28 October 2021
Rewilding the Kitchen | Mastic Fizz by Salma Serry
Nahla Al Tabbaa
Rewilding the Kitchen is an online/offline project embracing what we call ‘rewilding’— ingredients and food become actors with agency, activating processes that unfold as the ingredients ‘intend.’ Mastic Fizz is the second of three recipes and conversations included in this project. The other artists presenting recipes and worldviews are Moza al-Matrooshi and Namliyeh.
Hours of chatting won’t suffice for Salma Serry, filmmaker and interdisciplinary foodways researcher and I to deplete the passion, curiosity and investigative storytelling that unite us. Below are vignettes of Salma’s research, recipes, and our conversations.
Mastic: An Introduction by Salma Serry
Mastic is an element I am currently investigating for its multi-layered use in the Gulf. This harvested resin has been collected off tree barks from the eastern Mediterranean for millennia, first for its medicinal properties, later for its unique refreshing taste. In the form of dry drops, it is traditionally chewed whole, or is melted and infused into what is now commercial chewing gum. In either case, you chew it and when the flavour is gone, it gets "spat out." I find in its recreational use a metaphor for the socio-economic systems of the Arabian Gulf which rely on a temporary migrant body that is rendered useless and then removed after fulfilling its function. (Serry 2021)
I employ mastic as an ingredient in a drink that is meant to be refreshing, juxtaposing it against other ingredients such as preserved cherries and bitter orange jam. These canned fruits are examples of foreign produce that have been imported/transported into the Gulf by expats around the 1960s and 1970s due to the inability to grow them in the desert environment at the time. These foods often carry flavours of home to those transporting them. Canning and preserving food also stretch its functionality over time, to ensure it stays edible over a longer period. Along with a hint of the Khaleej-ubiquitous cardamon flavour, this balances out the temporariness of the mastic, a component intended to last for a limited time.
I documented the creation of this summer drink recipe in a film comprising excerpts from audio interviews and conversations I conducted with expats. The aim is to bridge my research on the Gulf's alternative food culture, my film practice, and my infatuation with mastic.
Salma Serry, from a workshop she hosted in her home in Cairo
Eleven-year-old Salma created her first recipe book using food stickers from stationery shops in the UAE. One of the recipes, dedicated to her best friend, was a magical concoction of canned fruits: peaches and maraschino cherries, doused in Nestle cream—a dish that drove her to beg her mother to replicate it at home.
Salma in the past decade moves away from food stickers and hunts down vintage cookbooks in flea markets across the world, amassing a solid collection. Her MA in film production immersed her in a medium that circles her back to food, the table, and performance.
Salma today is pursuing an MA in gastronomy, a course combining food histories and contemporary eating culture. She has also launched Sufra Kitchen, her Instagram platform which is a collage of all her interests—a recipe book in its own right.
Archival documents from a research project on 20th century Egyptian food history
Salma on Day 1 of her MA. The professor asked the cohort to introduce themselves and give their history of food. Naturally, Salma spoke about her Egyptian heritage and the national foods of Egypt, bypassing the essence of the assignment—what was her own history of food? Her colleague who spoke next befuddled Salma. She was from the American Midwest, raised by a single mother who worked two shifts, so the main dishes she consumed were microwavable. This introduction sent Salma on a mission to unpack the nuanced histories of food and depart from the lens of the national construct as the main means of reading dishes.
Salma after Day 1 revisits her answer with a sensitivity to our ever volatile movements through migration, being colonised and being marginalised, which have left us with less of a chance to write, but instead, pass our stories down through an oral culture. Her new story is as follows: she is the fourth generation of Egyptians who grew up in the UAE; she now lives in Egypt. Her grandparents’ struggle, like many expats of that time, to make do with scarcer imports is omitted from accepted written food histories in the UAE. She is still exploring how food in the Gulf was constructed with the help of expats—her recipe Mastic Fizz is a playful and yet loaded example of how these ingredients can be combined.
Nahla and Salma. I recall a dish I tasted in my dear friend’s home in Malta: Maltese Corned Beef Pie. During WWII, meat was scarce in Malta and families relied on limited rations. A corned beef pie was exactly the kind of comfort that enabled a mother to soothe her children, despite the indignity of meat from a can. For families who were less privileged in those days, this dish became a symbol of resistance, and would still be served at feasts as a subtle way of letting guests know that their hosts came from humble beginnings. Salma then remembers a film about a Chinese American family. During one special occasion, the mother arrived with a McDonalds bag full of hamburgers, which she divided and placed neatly on a rice bowl. Her children were excited by this concoction and the sense of privilege—a privilege we both understand so well, as Western food, even the unhealthiest kind symbolises modernity and accessibility. Neither of us can unsee the indignities and injustices around food when we look at it through a wider lens, past the tropes of sharing, loving, and community building.
Salma in May 2021. Sufra Kitchen creates a viral post about the urgency of decolonising Palestinian food. Ultimately, Sufra Kitchen’s role was to compile the urgent and volatile thoughts around appropriation, marginalisation, injustice, reduction, and offer tangible solutions. Yet, as she released this post into the unforgiving cyberworld, she was naturally nervous. Nervous about her positionality as a non-Palestinian, about condensing so much injustice into an Instagram post. Nevertheless, it has prompted her to find ways to apply this to other marginalised and contested communities.
In the months to come, Salma will be hosting a workshop aimed at collecting and compiling our food narratives into a recipe book, while arming participants with the tools to critically unpack these recipes through a wider geopolitical lens. In the meantime, keep tuning in to Sufra Kitchen’s posts, which will undoubtedly propel the Instagram user to look at the region’s food history for what it is: complex, colonised, migratory, contemporary, and resilient. From pasta in 1930s Alexandria, as a symbol of Eurocentric modernity, to ice cream carts in 1970s Kuwait, to a deadly Abbasid Qatayef—Salma's light-hearted imagery and storytelling is informative and accessible, yet laced with the tools to embrace our foods and, ultimately, our third, fourth and fifth culture identities.