July - Sept 2006, Other

Curries, Tajeens and Moles

Exploring Culture and Conversion Through Food

By Anisa Abeytia

Exploring other cultures always implied a culinary exchange to me. When meeting someone from an unfamiliar culture, the first thing I ask is, “So, what do you all eat?” I ask this because food holds our history and can reveal a story with each bite. It can take the global and exotic and turn it into the local and the intimate. We usually do not try new food alone and many times a friend from another culture introduces us to it, along with an explanation of the way a food is prepared or if it holds a special significance in the culture, like couscous on Friday in Morocco or tamales for Christmas in Mexico. This turns something novel or strange into an intimate and non- confrontational introduction. Food was one of the ways I was first introduced to Islam. The food seemed to be as foreign to me as the religion.

There is no such thing as “Islamic Cuisine” or “Muslim Food,” but Muslims do eat and each ethnic group has a culinary tradition that often times predated Islam. What binds all of these culinary traditions together is Islam and the guidelines offered in the Quran and by the prophet Mohamed (peace and blessings be upon him) about food and food preparation.

Since I was introduced to Islam by Pakistanis, the first food I encountered was at a Pakistani restaurant. Actually, I was unable to enter the restaurant. The moment the door was opened, the pungent and hot spices hit my eyes and within minutes, I could not see through my tears. We left and found something a little more American.

Converting to Islam was a bit like this experience. The changes I made were monumental and stung. They stung because I was entering uncharted territory and I did not know if I would make it out all right. On the surface there was nothing familiar to guide me or comfort me. The languages spoken, primarily Urdu (India, Pakistan) and Arabic (the universal Muslim language), the dress, the ways of living and of course food, were out of my experience. I tried to fit in, but I was the proverbial Japanese nail sticking out and should be hammered down. This is not to say that Islam is about conformity, but I made people uncomfortable.

A year after converting to Islam I married a man from Morocco. In preparation for my new life as a Muslim wife, I bought a Moroccan cookbook. I would start food preparation at noon to get dinner on the table by 6 P.M. This was a major production, but I loved learning about the food, history and people. Then, after a month of marriage, my husband asked me, “Why do you make wedding food everyday?” I was floored! So that is why it took me so long.

Even though I was spending so much time in the kitchen, I still left time to learn about Islam. Many of the books I read did not make sense to me. I soon realized, not only was I lacking the linguistic skills, but I knew nothing about the history of Islam. Islam did not seem familiar to me because I did not “know” the people that shaped it or the events that molded modern Muslims. I read history books and fiction by modern Muslims writers and looked for recipes from Islam’s past. What I found was that not only had many of the culinary traditions changed since the 10th century A.D., but so had the way people interpreted Islam. During the time of the Crusades, Muslims focused on Mohammed as a warrior, in early Andalus (Spain) he was the just and seeker of knowledge (see Carl Ernest “Following Mohammad I” and Reza Aslan “No god but God”). This is not to say that there were drastic revisions, not in the least, but things were recombined and reinterpreted to match the people. Just like food, Islam is meant to be eaten several times a day or more appropriately, lived.

Not all Muslims do the same thing; they are not homogenous, not now or in the past. They also do not eat the same food, so why was I giving myself a hard time preparing wedding food everyday? Could I not make Islam “practical,” for lack of better words? Did Islam have to be something foreign? Islam and all of its “practical” manifestations could be extremely foreign because they are cultures and not universal truths, but it was the universal truths found in Islam that gave rise to these cultures. I had to make Islam real to me. I had to make dinner.

I am a third generation Mexican-American convert who had no connection to Mexico and its culture. I was also denied cultural citizenship as an American because of my skin color, so I was a foreigner. After my conversion, I did not want to become a practitioner of a culture; I wanted to be a Muslim. Yet, despite my best efforts and my husband’s, the practicality of daily life intervened – what were we going to eat?

I grew up eating a S.A.D. diet (Standard American Diet) and that way of eating was just no longer acceptable. I had no ethnic tradition of my own to call upon and I had never eaten Moroccan food, but I was willing to try both. I was determined to find a new way to cook to match my new life. We lived on the premise that, “if it is halal, eat it.” That is what we did and that is how these two cuisines became fused to help nourish and sustain our Islamic practices at home.

At first dishes I prepared did not always turn out tasty, but I practiced and I looked to the foods that traditionally nourished Mexicans and Moroccans. Tajeens and moles were a few dishes that I discovered. They are similar to curries. Moles come from Mexico and tajeens from Morocco. They are slow-cooked pot of delicious morsels that just melt away in the mouth. Each region and each family has their own way of integrating spices and other ingredients. These dishes are passed from generation to generation because they work for the ones preparing them, just like daily worship. We usually inherit these practices as well, but other times we find our own way and have to work a little harder.

I eventually made my own version of curry. Is it exactly like a traditional curry? No, but it is my version. It is true that to call something a curry does not make it a curry. It has to include all the basic ingredients of a curry. The same is true for a religion. If one removes one or more of the fundamentals or pillars of Islam, say prayer for instance, one can not really call herself a Muslim. However we all find ways to make Islam a living and breathing way of life and it is a day-to-day struggle that sometimes takes an unexpected turn and ends up on our plates.

I would like to share a few of my recipes with you. Enjoy the food and make Islam your own. Bismillah (In the name of God)!

Many of the herbs and the muslin bags can be purchased at www.mountainroseherbs.com. I only use organic produce, eggs, dairy and organic-halal meat. Try including organic things in these recipes and see if you and your family taste a difference.

Anisa Abeytia lives in rural Northern California with her husband and four children and is a member of the Muslimah Writer’s Alliance and the Islamic Writer’s Alliance. Anisa can be reached at anisa.abeytia@Muslimahwritersalliance.com.

Five Recipes

Jicama in a Minted Salad Dressing
Serves 6-8

1 Small Jicama, peeled
¼ cup diced fresh mint leaves
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup Organic, Cold-Pressed olive oil
Salt to taste

Slice the jicama into small thin strips. Arrange on a plate. In a small mixing bowl add other ingredients and mix well. Drizzle the mixture over the jimaca, cover with a piece of parchment and let stand for 1-2 hours.

Minted Hibiscus Cooler sweetened with ajave nectar.
Serves 6-8

84 ounces water
1/3 cup dried hibiscus
2 fresh mint sprigs
1 lime sliced into thin rounds
Agave nectar to taste

Place the hibiscus inside an unbleached muslin bag and tie. Place it inside a glass pitcher and pour room temperature water over the bag. Let it sit for 2-3 hours. The longer it sits the more bitter it will be. Remove the bag and add the agave nectar and lime slices.

Chicken marinated in Charmula with mango/papaya salsa
Serves 6-8

8-10 skinless chicken parts


¾ cup Olive oil
Juice of 3 lemons and 1 lime
1 bunch cilantro, chopped with stems
1 bunch parsley, chopped with stems
3 tablespoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons ground coriander
¼ teaspoons red chili flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Add the olive oil and lemon juice to a large bowl. Chop up the cilantro and parsley and mix. Add in the spices and mix well. Let stand for at least 15 minutes for the flavors to mix. Add in the chicken and coat well with the charmula. Cover with unbleached parchment (available at natural food stores or at www.gaiam.com) and place in the refrigerator overnight. Charmula is extremely versatile. Use it to marinade fish or lamb. Add it to water to make an instant stock for fish soup.

Mango and Papaya Salsa

1 mango, diced
1 Hawaiian papaya or ½ Mexican papaya, seeded, and diced
2 large tomatoes or 5 small roma tomatoes
½ white onions diced fine
1 bunch cilantro, diced and steams removed
Juice of one lime
A pinch of acho chili
Salt and pepper to taste

Once the chicken is done marinating, you can cook it in the oven, covered with unbleached parchment, or grill it. Serve with the mango and papaya salsa and fresh sprigs of herbs like mint, thyme and oregano. This looks very pretty on a Mexican or Moroccan platter.

Flan with cardamom, honey and pistachios
Serves 8

6 eggs, beaten well
3 cups milk
1 cup honey, divided
2 teaspoons cardamom
½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ cup diced pistachios

Beat the eggs and add the milk, then add half the spices and ½ cup honey. Pour the remaining honey and spiced into 8 custard dishes. I have used one large baking dish, but it never comes out quite right. Then add the egg mixture to each dish. Place the dishes in a larger baking dish and pour in boiling water to 1 inch depth. Bake at 325 degrees for 30-40 minutes or until a knife comes our clean when inserted in the middle of the flan. Once done, turn each dish upside down onto a plate and garnish with pistachios.

Anisa’a Tajeen Spices

3 tablespoons crushed, dried rose buds
5 tablespoons crushed, dried lavender flowers
3 tablespoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons ground coriander
3 tablespoons ground cardamom
1 tablespoon mace
4 tablespoon dries ginger powder
4 tablespoons cayenne
2 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons pepper
3 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground fennel

This mix of tajeen spices is very “Fezie.” Meaning that it caries all the complex flavors associated with the imperial city of Fez, Morocco. The lavender and rose buds balance the hot flavors of the cayenne, mace and pepper and give it a unique taste that is hard to place. I add cumin and coriander because I just love these two spices. Toast the cumin seeds before grinding to give it a distinctive Mexican flavor. I like to grind as many of these spices fresh for a wonderfully rich aroma. Mix all the spices together and place in a tin or glass jar. Use this mix like garam masala. It can be used as a rub, a base for soup, curries, tajeens and moles.