The Nomadic Kitchen
As fortune had it we were to be guests of honour at Kurban Bayrami, the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the most important days in the Islamic calendar. One of the central pillars of Kurban Bayramı is to make sure that no one – be they poor, homeless, or destitute be left impoverished or without the opportunity to participate in the sacrificial meal. Clearly Ramazan, our newfound host, saw all of these qualities in us.
The day is a celebration to honour the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son Ishmael to Allah. However, lucky Ishmael was saved at the final hour as Allah recognised Abraham’s faith and commitment to his name and intervened to provide Abraham with a sacrificial lamb in replacement for his son.
So off we trudged to Ramazan’s family home to witness the spectacle. And what better a situation to be faced with whilst green with sickness, than a freshly decapitated and skinned bull lying on its back in the middle of the family courtyard. Spread-eagled and entrails sprawling with an excited tribe of blood-stained amateur butchers standing around it armed with a wonderful section of blades and axes.
The flurry of activity that ensued was one of the most impressively efficient examples of teamwork I have ever witnessed. Led by a robust old farmer’s wife who wore as much experience as she did blood on her sleeve, the bull was sliced, hacked, and dismembered with ruthless precision. Out came steaming organs after buckets of thick fat after perfectly tailored steaks; the innate anatomical knowledge of this beast’s make-up was beyond extraordinary.
The sights, sounds, and smells surprisingly didn’t do wonders for the undercurrent of nausea running through me. An hour later and any signs of prior butchery had been scrubbed and cleaned and all that remained was a neatly folded mud-covered hide. This would be sent as part of an aid initiative package to the East of the country, to the city of Van where thousands of families were reeling from the devastating impact of a recent earthquake.
A late morning breakfast was then prepared. We sat with the three senior male members of the family around a low table on the floor, as is custom throughout many Islamic societies, as the feast was being prepared for us by the women of the household. Out came lashings of hot corba – Turkish soup – followed by fried green pepper and bull’s lung stew, and topped off with bowls of freshly stewed cherries. Watching a great beast be killed, then immaculately butchered, and then finally fed to you within the space of an hour is quite the culinary experience. So simple. So unrefined. So unsympathetic to an unsettled stomach. Yet we revelled in the dynamics of family life; in meeting, chatting, and sharing such a special occasion with generation upon generation.
This was exactly the kind of culinary experience we were searching for. The candid and serendipitous moments of exposure to cultures so different to our own that had fuelled our desire to travel in this way. It just goes to show that the merit of a meal equates to far more than the sum of ingredients put on a plate.
The flurry of activity that ensued was one of the most impressively efficient examples of teamwork I have ever witnessed. Led by a robust old farmer’s wife who wore as much experience as she did blood on her sleeve, the bull was sliced, hacked, and dismembered with ruthless precision.
Why don’t we simply get a couple of bicycles, load them up with largely unnecessary and overly cumbersome equipment and then just cycle to our other local pub? Let’s travel slowly. Intimately. Vulnerably.
There’s a sense of stoicism and determination to our voices. He sees something different. Naivety perhaps. Maybe delusion. The reality is a combination of all these sentiments and more – perhaps these are all pre-cursers required to attempt something like this.
He looks at us. He laughs. You two. Never.
However, the idea has already been planted and it begins to snowball. What it lacks in acute definition in makes up for in ambition. Seeing as we are sat in one local pub why don’t we simply get a couple of bicycles, load them up with largely unnecessary and overly cumbersome equipment and then just cycle to our other local pub? Let’s travel slowly. Intimately. Vulnerably. Along the way let’s try and immerse ourselves in as many different culinary cultures as we can and then lets self-publish a travel-cookbook at the end of it all documenting our experiences; the characters, the food, the recipes, the social norms and all that we have learnt. Lets aim to delve a little deeper, to see a little further, and to use food as the lens through which greater understanding is magnified.
It was a simple enough proposition, besides one alarming detail. One pub lay in a tiny rural village in Southern England, the other in the leafy suburbs of Africa’s most southerly metropolis. In between lay numerous mountain ranges and deserts; extreme climates and inhospitable terrains; the Arab Spring in full force; countless culinary cultures each boasting their own unique diversity and richness; great spice bazaars, food markets, artisans, butchers, bakers, side-street venders and home-chefs; twenty-five border posts and the infuriating inevitability of bureaucratic complications; and over 20,000km of road littered with unexpected adventure and opportunity. This tiny seed of an idea quickly germinated into quite the kaleidoscopic adventure, which, at times, could have ended in disaster.
Daring to commit that awful crime of generalisation, there was, in fact, one constant that we found to be uniform throughout our journey. And it’s a very simple concept: the amazing power that food has as a social aggregate. The ability of food to be the most effective tool to facilitate, to gather, to celebrate and to give thanks is something that we found to be so evident the world over. Irrespective of money, language, class, creed or religion, and despite such vast diversity within the sphere of our journey, this remained solid. In many societies we passed through, and this is specifically true in Islamic societies, the ability to welcome a stranger into your home and share a meal with them is seen as one of the greatest honours and privileges you can be afforded as a host. Strangers are not seen as something to be fearful off, but rather they are seen as a blessing. The riches in giving are far more valuable then the riches in receiving – and food is one of the most valuable currencies.
Spices & Spandex is a unique travel cookbook about a gastronomic cycling adventure. It documents the recipes, cultures, characters and challenges encountered along the road as two mates successfully, albeit eventfully, journey unassisted through 26 different countries, for 501 days, covering over 20,000km from the UK back to Cape Town, South Africa.