“Vamika, you’re such a good writer — what are you doing writing about sandwiches and quiches?”
This is a valid question. Why am I not using my slightly-above-average literary prowess to discuss heftier dilemmas, like campus issues or feminism or, even … politics? Why waste time ruminating on the price of a pasta dish? It all seems so frivolous, impractical, useless.
The prolific food writer M. F. K. Fisher is often asked similar questions: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? She says that these questioners ask accusingly, but she has a ready answer: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.”
In freshman year, I somewhat dubiously enrolled in the First Year Writing Seminar class called Street Food with Professor Deepak Unnikrishnan. Most people think this class just entails weekly jaunts around Abu Dhabi, scarfing down shawarmas and karak and Chips Oman sandwiches and then writing cute little reviews about them.
This is true — partially. My class journal is filled with snapshots of tea ceremony workshops, food truck burgers and bowls of Emirati luqaimat, complete with tweet-size captions describing the various tastes I’ve encountered during these past few weeks. Our assignments are like bold, commanding treasure hunts — Find the best and cheapest cup of coffee in the city. Where does one go for good Uzbek food? Or Armenian cuisine? Dig out an Emirati folktale about food.
To be perfectly honest, during the first couple of weeks of the semester, I had no idea what I was doing — or learning. Look! I found the best karak in the city! Now what? Isn’t this supposed to be an intensive writing class? Aren’t we supposed to emerge, like butterflies fresh out of the cocoon, as great architects of arguments, armed with intense theses and an even more intense knowledge of grammar? I was having trouble fathoming how visiting food trucks, for example, would transform me into a refined academic writer.
I kept my concerns largely to myself because our professor always seemed to have this mysterious little smile on his face implying that he knew way more than he — and the syllabus — let on. A common refrain within our class was that it’s not really about the food. We somehow needed to think beyond the plate.
But as we discussed essays about lobsters and experienced such adventures as getting completely lost trying to find an Egyptian restaurant in the city — the free knafeh ultimately made it worth it — my classmates and I still looked uneasily at each other as we walked in at 9 a.m. for class, unsure of what exactly we had gotten ourselves into.
I waited for a eureka moment, and thankfully, yes, the epiphany actually came. It was 3:30 a.m. — a common time for epiphanies, I think — and I was watching my Korean friend cook ramen for me in a student lounge. He started explaining to me the different ways in which ramen can be cooked, what this means in Korean society and why they use certain ingredients for their dishes. Apparently, almost any meal you can think of can be sold in an instant format because many Koreans live such a hectic and busy lifestyle that ease and convenience of food is not just a cheap bonus but a requirement. As I listened to him speak, slurping up spicy soup and sticky rice in front of the Al Reem skyline, I got it. The weeks of wacky adventures that had been my Street Food class suddenly made sense, as if an unfocused picture had finally cleared.
Almost every week, I used to write an AD Secrets article for The Gazelle, our university publication, covering a relatively unknown café or restaurant in Abu Dhabi. The task was interesting, undoubtedly. But as the weeks passed, I found myself approaching these reviews in rather an insipid, formulaic manner. I caught myself asking and answering the same kinds of questions, lackluster things like: is there WiFi? How cheap is the tea? Should this décor be described as minimalist or urban chic? But in the end, how does that all matter? I am writing it all down but ultimately saying nothing. About the food or the city. And that’s not why I started this weekly column at all. I wanted to get more NYU Abu Dhabi students into the city, to experience walking on the streets and lingering over late-night conversations in dingy diners with completely non-dingy food, to study in quirky café spots and listen to the symphony of languages surrounding them and yes, to even get lost trying to find Egyptian eateries only to discover that you can actually get free knafeh in this city. And also, with a little bit of smartness, sassiness and healthy panic, you learn that you can navigate Abu Dhabi much better than you ever thought, could or did.
While doing research for an assignment for my Street Food class, I stumbled upon an old Gazelle article titled The Magic of the Chips Oman Sandwich. Reading it, I was filled with a mixture of delight and envy. Delight, because it was stupendously well-written; creative, candid and spilling knowledge like the ideal Chips Oman oozes cheese. Envy because I realized that as a piece of food writing, it achieved things that weeks of my AD Secrets articles failed to. Things like evoking emotion, colours, smell, sights, sounds and taste — a complete sensory experience just through a description of what is essentially just a greasy sandwich. And of course, it was saying something vivid and lucid, even if small, about this weird, beautiful city we live in.
In its description, the Street Food class markets itself as a course that explores the city of Abu Dhabi and the larger realms of history, immigration, race and politics, through the lens of the food you find in its restaurants, shops and cafeterias. In other words, food is just the seed; our experience of what’s cooked and eaten in this city eventually flowers into greater observations and conclusions on what it means to be and reside within Abu Dhabi, to interact with its various diasporas and their diverse narratives and histories. I now find myself pondering over what lies behind my plate of biryani or shawarma or porottas or hotpot. What are the languages I am hearing in a typical cafeteria? Or an upmarket café? What does it mean to go to an Indian restaurant and be served by Filipinos? Is Chinese or Pakistani cuisine actually cooked by natives of these countries? If not, what does this say or raise questions about in terms of ethnic authenticity and identity? I am suddenly thinking of ideas and asking questions that had never crossed my mind before; the experience feels akin to colouring outside the lines or doing something as radical as eating chips with ice-cream. Such thoughts and enquiries illuminate far more than the taste of a certain dish; they shed light on the socio-political tapestry of those spaces of Abu Dhabi in which that dish is served.
Okay, so maybe that all sounds a bit like a platitude or a paraphrased version of the course description. If it helps, I like to think this quote by the American author Sarah Vowell sums up what I’m trying to say:
“Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.”
In other words, it’s not really about the food, friends.
Published in The Gazelle in 2017
Image by Rosy Tahan