Visiting diverse Middle Eastern restaurants across the Greater Toronto Area, one quickly discovers that they all feature tabbouleh on the menu. As an Egyptian, I had never eaten tabbouleh until I started my undergraduate degree at York University in Toronto. It is not part of the Egyptian tradition. Interestingly, while Syrian and Lebanese emigrants found their way to Egypt in large numbers throughout the mid- to late-nineteenth century, this side-dish never made its way into mainstream Egyptian cuisine, and especially, the average family kitchen. However, in North America it has come to be defined as “authentically” Middle Eastern.
The first time I tried tabbouleh, I was with a group of friends from various ethno-cultural backgrounds. When I asked what kind of salad that “green dish” was, I was met with confused expressions. The person across the table asked me: “I thought you were Egyptian?” Somehow, not knowing what tabbouleh was made my very claim to “Egyptian-ness” questionable. This simple appetizer had come to define what it meant to be Middle Eastern in the western imagination. Meanwhile, Egyptian kushari will never be found in a restaurant in the GTA. Eaten since at least the nineteenth-century, this famous staple of Egyptian cuisine will only be found in family kitchens and mosque and church festivals. This dish, central to my own memories of ‘home’, remains confined to the familial private sphere and community cultural festivals.
Why is something as seemingly simple as food so influential to the average Canadian’s conception of the Middle East and its culture? Food carries messages about class, gender, ethnicity, religion, and identity. Food is not only what is materially before us or the raw ingredients which go into making a particular dish: it has symbolic significance. For food historians, two terms encapsulate the relationship between food and culture. First, “foodways” represent the connection between ethnicity and food. Foodways can often be a point of social contact and outreach, a way of expressing identity, and a tangible way to remember ‘home’. Second, “foodscapes” represent the culinary cultures of a place. If foodways are the material and cultural significance of food to a group’s identity, then foodscapes are the physical manifestations of culture across space in the proliferation of ethnic restaurants, markets, grocers, food festivals and street-corner vendors.1 How, then, have Syro-Lebanese foodways come to dominate public (commercial) foodscapes in Toronto and successfully push out other Middle Eastern immigrant groups’ distinctive ethnic cuisines?
Traditionally, the ‘Arab world’ comprises 22 countries and territories which speak Arabic. These territories occupy an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Arabian Sea in the east, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean in the southeast. From 1863 to 1915, Syrian and Lebanese Catholics emigrated in large numbers to escape overpopulation, economic stagnation, and the military draft. Approximately 100,000 emigrated from Greater Syria. Until 1878, the flow went predominantly to Egypt. Thereafter, and particularly after 1899, Syro-Lebanese migrants largely went to North America and Australia.
Canada is home to a large and vibrant Syro-Lebanese immigrant community. Since the late-nineteenth century, immigrants arrived in search of job opportunities and social mobility. Most often, these single men headed to the urban centers of Toronto and Montreal. They worked in factories, as peddlers in markets and on the streets, and as independent shop-owners. They sent money back home in the form of remittances to support their families and held dreams of eventually buying a small plot of land in their home village, to call their own. Ultimately, few chose to return.2
Between the First and Second World Wars, border restrictions across North America tightened through the enactment of racist and nativist policies. For many Arab immigrants, the dream of returning to Greater Syria faded. Family reunification in Canada replaced dreams of returning, as immigrants chose to sponsor their families and began to establish a life for themselves. Initially, social patterns and mutual aid developed around familial networks in tight-knit, yet spatially scattered, communities. The family’s patriarchal structure extended out into how the community worked together to regulate female honor and support the productive capacities of the family economy. Peddler mobility meant greater cultural integration as migrants had sustained contact with western society and adapted quickly to language and fashion codes. As more and more sought out entrepreneurship and family reunification, the rising population meant greater cohesion and visible markers of identity, such as churches and mosques, markets, street vendors, dry cleaners, and general stores.
The centrality of religion in spiritual and personal life choices persisted even after dispersal into the suburbs in the post-World War II period. The house of worship, and to a great extent the grocer, continued to serve as nexuses of community cohesion, made more accessible by advancing transportation technology.3 These trends grew to unprecedented proportions by the 1960s, especially after the introduction of new immigration regulations and policies in 1962 and 1966. Those changes set the stage for the introduction of the points system in 1967. From as early as 1962, rather than ethnic and racial classifications for exclusion based upon country of origin, new immigration regulations (at least on paper) placed emphasis on education, skill, and greater inclusiveness. For émigrés from a war-torn and economically stagnant Middle East region, these gates creaking open meant greater opportunities for stability and security.4
Rather than one unified Arab-immigrant community, there are many religiously and geographically exclusive groups. Particularly after the 1960s, Middle Eastern immigration has been marked by a high level of diversity. Egyptians became the largest immigrant population, followed by Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians, Iraqis, Libyans, and Palestinians. Yet, the timing of Syro-Lebanese immigration has left its mark on Canadians’–and in fact, most North Americans’–conception of Middle Eastern cuisine. Specifically, Syro-Lebanese entrepreneurs and restaurateurs mobilized images and standards of what an “authentic” Middle Easterners’ food should look like. Often, these standards set expectations for non-Arab consumers and resulted in the coercion of future diverse proprietors to adopt Lebanese dishes on their menus or else risk being “inauthentic”. By inauthentic, I mean not truly Middle Eastern. Now, the typical Middle Eastern dish in the GTA is, in most instances, a particularly Levantine dish.
Most often, non-Arab Canadians encounter Middle Eastern cuisine in the commercial public sphere. The earliest shops were established in the interwar period, to serve the Christian community from Greater Syria. Various markets, small restaurants, and Lebanese-dominated pastry shops, served as points of cultural contact with the city’s many Greeks, Italians, Yugoslavs, Albanians, Indians, Jews, and Armenians. Often, the basic ingredients served these multiple traditions and were highly sought after. Yet, over time Toronto’s ethnic groups began to hold certain expectations of what a “Middle Eastern” market or restaurant should sell.5 These expectations continue to shape the prevailing understanding of the region’s foodways. What remains in the private familial sphere, exists outside the social imagination of western eyes and mouths.
Syro-Lebanese restaurateurs developed and standardized the menu and partly reinforced western perceptions of Oriental sensuality. Let us return to the prevalence of tabbouleh. We can find this appetizer in Middle Eastern restaurants throughout the city, across national and ethnic traditions. The Mezzeh (appetizer) section of the menu allows us another example of Syro-Lebanese dominance in commercial foodways. Few restaurants in the GTA carry foule, considered the “national dish” of Egypt.6 It rarely finds its way onto the menus of ‘Middle Eastern’ restaurants. Where it is offered, it is an appetizer according to the Syro-Lebanese tradition and served with tabbouleh, diced tomatoes, and hummus garnish.
This is representative in itself. Foule is traditionally a cheap, protein-rich meal, sold by street vendors in Egypt for the equivalent of 50 cents. It is eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, sometimes all three in the poorest homes. This simple dish has been marginalized to the appetizer section because of its association with poverty and to a minority of appetizer menus across the Arab-Canadian foodscape because of its place in the Syro-Lebanese tradition. The diminution of this food in Middle Eastern restaurants in Toronto, and the routine inclusion of tabbouleh, represents the accommodation of Middle Eastern foodways to North American tastes. Tastes which are historically informed by the Syro-Lebanese tradition and by the image of the Orient as exotic, opulent, and sensuous.7
The next time you find yourself in an “authentic” Middle Eastern restaurant. Ask yourself: is this cuisine authentically Middle Eastern? Or, is it authentically Levantine Arab-Canadian?