Amid global lockdowns and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, many countries are circling back to one constant: food. In the Middle East, there has been a revival of traditional recipes to unite communities through cuisine.
During the coronavirus pandemic, chefs and amateurs alike have rediscovered the joy of home cooking and exchanging recipes — with food serving as a source of consistency and comfort in a time of instability and unpredictability.
“Food has historically had such an essential role in Middle Eastern cultures,” said Lyne Sneige, director of the Arts & Culture Program at the D.C.-based Middle East Institute (MEI), which recently hosted a webinar on the subject. “It is synonymous with hospitality, sharing and generosity. It is the first thing we miss when we are away from home and it is the strongest thing that binds us together.”
Creating traditional dishes is a time-intensive process, however, as many require ingredients that are made from scratch. But with more people staying at home under lockdowns, they now have the time to test out these recipes.
Mirna Bamieh, cook and founder of the Palestine Hosting Society, said she has spent more time in the kitchen during quarantine, focusing on building her pantry and experimenting with ingredients.
“During this lockdown, I wanted to somehow reflect on how my tastes have changed and how my body is reacting to the lockdown period,” Bamieh said during the MEI webinar, titled “Breaking Bread: Food in Times of COVID-19.”
Bamieh said her community in Palestine was concerned when the area went under lockdown, fearing the kind of food scarcities people have experienced during periods of conflict. Because of all the unknowns surrounding the virus, Bamieh said nearly everyone stocked their pantries with dry, nonperishable ingredients.
After the initial phase of lockdown was over, Bamieh said she was able to experiment with her stocked foods. She turned to fermentation and food preservation, both of which require a lot of time.
Palestinians are no strangers to curfews or supply chain limitations, Bamieh noted. So when the lockdown began, people turned to food not only for pleasure, but out of fear.
“We’re all anxious what’s to happen,” Bamieh said. “Whether it’s an economic fall, a famine, hunger, war — we don’t know. Everything is up in the air. Somehow, we need to build this personal resilience.”
And that resilience, she said, can be built through food.
“In order to live, we need to eat,” Bamieh said. “That’s why food is becoming a medium where everybody is coming to take refuge and nurture their body and their souls, because it’s comforting.”
However, with global food supply chains being disrupted and economies hit hard because of the pandemic, many vulnerable populations in the developing world are facing severe shortages of food and even possible famine.
Several crops have gone to waste because of the lack of customers traveling to farmer’s markets, according to Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Souk El Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmer’s market. Much of the produce can’t be preserved, so what doesn’t get delivered to homes or given away for free is discarded.
This kind of contradiction — people going hungry while food goes to waste — is happening all over the world, and even in places like the United States. But it’s especially dire in poorer communities already living on the precipice.
“We are just trying to not die and just trying to survive,” Mouzawak said. “It’s not about food as a competition, it’s food as sustaining life.”
The pandemic has forced Mouzawak and his community to adapt and find creative solutions to an unprecedented challenge. In a way, he said, it was comforting to know that Lebanon wasn’t the only country struggling with the pandemic — it is “everybody’s problem.”
As the coronavirus forces people to grapple with food scarcity, it also has put the spotlight on sustainable agriculture — and how small-scale farming can adapt to the growing economic challenges posed by the pandemic.
Mera Kitchen Collective, a community-driven cooperative located in Baltimore, Md., that employs refugees and immigrants as chefs, had to adapt its business model to cope with the lack of access to certain ingredients.
“Chefs have been very creative working with whatever produce we do have,” said Aisha Al Fadhalah, co-founder of Mera. “It’s been a time to push creativity and cultural exchange, trying to provide same-quality food that we did before.”
Before COVID-19 hit the U.S. in January, Mera specialized in catering and pop-up events to serve Middle Eastern dishes. But when the country began experiencing shutdowns, the kitchen received hundreds of requests to provide free meals to communities in need.
Mera launched a GoFundMe page that allowed the cooperative to provide over 20,000 free meals across Baltimore.
This meant Fadhalah had to reimagine the entire menu, using whatever ingredients were available to chefs while still providing nutritious meals.
It’s hard to know what food practices will survive the pandemic, especially given the huge uncertainty confronting the restaurant industry. Fadhalah hopes that for her kitchen, it can change the mentality of providing sustainable meals.
“It’s an opportunity for restaurants and this whole system to be shifted,” she said. “We’re thinking about how we can provide free meals in the long-run and not only in the pandemic.”
Cami Mondeaux is a news intern for The Washington Diplomat.