It was a simple experiment, a whim rather, that opened the doors wide to reflection. Isn’t it true that revelations occur at the most unexpected moment, when one’s attention is engaged elsewhere and suddenly an “aha moment” turns up from nowhere to enrich one’s wisdom? I guess this momentary elucidation was what our elders referred to as life experience - a luxury acquired through the accumulation of years rather than book knowledge.
I was in a cooking mood on this particular day when our ‘ad hoc’ cultural club meets once a month, for a lecture on different aspects of Armenian life. At the close of the lecture an equally ‘ad hoc’ hospitality is offered by participants who bring in snacks, ranging from appetizers to desserts, purchased or home made, depending on mood and availability of time.
Mujaddara, a humble dish, and a poor man’s staple in the Middle East, seemed appropriate for the occasion. Easy to prepare, a crowd-pleaser, mujaddara consists of lentils and rice, or lentils and bulgur, topped with onions caramelized in oil. It is a dish of earthly colors, without much eye appeal. I did not particularly like it in my childhood and had dismissed it from the family menu until its triumphant reappearance in the Mediterranean healthy-meal diets lately, because of its protein-rich content. Perhaps my taste buds had changed since childhood. Mujaddara was ideal for Michink (mid-lent) since it did not contain animal products and could be consumed cold, if necessary - a plus for our limited use of the church hall
I cannot follow a recipe without interference from my imagination. So I decided to add some class to the dish. I had vegetables galore with no immediate use for them, so chopped green, red and orange bell peppers kept company with the onions in the frying pan, to lend some color to this drab, unassuming dish. Pushing my imagination a bit further, I crowned the mound with currants and roasted slivered almonds to give it a festive touch.
The excellent, informative lecture that evening caught our attention longer than usual and by that time the aroma from the buffet whetted the appetites to a sharp edge. The snacks on that day consisted mostly of desserts, with the exception of cheese beorek and my lentil crown, which was untouched for the first ten minutes of self-service. My heart sank at the rejection of my masterpiece until somebody dug in. His lingering uncertainty made me believe that he was not familiar with this dish. A second spoonful assured me that my festive innovation was finding acceptance. Word circulated through the grapevine that it was good. Thereafter the crown was disappearing fast. I drew a sigh of relief, a bit too early. Then came the questions:
Our group is a microcosm of the Armenian community.
“What is it?” asked a Persian-Armenian lady, munching on the
strange mound of grains. “This looks like lentils and what else?”
“It’s lentil pilaf with bulgur,” I said, “I just learned how to make it.”
“Are you trying it on us?” a Lebanese-Armenian butted in.
“No, I experimented with it once,” I ventured. “It is a staple in the Middle East.”
“I know. We do it with rice, but this looks different.”
“What do you call it?” asked another person, whose origins were obscure to me.
“Mujaddara,” I said. Before the last syllable was out the Lebanese-Armenian cut in:
“This does not look like mujaddara. It has other ingredients in it.”
“I just put in some chopped bell peppers,” I added. I was getting defensive.
“Is it Koshari?” asked an Egyptian-Armenian. Koshari, the Egyptian staple sold on Cairo streets, is quite different from my more venerable lentil pilaf, though they look similar.
“No, no, it’s mujaddara,” I repeated.
“It does not have the right balance,” voiced a compatriot, not exactly well known for his culinary prowess. I did not explain that I had consulted four recipes in two Armenian cookbooks, to average out the lentil-bulgur ratio.
“What do you call it?” asked an American-Armenian.
"Call it ‘wedding lentil pilaf’ if you will,” I grinned, taking my lead from 'Armenian wedding pilaf', a traditional rice dish with nuts, apricots and dates.
“It is very tasty,” confirmed a French-Armenian lady. Can you give me the recipe?”
“My husband loved it,” affirmed another.
Well, I was making progress. My mujaddara was not suffering from complete rejection, its fame mounting by the minute on the culinary charts. However, it suffered from anonymity. It had to have a distinct name.
Is it me or is this the Armenian attitude in general? I mused. Why was there such a resistance to the acceptance of a regular, run-of-the-mill, humble dish that does not even have Armenian roots. Had I violated the culinary Bible – whose may I ask? - adding an ingredient that had no place in the traditional recipe, or was I supposed to generate a new name for every innovative attempt, for product differentiation? Was mine an essential departure from copyrighted material, or had I adulterated tradition by taking a step away from it? Maybe we should all rise in arms because yogurt is no longer plain, hummus comes in different colors, and meatless “lahmajoun” graces the tables at michink time. Aren’t all these deviations from the norm?
It was not the first time that I noticed a resistance to change, however innocuous it may be. Any new idea, any step to keep pace with the latest technologies or trends, any deviation from routine is first stoned to death, without giving it a chance to develop. Change is looked upon as a betrayal of our principles. With the world going global, are we to remain in our narrow conscripts or are we going to face the challenges of change with an open mind, beginning with a few shreds of colored peppers that improve, rather than spoil the looks of a drab meal? Living in our comfort zone like couch potatoes, in rigid adherence to traditionalism, is comfortable of course. However, isn’t it more exciting to deploy energy on winning strategies that tame the threatening ghosts to our national longevity?
The addition of a few spoonfuls of chopped pepper will not alter the taste of a meal, just as some updated traditions will not adulterate our national character. Cross- pollination is salutary. Surprise, surprise. We may yet benefit from a palatable change.