In a multicultural city like Berlin, you can sample global cuisine and barely scratch the surface.
The Sudan has a complex history that is directly reflected in its citizens cooking and dining style, both locally and in emigres kitchens around the world. Omer Eltigani was raised in Khartoum before emigrating to the UK and becoming a pharmacist. An avid traveller, people person, and experimentalist, he is gaining the praise of chefs and home cooks alike, documenting the craft of home cooking that he learned from his mum and aunties with the help of a colorful web presence.
Fresh from touring his recipes across North and South America—staying in people's homes and gauging their response to his culinary offerings —I recently met up with Eltigani to discuss the importance of heritage and why, politically speaking, we are what we eat.
A new cookbook, The Sudanese Kitchen, serves as Eltigani's objective, first-hand version of events of how a country's political, social, and geographical makeup command what food hits the table. Trailing the impact of a volatile past and speculating on a country's unpredictable future, this moving journey is punctuated by recipes that display the diverse and delicious cuisine of the Sudan home.
MUNCHIES: Hi Omer. The book, which started out as a website, is both enlightening and fun. Did you find it becoming more political as you wrote? Omer Eltigani: The past few years I've witnessed a drastic decline in the state, people's lives becoming more difficult, the poverty line is rising (now around 80 percent). I'm from an upper middle class family in Sudan, and even they are sometimes struggling. Khartoum is generally a safe place unless you're protesting against the government. The totalitarian oppression is stifling.
I thought, how can I not talk about the politics of my country? And after researching, travelling through America, and talking to various people and publishers, I realised how strongly I wanted Sudanese Kitchen to come across: real and informative.
How would you describe the set up of a Sudanese Kitchen? At home, everything is quite compartmentalised, and the kitchen is kind of a women's zone. Sometimes, men and women sit separately to eat. There's four or five women cooking, gossiping, and chatting amongst the aromas and steam. The book is dedicated to my mother, who day in day out, spends all of her time preparing fantastic meals while managing a high-profile job. I have mad respect for her. The book is a nod to all those women, whose kitchens still exist within a certain patriarchy. As a feminist, I celebrate them. Some cookbooks seduce us with pictures, lists of exotic ingredients, tear-jerking stories about their grandma's recipes. How do you hook your reader's attention from the first page? I'm taking the reader back to the beginning: from the social aspects of why we eat certain things at certain times with cultural impact threaded throughout. My book will be a very political read because what happens in politics affects the kitchen. The system directly impacts on the household you're in. Diets are pretty varied around the country in addition because of varying terrain and grain/crop abundance or shortage. After the huge economic decline following the civil war, people's place in the class system affected the kinds of meat they bought, and the kinds of vegetables they could get their hands on. The results: more vegetarian dishes in poorer households, and sometimes something such as a watermelon can be seen as a more luxurious item. Jews' mallow is a popular veg (also known as 'jute' or 'mulukhiya': an ancient leafy spinach first cultivated in Egypt and also popularly used in Jewish cuisine) used for its mucilaginous properties, meaning it thickens and is great for stews and soups. Nuts are a really big export for the country, which they grow in huge numbers. "Peanuts" literally translates in Arabic to "Sudanese beans." The future is unpredictable but there's hope. What initiated your project? Like a lot of kids, when I left home, I realised how much you take your mum's cooking for granted! At university I was very much into preparing stuff for the Western palate, which I got bored with. I missed my home food so much that I'd bring little food parcels to uni on the train, but then I just really wanted to make it myself so I started to ask mama for some simple recipes. I'd go back home, write down more recipes, and practiced them. And once I started, I couldn't stop. I started arranging appointments with family members and taking notes from everyone. As the interest in my heritage grew, I started to realise how important it was for me to create an archived copy of my people's cuisine. How did traveling through the Americas inform the development of your project? When people get emotional and talk about what's dear to their hearts, it's incredible. In Ecuador, I learned so much about individual family's food stories and got close to a local family through food. I road-tested the book as I was developing it, from cooking for my hosts, who'd be set up via friends on Facebook and stuff, to strangers approaching me as I was writing. Sounds amazing. Do you plan on publishing an Arabic version in the future? For now, the titles of each dish will be printed in original Arabic, with other Arabic words in the text spelt phonetically.
Thanks for speaking with me.