One of my favourite memories from my travels in Arab Countries has undoubtedly been food and the culture around food. In contrast with my British upbringing where food is so often eaten in a hurry and without ceremony, I was delighted to experience the richness and hospitality of mealtimes.
Mealtimes are a communal experience in which family and friends eat together, not with separate plates but out of a shared dish. As a guest to this experience, you may expect to be offered the choicest morsels by your host, who will move pieces of meat or vegetables into your ‘section’ of the dish.
In North Africa, couscous is served on Fridays, يوم الجمعة – the day of gathering. After attending mosque, families return home for one of most delicious meals of fragrant couscous, vegetables and meat. Sitting around the table, spoon in hand, everyone can enjoy as much or as little of the dish as they wish.
As well as the lovely shared nature of this experience, there is the added benefit that one piece of meat can flavour a whole meal. This is much more economical than each individual needing their own.
Using Your Hands
Along with communal eating, travelling to the Arab World allows you to forgo your knife and fork and rediscover the joy of eating with your fingers! Being able to touch as well as see, smell and taste your food certainly increases your sensual experience.
Remember there are important courtesies involved with eating with your hands. Firstly, you should only eat with your right hand. It is fine to break bread with both hands, but you should exclusively use your right hand to bring food and drink to your mouth. Secondly, it is considered polite to use only the thumb, index finger and middle finger to pick up food.
As a learner of Arabic, you will almost definitely have come across the work ‘Halal’. Indeed, in the atmosphere of globalisation, most city dwellers will be familiar with this term from signage on restaurants and takeaways. For more on the meaning of Halal/Haraam see the previous article What does Haraam mean?
A common myth about halal food is that it only pertains to meat whereas it actually includes all food permitted by Islam. This has led in the past to the incorrect conclusion and shock that halal chocolate Easter eggs contain meat – they do not.
As a traveller to a Muslim country you will notice that all restaurants and food outlets use halal meat. This includes local McDonalds, which are naturally devoid of bacon. Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a Muslim and live or travel in a non-Muslim country? When in doubt about whether food is Halal, Muslims may confidently select the vegetarian or fish options available.
Enjoying meals is a wonderful way to discover other cultures. If you are planning a trip to the Arab World, consider staying with a host family so that you may have an authentic experience.
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