Last week, I was taught the importance of food in transcending culture and language by a friend’s seven year old daughter.

Ten years ago I had the privilege of being the witness at a friend’s wedding in the Czech Republic…I had not seen my friend since – not deliberately, just through the speed of life taking over. Last month I went back there and was welcomed by three generations of her family over a huge meal of meat and dumplings, followed by a delicious cheesecake. My friend’s husband and father do not speak English and I do not speak Czech – apart from colours, numbers and the odd word and phrase – not particularly useful for conversation over the dinner table. Words didn’t matter – their warmth, generosity and friendship was demonstrated through the shared experience of eating the meal and my friend’s time in creating it for my arrival.

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On Friday 27 January 2017, the American president, Donald Trump, signed an Executive Order banning the entry of people into the US from seven countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days following the signing of the order. Following opposition, Donald Trump issued a revised travel ban this week, which comes into force on 16 March 2017. The revised US travel ban removes Iraq from the list but still includes people from the six other countries.

I found myself bewildered by these two actions by Donald Trump. They were among a series of actions I struggled with, following Trump’s inauguration as US President, which are well documented in the media without me detailing them here. There is already a considerable Wikipedia entry outlining Trump’s presidential actions to date.

In response to this, and to counteract the helplessness I felt, I decided to celebrate the culture of the seven ‘banned’ countries by trying out recipes from each of them. I found the cooking therapeutic and enjoyed researching the recipes online. It felt like an endeavour to acknowledge the turmoil and divisions that are present in our world today, whilst also being a celebration of our richness and diversity as human beings.

These are the dishes I have tried to date, although I’m sure they’re only an approximation of what they should be!:

Kalluun Duban‘, a Somalian baked fish dish, which was delicious with all the fresh lemons cooked with it.

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Chicken Zerbian Rice from Yemen with a side dish of spinach.

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Back home, I was invited to a friend’s house for a meal and so took along some pistachio ice-cream made to a Syrian recipe and a Somalian vanilla and cardamom cake. 

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I am continuing my culinary journey through the seven countries…

Whilst my creation of food from the seven countries will not change or affect President Trump’s actions, and maybe seen as self-indulgent, I am learning more and more that food is a gift to be treasured and shared.

I was interested to read this article about a ‘Conflict cafe‘ project in London from 2015 – ‘Everyone knows that one of the best ways to break down the barriers between a group of people who have never met each other before is to share food together.’

On my last day in the Czech Republic, my friend was working and so she asked me if I would collect her seven year old daughter from school at lunchtime. Her daughter’s English was more advanced than my Czech, and so we got by with a few words and phrases. On our arrival back at the house, she announced that we were going for a walk and started packing a backpack full of sandwiches (tortilla wraps with salami inside), bottles of water, an apple, and plastic mugs. She also appeared with another bag and wouldn’t tell me what was inside. I tried to explain that I’d had lunch and I knew that she had too, and that we didn’t need all this ‘stuff’. She was adamant and so I relented. We set off – she was determined to carry both bags – it was a beautiful sunny day, though cold with snow on the hills. A short while later, she turned off the track we were on and went into a field. Here, she opened the ‘secret’ bag and pulled out the duvet from her bed, laying it on the grass, proudly announcing we were going to have a ‘picnic’. She then set out all the food, poured us each a glass of water and started laughing so infectiously, I couldn’t help but laugh with her – at her triumph.

It was indeed a splendid picnic – one of the best I have been on and a memory I will treasure. After the picnic was finished, I watched her blow bubbles into the sun and thought of the many lessons she had taught me – one of which was about the power of food shared to transcend culture and language and its ability to build bridges.

(Main image: plate created by my friend’s daughter – thank you, peerie mootie.)