food is so pleasingly universal

Cooking can be a great humaniser of another culture.

My grandfather refused to eat garlic because that was food for Frenchmen and Arabs. But I mean something broader than that.

Our impressions of other countries are news driven. Not the countries we’ve visited, or whose films we watch, or whose clothes we wear, perhaps; but that still leaves whole continents we only know about in terms of wars, revolutions, famine, disease and abject poverty.

If you asked people what they thought if you said “Iran”, the list of topics would be short: oil and fundamentalist Islam. I’d be tempted by that answer myself. But I also own various cookbooks which tell me that Iranians eat dishes like a pilaf cooked so that the rice at the bottom forms a golden crusty base; or tea made from dried limes; or dishes flavoured with lots of mixed fresh herbs – dill, flat-leaved parley, mint, coriander. And they make meat dishes flavoured with fruit – duck with cherries, chicken with apricots.

I guess if you don’t cook a lot, especially food which is foreign to you, that might make Iran seem even more distant. For me, though, it transcends religion or language or culture and makes us all just human. I read these recipes, and my mouth waters. A dried lime pilaf doesn’t compensate for a lack of human rights – but it does bring out the shared experience of being human. The food of other cultures can seem forbidding – try cartilage on a stick or soy-fried grasshopper, if you’re in Japan – but the more you know how to do it, the more it just all becomes food.

I should stop before I become any more like “I’d like to teach the world to sing…”

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spanakopita

i.e. spinach pie.

‘Spanakopita’ is just the Greek for spinach pie. It sounds so much better in Greek, though.

Briefly wilt the spinach in a covered saucepan, with no added water. Squeeze as much water as possible from the spinach and then mix it with some crumbled feta, a bit of finely-chopped spring onion, some fresh dill and beaten egg. Then layer up half a dozen layers of filo pastry, oiling each one before putting on the next. Put the spinach filling on top, and cover it with another 6 or 7 layers of filo. Cut through the top half of the pie – i.e. the top half of the pastry – to form it into lots of little triangles or diamonds. Cook it for three-quarters of an hour at 180C.

It was the first time I’ve tried this. I used 500g of spinach, 125g of feta, 2 eggs, a supermarket pack of dill and one pack of frozen filo. If I was doing it again I’d use a bit less dill, but even so, I think it was a success. It’s easy to make – I’ve never used filo before and was surprised at how manageable I found it – and the finished thing looks really impressive, golden brown and crunchy. Smells (and tastes) good too. It would be a good choice of dish if you were entertaining vegetarians, I think.

It’s a pity, really, that despite a large Greek/Cypriot/Turkish population in the UK, their food has only penetrated the public awareness as far as kebabs, pita bread and lurid pink taramasalata. Oh, and houmous, I suppose. Anyway. I got the recipe from Claudia Roden’s ‘Tamarind and Saffron’ (though there are extremely similar versions all over the net), which is a book of Middle Eastern food – the Middle East in this case extending as far as Greece and Morocco. Her ‘The Book of Jewish Food’ is also fabulous, not just as a source for all the obvious things like bagels and gefilte fish, but recipes from Iran, India, Egypt. Lots of great filo-based pies in that one, too.

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