To our grandparents, eating and drinking would not have been judged as cultural activities in the same sense as was reading books or listening to music, but certainly they are to many of their descendants. A visit to continental Europe or beyond will for most people involve sampling the local cuisine just as much as more familiar historic buildings or museums. Any arts establishment worth its salt in the UK will have a café or restaurant which is worth at least a look after an exhibition or performance. Some places even make a particular effort to link the two together. For example, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin has an oriental-themed café to complement its collection of Far East and Middle East arts and artefacts.
When I first discovered the joys of eating in restaurants more than 30 years ago, French and Italian cuisines were definitely the most prominent, and that, then, was fine by me. Occasionally, depending on your area, Spanish, Eastern European and vegetarian restaurants could be found.
Most recently, for me, Middle Eastern food has been the great discovery. Perhaps because it uses so many of the same ingredients as other countries do, yet the end result looks and tastes so totally different.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was in the aforementioned Dublin that my wife and I first discovered Middle Eastern cuisine, on a visit there in 1993. Happily, The Cedar Tree, owned by a Lebanese family, is still thriving. There we were also introduced to Lebanese wine, which is more widely available now than then, and was even the subject of a Radio 4 documentary by Jeremy Bowen.
My eagerness to visit Palestine had originated in childhood from my Christianity and increased through my later interest in the region’s 20th century politics, but, by the time I was able to visit in 2012, another extra attraction was certainly the sampling of its food and drink.
Middle Eastern cooking is a significant feature in the restaurants and cafés of many UK arts and performance venues. Falafel, chickpeas, olives, hummus and pitta bread are regularly seen on their menus. Although unfortunately not usually the fish couscous dish which is central to the narrative of La Graine et le Mulet, alternatively titled Couscous. Abdellatif Kechiche’s film also contains a great family drama and a powerful scene of dancing.