The Thing That Moves Us
Talk of dispersion.
Why do people move? Moving is tiring, very tiring – we all have experienced it. Moving to a new place – regardless of whether it is merely across the hallway or whether it is across the state line – is mentally daunting with the never-ending to-do list (i.e., post office forwarding) and bodily exhausting with the inexhaustible packing and unpacking. Yet, we move, we all do, for better or worse, from apartment to house, from town to city – and even from one country to another, traversing the wide expanse of the continent and even wider depth of the ocean. Why? Why do we embark on such venture at all when we know that the cost – psychological, physical and financial – is high, but for the potential rewards, which we believe and hope and wish will be greater than the initial pain and suffering. New schools, new jobs, new families – there are many reasons and, with which, many dreams.
Even in the prehistoric times, the very first humans moved about, didn’t they? Life must have been hard – gathering fruits and hunting wild animals – already without the moving; furthermore, notwithstanding that it was in the sweet land of Eden, such idyllic life must still get tiring after a while because even something as exciting as hunting a mammoth becomes a job, a dreary routine, if you have done it enough times. So, what moved the first tired mover? Was it the food, or rather, the lack of food? As an animal, we, the present-day humans, are excessively calorie-efficient: one hour of work at minimum wage at £6.50 per hour (the minimum wage in the United Kingdom) will purchase more than two Big Mac’s (£2.99 per burger, without meal, but inclusive of VAT), which translates to 540 calories x 2 = 1,080 calories (4,519kj), and that is quite enough to subsist on for one day, without Super Size Me’ing. Agreed, such minimum wage jobs tend to be menial rather than mental; but imagine otherwise, the many miles you must trudge in order to collect enough berries for the same 1,000 calories! Or the many hours in tracking and trapping a gazelle – even if it was merely stealing the leftover of a lion’s feast, you still have to find the carcass first.
If, that is a big if, the day was a lucky day and there were leftovers, our ancestors could not store them for the rainy day, having no such convenience as a fridge or a freezer. Therefore, any kind of precipitous change that disrupts the food supply chain would have caused an immediate famine. Hence, when the trees had dried up and the animals had departed, it was time to move. Early humans were nomads, and they were moved by hunger.
Understandable as the drive of hunger may be, but was that all there was? Did hunger alone really explain why we have moved and why we continue to move? How did our ancestors know there would be food on the other side of the river, beyond the horizon, where they have never been and could not have possibly seen? Urged on by the sweeter fruits and fatter fish, they walked and wandered. Was it merely a wishful thinking that something might be there? Or was it a desperate grab on the straw because they could not think of other options but going forward toward the rising sun? Or, were there at least a few who moved and kept moving simply because they wanted to see what was beyond that baobab tree or beyond that craggy hill and to discover what lay under that star which twinkled and beckoned at night?
While food might have been the primary motive for the move for our ancestors, today food alone no longer suffices (generally speaking) as a reason to move. Moving is expensive – uprooting oneself and cutting off old ties is no easy matter, after all – so there must be enough financial reward to offset the cost. Or so we hope. We move because we want better education, so that we can get better jobs, so that we can get bigger salaries and buy bigger houses and live better lives, and then incidentally, eat better meals. The ready availability of food has diminished its importance on the ladder of priority. If, by a stroke of luck, the destination happens to be a gastronomic capital, great, if not, so be it: all the more reason to look forward to the vacation.
That was how it has happened for the multitude, and so had it for “Mr. Shopkeeper," who is the king of Persepolis – a corner store painted bright yellow in Peckham. He had moved from Iran to the United Kingdom for the university, and as fate had struck, he then met “Mrs. Shopkeeper” – who became the queen of the quaint café inside the said grocery store. The word, “grocery store,” however, would be an enormous understatement to describe this emporium of the Far East – an Aladdin’s Cave where one would find not only exotic spices, but also esoteric beauty secret used in the hammam (a white clay for exfoliating the skin). While Mr. Shopkeeper is busy in the Cave, catering to bulk orders (and counting coins), it is Mrs. Shopkeeper – the one and only Sally Butcher – who reigns over the sovereignty of “Snakistan” and oversees that delicious Middle-Eastern fare is pumped out from tiny stove tops and a microwave to eclectic customers, sitting or sagging in equally eclectic chairs and couches; but all expectantly waiting, with elbows on the Formica-topped tables, for the Oriental culinary magic to begin.
The realm of Snakistan is entirely vegetarian – in fact, Sally Butcher’s latest book is called “Veggiestan,” which you could get signed and stamped with an entry visa – with vegan options but completely devoid of meat and fish. Considering that Persian cuisine is famously carnivore – charred kebabs and meaty stews – a certain number of eyebrows are surely to be raised regarding the provenance and authenticity of Mrs. Shopkeeper’s animal-free creation, and of course, regarding the level of gustatory satisfaction. Yet, remember, all across the Mediterranean, many of the mezzes are authentically and originally vegetarian – i.e., hummus, eggplant dips such as kashke bademjan (Persian), patlican ezme (Turkish), baba ganoush (Lebanese), dolmeh/dolma – and soups have been made with vegetables and legumes for many generations to tie over the lean times. Bear in mind, though, lean does not necessarily mean mean; moreover, in a world where we wage war on weight gain, lean is good. And if it is lean and tasty – well, what is not to like? Here in the shabby-opulent Snakistan, surrounded by walls plastered with recipes and photos from Sully Butcher’s cook books, let us enjoy the purely vegetarian party with the flair of the Persia and the Middle East.
The dual menu is consisted of the staple and the seasonal. As expected, the staple side includes the usual array of cold mezes, which are stored in a showcase, separating the tables from the back counter, where Mrs. Shopkeeper or her underlings are busy putting the final touches to the dishes. The “hot” signature items include the baked sweet potato, scrambled eggs or tofu with plantains (no less), and all the sweet temptations ranging from the classical paklava (this is the Persian spelling) to colorful cheesecakes and sundaes.
Every dish, while authentic at heart, is fantastically adopted or fancifully adapted in form. The hummus, for example, was brilliantly purple from the addition of beets, while the innocuous-looking red dip turned out to be – not the regular red pepper – but a clever blend of plantain and peanuts. On the more traditional side, the little bundles of dolmeh were revelatory: the vegetarian version tasted better than any meaty cousins in the recent and distant memories. Owing to the magical combination of grape leaves, fragrant herbs, plump raisins and fluffy pilaf, when the teeth tore through the brined leaves, the dolmeh would burst open with juicy flavors to the delightful surprise of the taste buds, contrary to the bland and boring specimens served at other delicatessens. Thus, the meze platter is already more colorful and intriguing to occupy the customer for the next fifteen minutes or so, but the “Witch of Peckham” with the flaming red hair would not leave it there – for the final touch, one (or two) neon-colored Cheetoz is stuck cheekily in the middle of the plate in lieu of signature. By the way, there is no misspelling because Cheetoz at Persepolis is in fact Persian, purposefully and purportedly imported from Iran for the occasion.
While you wait for your mysterious Middle-Eastern meal to appear, what would be better than a cup of tea? Tea is the drink of choice in the Middle East. Choose from Persian tea infused with green cardamom pods, minty Moroccan green tea, or the intriguing Afghanistan green tea with the irresistible caption, which proclaims that it “separates the men from the boys.” Or, if the weather is cold, fight off the chill with a cup of ginger, orange, lemon and mint tea, in which the alternating sensation of minty coolness and gingery warmth is sure to confuse the germs as much as it comforts your throat.
The short seasonal menu changes according to the whims of Mrs. Shopkeeper; but you will find the Persian pride of soup and stew listed on the top. On offer this day was the traditional ash-e-shalgam – a lentil soup, simply spiced and slightly piquant to tingle the tongue, and textured with silky turnips, chunky carrots and celery. This rustic lentil soup is sure to warm anyone’s stomach and soul.
Then, as the eyes move down the list of dishes, we embark on a cruise on the Mediterranean. First, Captain Butcher takes us over to the coast of the Aegean sea with triple variations on grilled halloumi cheese to choose from – or to chew on. As hard as it was to pick among the enticing offerings of sesame and honey, barberries and pumpkin seeds, it was the last that won the day. “Pan-fried halloumi with oregano, pine nuts and raisins, please” – “That is my favorite,” replied Captain Red Head with a twinkle in the eyes. And, as it turned out, it was to become the favorite of this tour de force of Snakistan. The halloumi was fried to a golden glory, where the salts and the milk proteins in the cheese had been transformed, in the crucible of frying pan, into a supernaturally savory crust. Crispy on the outside, but oozing and gooey inside, the chewy Cypriot cheese was salty and sweet. The dish, however, went much further than a juvenile grilled cheese, as the dusty dried oregano and delicate pine nuts refined the plate to a mature sophistication.
The fairy godmother of vegetarians then transforms the Greek-Cypriot afelia – a traditional dish made of red wine, pork and coriander seeds – into a sticky fried dish of potato, cauliflower, olives and vegan cheese, not with a magical wand, but in the magical ward behind the walls, where the customers may catch interesting glimpse of the magic in situ on the way down to the equally magical loo. Nevertheless, the magic seemed to have failed on this meat-centric recipe, which regrettably turned out to be the worst concoction at Snakistan. Instead of “sticky,” the sautéed vegetables were just greasy; instead of being spicy with the coriander seeds, the flavor was just a bland curry. Furthermore, the red wine was most notably missing, although whose acidity would have been most welcomed. Perhaps to supplement the P-H balance, sliced tomatoes with a few sorry rings of onions (advertised as an “herby tomato and onion salad” but served minus the herbs) sat at the bottom of the oily vegetables. In effect, the cauliflower and potato afelia was nothing but an imitation of Indian aloo gobi sabzi – and a poor one at that.
Leaving the last sad incident in the Mediterranean, the voyage travels then to the Western tip of the African continent to Tunisia, but not before paying final respects to mujaddara (a Levantine lentil and rice dish), menemen (Turkish scrambled eggs) – and m'hamsa. M’hamsa is a type of cous cous, made of the same semolina flour; however, contrary to the normal cous cous, which is the world’s smallest form of pasta, m’hamsa is known for to be giant. Hence, conversely, these hand-rolled m’hamsa pearls are the largest of the smallest pasta in the world.
Its voluminous size, the use of olive oil in rolling and the sun-drying process give the tapioca-sized m’hamsa a distinct chewiness, Therefore, these little irregular balls are sturdy and hardy, rather than fluffy, and consequently, they stand better against heavier artillery, such as the Berbere spices. Paired with correspondingly chewy raisins and similarly sized pine nuts, the dish was a dream-come-true for those long suffering from Freudian oral fixation. Just to make sure that the customers can get as high as possible from the mastication, the teething sensation is further enriched by cubes of fried halloumi and crunchy pumpkin seeds. Regrettably, however, while the mosaic of texture was painstakingly sketched out, the seasoning was less adroitly explored because the sticky and sweet – the aubergine jelly and raisins – completely trumped the Berbere spiciness. Sans relief from a squeeze of lemon, sans aid from a sprinkle of herbs, m’hamsa, as a consequence, was a pile of brownish rubble, with a few desolate bits of “summer” vegetables – carrots and green peppers – to be excavated in the ruin.
Letting the Persian tea (just the same old Ahmad tea bag in a Yogi Tea mug, but) wash away the sticky, sugary, greasy mouth, the stomach begins to digest, and so does the mind. Watching the floating cardamom pods, the thoughts return to the question of human motive for moving; moving then dispersing, or sadly on occasion, disappearing.
The Iranian diaspora.
The Persian Empire fell in the 7th century. Yet, the shadow of the giant still looms mighty, and fourteen centuries later, we still call the cuisine “Persian” and, to certain extent, the people “Persians,” carrying on and being carried forth by the inescapable inertia, which governs our physical and psychological domains, persisting in public and personal ignorance. With the fall of the empire, their religion, Zoroastrianism, was taken over by Islam, and many Persians migrated Eastward – to Mumbai, where the Zoroastrians have made home and become known as Parsis/Parsees. These creative and enduring souls have carved out a niche by cooking up chicken-berry pulao and by catering to the thirty masses strong Irani chai in convivial cafés – convivial because they know only too well what the opposite would be. These Parsis have survived in a niche in history, a niche in foreign cultures and a niche in foreign countries, speaking a foreign language and practicing a forgotten religion. On the contrary, the majority of Persians who have stayed in their native land – which has become Iran – had converted to a foreign religion, the Islam. Nevertheless, even the Islamic Iranians continue to celebrate the Persian new year in March and to speak, not the Arabic, but the elegant tongue – Farsi.
Those who have been born in their own country; who have grown up in their native country, speaking as their parents and grandparents have done; who follow publicly and freely their customs and practices; who can obtain passports – not from another country but their own; who, if so wish, may die in the same country; those beings, while blessed with peace, are often deprived of imagination, and thus remain oblivious of their good fortune and thus stay obtuse toward others’ misfortune.
Take Japan as an example, where a society had completely failed, in the spirit of compassion and camaraderie, to incorporate and to integrate another culture. Back in the 1970’s, Japan and Iran had mutual visa exemption, and consequently many Iranians came to Japan in search of work – often overstaying their legal welcome – especially in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. Hence, the Ueno Park & Zoo – already famous for the monochrome giant pandas – became infamous for the monobrowed Iranian men, whom the parents of the zoo-faring kids warned avidly against. Japan – despite having a semi-state religion, Shintoism, whose belief begins with innumerable gods (roughly eight million) and another semi-official religion, which counts up to 500 arhats – is not known for racial or cultural (or individual) tolerance, and whatever diversity or idiosyncrasy there may be, it is best left on the celestial level because the terrestrials prefer things plain and bland and, uniform (but no unibrows, please!). As a matter of fact, since many Iranians in the 80’s and 90’s – in the height of 1992, approximately 40,000 in the Tokyo metropolitan area – were engaged in various criminal activities in various degrees of offence, Japanese skepticism or fear toward these hairy and swarthy men was not entirely unreasonable and could not be attributed solely to bigotry. Yet, to block out another culture and to black out another human presence so blatantly requires a certain ruthless and fierce blindness and an active and willful omission, which the Japanese culture has traditionally practiced over generations and even made into an art in the form of kuroko – the puppeteers in black, who, although on stage are never “seen.” Therefore, once the Bubble had burst in the 90’s, the Iranians forsake the xenophobic and myopic Japan and left for greener (or browner) pastures, leaving no traces in the culinary or cultural domains of their temporarily adopted abode; neither words of Persian or flavors of Persia were allowed to linger. Having moved from their native country to another, the Iranians have moved out and moved on, yet again.
But that is not the case on the other side of the pond, where the Iranians have managed to stay (largely legally) and make home (temporally). The moving has come to a stop (as much as any of us can say with any certitude). Granted that the influx of immigrants entails a whole panoply of international problems, and yet, without such incoming stimulants, where would our cultures be?
Culture is nothing but a web of ideas, shifting and changing. For, the human mind is simply too susceptible to inertia (so are the rest of the solar system), and rolling along comfortably in the same-old does not give birth to any revelations metaphorical or technological. Art feeds on changes, without which it stagnates and stalemates. Certainly, that is not to deny that innovations can arise spontaneously and organically as in the cave paintings of Lascaux. However, even in that remote corner of the Earth – without Internet 20,000 years ago – can foreign factors be truly ruled out in instigating the imagination and in influencing its creation? The prehistoric hunters might have been inspired by their toil across land or the prehistoric painters by the sighting of foreign tribes.
While the 21st century has its own share of human miseries and misfortunes, it seems that human beings may be just a little bit more open to different ideas, a little bit more curious and a little bit more adventurous, so that we may now appreciate the beauty of temples which are not our own and marvel at the churches of another faith; we may even venture to taste different food, which had been foreign or forbidden in previous times. Cooking is after all an art (rather than a science) and thus it also flourishes upon new inputs.
The United Kingdom has gone through a culinary mutation in the last ten years because it has received such inbound movements of bodies and ideas; and whatever could have been said against the former British food, is no longer true. In 2017, the restaurants are in a cut-throat competition to be more inventive than ever, ironically as if they are re-enacting the rat race for the spice fortune in the New World 300 years ago. Consequently, the contemporary menus are fraught with condiments imported from far-away lands – i.e., various chilis at variable hotness and colorful and countless varieties of pepper corns. One dominant streak stands out in the wild quest of new flavors – the Middle-Eastern: be it Lebanese, Persian, Turkish or Syrian and, often expanding to Egyptian and Afghan. This new chapter of flavors can be attributed to the first crusader – Ottolenghi; and thanks to him, now feta, cous cous, sumac and za’atar are casually and commonly tossed in fashionable kitchens.
Interestingly, the Middle-Eastern influence is even more noticeable when the dishes are vegetarian. Interesting but not surprising as the Middle-Eastern cooking is in fact ideal for vegetarian cooking. For the raw vitamins, there are the limitless permutations of light salads – often sprinkled with nuts and seeds and spiked up with citrus and pomegranates; for the proteins and heartier fare, there are the legume-packed soups and stews, warm with cinnamon and coriander and often acidified by the use of dried lime. Soaring above the restrictions and limitations cast upon by the elimination of meat, the Middle-Eastern seasoning flies the vegetarian cuisine to a new height: one mouthful can be comprised of myriad layers of flavors – herby, citrusy, sweet and tangy – and deliver multitudes of textures – crispy, crunchy, chewy and silky. Plus some cubes of salty feta and chunks of halloumi, many dishes are as wholesomely complete as whole-heartedly tasty. No more boring soy-sauced stir fires and bland blocks of tofu, thank you very much.
Persepolis’ Snakistan – or Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan – in the peckish Peckham has opened a new horizon in this trendy Middle-Eastern and still mainly carnivorous culinary world, with courage and confidence and cooking skills (well, most of the times) to guide the uninitiated “To infinity and beyond!” (Buzz Lightyear, Toy Story). In this way, humans continue to defy inertia and move forward migration, dreaming of unseen and untasted possibilities.
28-30 Peckham High Street, London, SE15 5DT, United Kingdom
Phone: 020 7639 8007
Opening hours: 10:35am – 9pm, seven days a week