Tuesday, October 12, 2010

UW-EC professor, cook share Middle East cultures, cuisine

A UW-Eau Claire professor and an accomplished cook follow a Middle East tradition of hospitality 

Paul Kaldjian shared a spice sample with student Ardith Kelly of Eau Claire. Paul Kaldjian, offered a sample of Turkish sumac with student Ardith Kelly of Eau Claire. Kaldjian and his wife, Meg Nord, shared their knowledge of Middle East foods, cultures and geography on Tuesdays at Peace Lutheran Church, 501 E. Fillmore Ave.
Posted: Tuesday, October 12, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 11:49 pm, Mon Oct 11, 2010.
Not knowing a lot about the Middle East, Nancy Kodl decided to take a course exploring its people, places and foods. The Thorp resident was one of 25 registrants for "Middle East Cultures and Cuisines," offered through UW-Eau Claire Continuing Education. The course, which concludes tonight, offered a chance to experience another culture, Kodl said. "I live in a town where we're all alike. ... It's nice to try something different, especially because it's a culture I knew so little about."

Paul Kaldjian, associate professor of geography at UW-Eau Claire, lectured during the first part of each two-hour session. His wife, Meg Nord, then demonstrated four to five recipes in the kitchen at Peace Lutheran Church, 501 E. Fillmore Ave. The goal was to introduce Middle Eastern dishes and let people see how easily such foods can fit into their diet. People can obtain most ingredients at their supermarket, Nord said. Water Street Deli & Grocery carries harder-to-find items.

Each lecture had a different theme, highlighting foods from the Middle East and North Africa. A guest cook from Iraq was slated for one session.The first class, on Sept. 14, focused on legumes. Pointing out regional differences, Kaldjian said fava beans are more common across North Africa, while lentils and chickpeas are more likely to be used in the Middle East. Fava beans, slow-cooked and flavored with lemon juice, olive oil and onions, are considered the national breakfast in Egypt.

Students' familiarity with the cuisine varied, but all knew of hummus, a spread made with mashed chickpeas and tahini, a ground sesame seed paste. Kaldjian described it as nutritious, easy to make and cost-effective.
One reason for offering the course is the Mediterranean diet is recognized as very healthful, he said.
Olive oil plays a major role in the diet, which also emphasizes fresh vegetables and fruits and grains. Lemon juice and olive oil often are a base for dishes, Nord said, and a lot of different spices are used.
Kaldjian noted the lack of processed foods in the diet. Manufactured ingredients are not used to preserve and enhance food - ingredients are all natural - and the only processing involves grinding or mashing, he said.
The Sept. 21 session dealt with olive oil and vegetables, with the emphasis on Lebanon and Syria. As class began, one student shared a hummus recipe, while another passed around surplus peppers from her garden.
Kaldjian provided the cultural context and background of ingredients in Nord's dishes. For example, he covered olive oil production. "Lebanon makes fantastic olive oil. Turkish oil can be extremely good," he said.
Slides illustrated his lecture, including depictions of Krak des Chevaliers, a European crusaders castle in Syria, and ancient water wheels in Hama, Syria.

Kaldjian discussed food systems in Lebanon and Syria, which range from informal markets that move among neighborhoods to sophisticated grocery stores. Businesses respond to consumer demand, so now organic produce is showing up, and even market vendors use credit card processors, he said."Now the best part - the food," an apron-clad Nord said as Kaldjian concluded his lecture.

On the menu were Carrots With Olive Oil, Pilaf With Tomatoes and Eggplant, Fattoush (Bread Salad) and Bulgur and Chickpea Salad. Students sampled the food. Lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, parsley and mint flavor the bulgur-chickpea salad, while dill and mint season the pilaf, which includes fried eggplant.For the bread salad, greens (she recommended arugula or romaine lettuce) get tossed with cucumbers, green onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and pieces of fried pita bread. The vinaigrette consists of garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper - and a secret ingredient, Turkish sumac. Carrots, served cold, are cooked with rice and onions.

Myron Buchholz of Eau Claire, a world studies teacher at Memorial High School, took the class with his wife. He thought it would be a nice experience, he said: "No homework, and you get to eat."The cuisine comes from an oral recipe tradition. With measurements not too exact, experimenting is easier because there seems to be more room for error, he said. Kaldjian, whose father is an Armenian from Lebanon, has traveled extensively in the Middle East, and he and Nord formerly lived in Turkey. They want to share their knowledge with the community. He also wants to contribute to a more whole view of the Middle East and North Africa, which frequently are represented in daily life "in negative terms of war and conflict, which is not a part of what most of the people are doing."

Nord stressed that hospitality is part of the Middle Eastern food culture. Meals are not grab-and-go, but people sit and talk and eat over a long period of time, she said. "Food has social meaning," Kaldjian said. No matter where one goes in the Middle East, food is part of receiving guests, he said. Feeding guests is an honor, rather than an imposition, he noted. "Life across the Middle East and North Africa is about relationships." That sense of hospitality carries over to their lives. "Food is a big part of our life, cooking and sharing," Nord said.


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