Searching for Cumin

We weren’t used to having big feasts in our house when I was young. It was long after I’d reached adulthood before I found out what it meant for food to be festive. My mother’s kitchen was a place to produce food for the sole purpose of keeping us alive. Perhaps the darkness that engulfed the kitchen, even during daylight hours, was another reason why the mood surrounding it was always sober and austere. My mother had many mouths to feed simultaneously in our large family, which was exhausting for her. And, even though she only knew how to cook a handful of dishes, her food always came out well.
Yet there is one occasion, the memory of which still lingers in my mind, in which I recall the dinner table laid out colourfully with a sumptuous buffet; it was when my mother’s extended family from Syria came to visit us. My mother is Lebanese, but her mother – my grandmother – was Syrian. Our Syrian relations, namely the families of my mother’s uncles and aunts, rarely visited us unless it was following the death of one of our relatives in Lebanon. But this time they came even though no one had died. They’d decided to visit my grandmother and my mother. When they didn’t find my grandmother at home they headed straight to our house. We kept several chickens and a cockerel, so to mark the occasion my mother decided to prepare them a special roast dinner of chicken stuffed with rice. My father wasn’t there when they’d turned up without warning. He would normally be in charge of slaughtering a rabbit or a sheep for dinner and would bring out one of the livestock from the hut he’d built for them on our farm or from the cage in the garden behind our house. But this time my mother had to figure something out in my father’s absence. She went out to the garden in search of the biggest chicken we had, struggling before she finally caught it. Then she quickly began doing something I’d never seen her do before; never in my life had I seen my mother commit a violent act like slaughtering a chicken. It wasn’t the sight of the blood pouring on to the ground that astounded me but my mother’s facial expression at that moment. Her face was calm, pure and showed no sign of cruelty, anger or even weakness. I stood as though watching a stranger who bore no resemblance to the gentle person I knew. No resemblance to the unassuming woman who is my mother. She was carrying out the task calmly as if she were preparing a pot of coffee or boiling the milk that the owner of the cattle farm brings and sells her every Monday morning. It wasn’t long before I’d forgotten this picture, which didn’t tarnish the image I had of my mother. My young brain maintained a firm logic, which surmised that my mother’s actions were based on her need to feed the five or more hungry mouths of the unexpected visitors, and that what she did was an act of pure love, but done in her own special way.
Having plucked the chicken and passing it over the fire to singe the tiny feathers that remained, my mother heated the water that she would use to wash it. She then chopped off the head and feet before washing it inside and rubbing it with salt countless times. My job was to crack the walnuts and peel and prepare them for my mother. She wanted to mix the walnut halves with the pine nuts and, when it came time to serve the dish, sprinkle them as decoration on to the rice that would be cooked with the chicken. At the same time as pan-frying the chicken until it started to brown, my mother started to prepare the white rice that she’d soaked in water then rinsed before adding small portions of minced onion and meat that had also been browned on the hob with a little bit of oil. She added a little cinnamon and some spices that she kept in wooden containers on the kitchen shelf.
‘Mmmm. That smells delicious, but it needs some cumin,’ one of my mother’s Syrian relatives shouted out appreciatively from the other room. As soon as my mother heard the word ‘cumin’ she started walking around the kitchen in circles. She was no expert in cooking with spices and only had the basic and essential ingredients such as cinnamon, salt and black and white pepper.
‘Cumin . . . cumin . . .’ my mother muttered to herself, and then in a low voice continued, ‘Where will I get cumin from now?’ She called out to my brother who was going to have to race up to the shops to buy the cumin that would ‘flavour the food,’ as our neighbour Hind would say. The village women called her Tabbouleh Hind.
‘Run . . . run quickly!’ My mother screamed at my brother who was tying the laces on his small shoes. My brother returned before long, running and panting, having failed to find the requested cumin. So if she wanted to rescue her roasted stuffed chicken and to cater to the guests’ tastes my mother would have to think of another solution. She called out to the woman who lived next door.
‘Hey, Hind, do you have any cumin?’ she asked from the kitchen window that looked out at the door to Hind’s house.
Tabbouleh Hind smiled. ‘What else do you need apart from cumin?’ she asked then continued, ‘Actually, tell me what you’re cooking first, so that I know what you need.’
The village women also called Hind ‘the neighbour who has everything’ because she lived in a big house with a huge kitchen where she spent most of her day waiting for her husband to come home from work. In the small garden that encircled their home she grew all the ingredients for the tabbouleh salad that she prepared daily for dinner. She’d place it on the dinner table next to the glass of arak mixed with water, as her husband liked to drink a glass before dinner, and arak was his favourite drink. She’d now started to join him in a glass of arak but would add more water and some small ice cubes to her glass. In her garden she planted parsley, mint, onions, tomatoes and lettuce. All year round the lemon tree seemed full of small lemons that Hind would squeeze and blend with olive oil. She poured the mixture on to the finely chopped vegetables that she picked and washed before turning them into a delicious tabbouleh.
Responding to my mother’s request Hind went into her kitchen and brought out a selection of spices, including cumin and her signature tabbouleh covered in lettuce leaves. She left her home, crossed the garden and reached our house.
‘The tabbouleh is the king of the dinner table,’ Hind said to my mother as she placed a little of her salad on to a lettuce leaf for her to taste it.
Hind tended to a young grape vine, its bark still soft, which stood at the edge of her garden. She would tear off some of its leaves to scoop up the tabbouleh since tabbouleh shouldn’t be eaten with a fork or bread but with lettuce leaves or tender vine leaves from the garden.
As soon as we sat at the dinner table and my father saw the serving platter of stuffed chicken and the rice garnished with nuts, his expression changed. Looking bewildered, my father leaned his head towards my mother, who was sitting near him, and in a warm voice tinged with affectionate sarcasm, asked, ‘Couldn’t you find anything else to kill for the guests’ lunch other than our only cockerel?’

Translated from the Arabic by Nashwa Gowanlock with Ruth Ahmedzai