My host grandfather in Germany always told me to enjoy the food where ever I went; you can’t digest the culture until you digest the food. If you get fat from trying everything you see, think of it as a souvenir and a way to bring the wonderful delicious cuisine with you. In fact, my favorite memories from my exchange year involve eating at family dinners on the holidays and making chocolate chip cookies on rainy days with my host brother.
Like my host grandfather, I believe you can’t fully immerse yourself in a culture until you prepare and eat food with someone from that culture. After a bad experience with a Yemeni restaurant at the beginning of the trip, I’ve been wary of Middle Eastern food so my diet consists mainly of peanut butter sandwiches and pasta. Not feeling comfortable engaging with the food here, I’ve felt a serious disconnect from Egypt so far. Today, after one month in Egypt, I finally feel immersed in the culture.
Today was a volunteer day with one of our secondary NGOs, Kayan Society. We split into groups for painting, pasting, puzzle-ing and cooking. I jumped at the opportunity to finally prepare Egyptian food with Egyptians. In the small kitchen, filled with 6 women (3 DukeEngagers and 3 Kayan staff), I was immediately at home. The already extremely gracious, friendly and open Dina, Rania and Menna became family. Samantha, Sabrina and I quickly learned the Amiyya vocabulary for all the ingredients we were using in addition to other useful things like, plates, knives, bowl. Unsurprisingly, the occasional “ouch, that’s hot” didn’t need to be translated.
The room was filled with the delightful smells of Egyptian cuisine (and french fries) and the laughter of the cooks. Between the tears from cutting onions and the chorus of Smashmouth’s All Star, Rania conducted interviews with the chefs, complete with a drainer as a microphone. No worries, we caught it on tape.
After arranging a mega-table downstairs, everyone took a break from their work to enjoy the feast of Atamiyya, Ful, Cheese, Shakshouka and bread. The community we’ve been building over the last month with Kayan came together over this meal.
Both sides’ dedication to service brought Kayan and DukeEngage together, but today’s experience in the kitchen and at the table made the entire experience more personal. Looking at someone from across the dinner table, or across the kitchen, you’re not interacting with all the politics of their culture, whatever conflicts that may include, you’re interacting with a person, a human being. These personal relationships are the ones that allow for intercultural communication on a broader scale.