a change in lexicon. Every dish has at least some sort of Middle Eastern terminology. A not many people retorted to me a bit about this, but you go to a French restaurant and every word is written in French. And if you don’t speak French, the waiter sort of guides you.
So it’s just more like, why? OWhy can’t we bring that with Middle Eastern condiments and Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients? »