Sunday, August 19, 2012

Who Ordered Delivery?

In 2008 I was honored to be asked to do a USO tour throughout the Middle East with my band The Ugli Stick.
We played Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan , Jalalibad and Bagram, Afghanistan, Bahrain , Al Udeid , Al Fujarah, and Dubai. (say that list 10 times fast).

This tour (like every time I get to play for the military) was extremely meaningful to me and it is an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.

This story however , is not about one of the military performances , it is about an eye opening experience I had between gigs.

On one of our days off, we travelled with our liaison, Fareed, around Dubai, U.A.E.
We enjoyed seeing the indoor snow ski slope, the Burj Dubai (tallest building in the world) which was under construction buy almost completed at the time, the Sail (the most luxurious hotel in the world), the man made islands, the man made marina/lagoon (which is circled by fifty 5 Star hotels) and many other ridiculously remarkable sites.

I was seriously in awe of this culture's creativity and determination to stick with these seemingly impossible engineering and construction feats til they made them a reality.

It's impressive.

Well after hours of being impressed and in awe we were hungry.

Side note: When I go new places , in the United States or abroad, I try to eat something the locals eat. I never claim that I'm gonna eat EVERYTHING the locals eat. Some cultures have food items that I just couldn't choke down. However even those cultures invariably have SOMETHING on the menu that is a local dish that I am willing to try. Eating the local cuisine not only enhances my experience of whatever culture I visit but it also shows the native people that I respect their culture. So I always attempt to eat as the native people do. At least that has been my approach with all the cultures I've been fortunate enough to visit thus far.

So with this mind set, I tell Fareed, "We wanna eat at a local restaurant."

Fareed: "Oh. Ok. There's a good Italian place three blocks that way"

Me: "No. No. I meant like a local with...

Fareed interjects: "Oh. Well there's a great Greek place a little further. They have really good gyros"

Me: "No. I don't mean a locally owned restaurant that serves food from another culture. I mean some place that serves Emerati cuisine. Where do the Emeratis go to eat?"

Fareed: "There are no places like that. The Emiratis eat at the Mediterranean places or Italian places or _______places but there is no Emirati place.
You see? U.A.E. has oil money. This amount of money is staggeringly huge.

The society has decided to therefore give every citizen a stipend. This stipend is very substantial.
If you are born in U.A.E. you are rich. Every Emirati makes 6 figures whether they do anything or not.
This means, they all become high end business men and investors.

Think about it. If everyone in the country is rich who is going to slave in a kitchen? No one.
Therefore they hire foreign people from elsewhere to come cook for them.

As you can see, after about two or three generations indigenous cuisine is virtually non existent. "

I was in total shock. I had never even imagined that. I had never even thought that a culture devoid of at least a few local dishes would be possible.

Food is an integral part of a culture. It's as much a signature of a country as their flag.

The beautiful thing about cuisine is that even the poorest 3rd world , underprivileged society in the world has some sort of cuisine.
What I mean is if you went  to an Aboriginal village in Australia, or Paris, or a random Shantytown, or anywhere on Earth as a guest, the people would offer you their local cuisine. It may be some porridge made from a root or it may be some insects or some other food that seems bizarre and unappealing to us but they will offer it to you with pride.

Obviously, Everyone has to eat. So every culture since man could be considered man has taken the resources around them and figured out ways to prepare them. Generation after generation pass and the culture's cuisine gets perfected and refined. At that point one is unable to separate the signature cuisine from the idea of the society itself.

At least that is what I had thought. Apparently U.A.E. has separated their culture from their cuisine and have never looked back.

I don't want you thinking the Emiratis don't have great restaurants. Quite the contrary. They have tons of great restaurants. The Emiratis just don't have Emirati cuisine.

And that strikes me as very sad.

The incredible Emirati people have accomplished so many marvelous things. It would be hard to tour their country without a sense of amazement.

But along the way they lost their cuisine and therefore a big part of their identity.

(note: after my return to the United States I researched the traditional Emirati cuisine and found that it is not totally extinct. This gives me hope. I genuinely hope this means that the people of U.A.E. understand how important it is to keep that part of their culture alive. To let your country's traditional food die is to let part of your country die.)

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