Cooking helps faiths and peoples integrate. It's a great way to learn about others and ourselves, says acclaimed food writer Claudia Roden
A dish is not just a dish; it is all kinds of things. Each has a different evolution and reason for being, but there is one thing that is common to all dishes, and that is how they are used as a social binding.
In many countries and cultures, cooking and eating are intensely communal activities. I grew up in the Middle East, in Cairo, where hospitality and sharing food is a duty and a great honour. There are many Islamic proverbs saying you must feed a stranger who arrives at your door even though you might be starving, and that you must give them food and shelter for three days, during which time the stranger is not even obliged to say why they have come.
Throughout the Middle East, the aim of the host is to be as generous as possible and to make sure their guests leave feeling full. The amount of food you offer is a compliment and, if all the food is finished, it reflects badly on the host, who usually eats less to make sure there is an extra helping in the pot.
These rules may seem quite extreme to us now, but they are there to serve an important purpose: to create unity. In this country, when we have people for dinner, sharing food and stories, we rarely think back to the necessities this ancient tradition arose from. Feeding strangers is a legacy of nomadic tribal customs, where hospitality was the first requirement of survival. If you arrived at a stranger's tent in the desert, you needed to know you could rely on their food and hospitality to live.
The foods people were used to eating in poorer societies were quite healthy, since they were mainly eating vegetables and pulses. Those who could afford it would eat heavier foods, cooked in animal fat. Their dishes tended to be more fattening, but that was mainly because most people didn't have ovens and did a lot of frying. Now baking is more widespread it makes for a much lighter and healthier cuisine.
Cooking for peace
People relax over food and instantly create a bond together, which is why eating with one another is an important way of healing rivalries between cultures and communities. I go to a lot of food-related gatherings that bring together people who are at war and have witnessed people from opposing sides fall into each other's arms. That is what both sides really want, and the simple act of sharing food has helped that reconciliation to happen.
Cooking together is another way to settle differences. When I entered the kitchens at a Jewish conference a few years ago, I found Iraqi Kurdish Jews, Moroccans and Palestinians, all working together with a great sense of camaraderie. Then there is also a wonderful group called Chefs For Peace, which consists of 25 Arab and Jewish chefs from three different faiths, who all travel abroad and work in the kitchens of Israel, spreading the idea of peace and unity through cooking and food. Chefs For Peace works so well because there is something about being involved in food that is life enhancing. It is about goodness and giving pleasure, which automatically creates a feeling of fellowship.
Interaction between cuisines of different cultures has often resulted in some wonderful mixes of food traditions, whether it is through migration or occupation. I have just come back from Spain, where you can find a wonderful mix of Moorish and Jewish with New World products. There are some delicious influences of the Raj in Indian food, and Indonesian influences on Dutch dishes from their colonial past. Today, fast foods have had a huge impact on countries all over the world and most people have become used to adopting new things.
There are, however, ways of cooking and types of ingredients that every culture holds close, and have been preserved through the centuries. People value the food that they know from their cultural background because of the memories and associations that the flavours inspire. We often prepare the food of our childhood when we feel in need of comfort, and it is that instinct that keeps ancient cookery traditions alive. Remembering brings happiness, and the food you prepare confirms your identity. It helps you to know who you are.