Apples for Eating, Apples for Cooking

When leaves turn yellow, red and orange, and the temperature dips, I look forward to buying apples from one of the area orchards. I love eating apples, but only if they are crisp, sweet and juicy; my favorites are organic Fujis.

Whenever I bite into an apple, I remember my Egyptian mother-in-law, whose ideas about eating apples are different from mine.

She came to stay with us in Riyadh for awhile. I was happy, because she did not speak English, and I’d finally get my chance to learn Arabic.

The first few days, neither one of us said much. She took control of the kitchen, and there we found some common ground to focus on, linguistically, other than  my husband. I would begin by asking her, “Eh da?” and she’d tell me the Egyptian words for the various foods and utensils in the kitchen. I’d repeat the words, and eventually, she taught me enough so that we could converse about anything having to do with the kitchen, but not much else.

One day, my husband brought home a huge box of apples. We couldn’t possibly eat them all, so my mother-in-law and I decided that we’d separate the apples into to piles– one for cooking, and the other for eating. Each of us would pick up an apple, squeeze it gently, and put it either in the cooking pile or the eating pile.

After we’d made some progress, I noticed that each of the apple piles included both hard-fleshed apples and soft ones. I assumed I’d misunderstood, so I said to her, in Arabic, “Eating apples here, and cooking apples there?” and I indicated with my hand the directions we had agreed upon.

“Aiwah” she said, and we continued sorting. Still, the hard-fleshed apples ended up with the soft-fleshed apples, and I repeated, “Apples for eating HERE, and apples for cooking THERE?” Again, she said, “Aiwah.”

This time, however, she picked up an apple, squeezed it and said, “Shoofi, nashfa,” and tossed it into the cooking pile. Then I realized that she thought the “dry” apples, that is, the hard-fleshed apples, were for cooking, and the soft ones were for eating!

I was designating the hard-fleshed apples for eating, and the soft ones for cooking.

I realized this was probably another one of the ways in which Easterners did everything opposite of Westerners. We laughed a bit, and l pulled out some choice specimens I hoarded for my own eating pleasure, and by that time, we reached the end of the box.

I don’t remember what we made with the pile of “cooking” apples, but I avoided the “eating” apples. She fed them to the kids. I managed to show the kids that hard-fleshed apples tasted very good, indeed (preferable, actually). I don’t remember their reactions, but I am satisfied that I opened their tastes a bit, even with respect to the simple apple. I hoped the lesson would be applied to the larger choices in life, and, in fact, it did.

Next Time Someone Asks You…

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 1261.jpg  Next time someone asks you to explain the difference between the way Arabs think and the way Westerners think, you might want to relate a story like this: 

One night, I was a guest, along with a dozen assorted foreigners, at the home of one of our Egyptian friends. She served one of Egypt’s famous dishes, macarona bi béchamel, a lasagna of sorts, using layers of ground lamb, fried eggplant, and noodles, seasoned with Arabic spices in thick tomato sauce, and smothered under a creamy white sauce. It is the kind of dish that always goes over beautifully in a multi-cultural gathering. People like it no matter what else they eat or don’t eat. 

An American woman asked for the recipe. 

 “Well, it’s very simple,” said Salwa. “First you brown some ground meat, and then…” 

“How much meat?” asked Anne, the American.  “It depends on how many people are going to eat,” said Salwa, “and then…” 

“Well, how much is the usual amount?” asked Anne, and Salwa paused. 

 “I don’t know. It depends on how many people are going to eat.” 

“OK,” said Anne, “eight people are going to eat, like today.”

 “Oh, I think I bought two kilos, but I didn’t use it all,” said Salwa, “so you brown the meat, you season it and add tomato sauce, and then…” 

“What seasonings? How much tomato sauce?” asked Anne. “Arabic spices, of course, and the tomato sauce depends on how much meat you use, naturally. After that, you prepare the eggplant.”

 “What spices, exactly? How much eggplant?” 

 “Well, enough eggplant to make at least one layer in the baking dish,” replied Salwa, “and the spices are mixed.” 

Someone offered, “Anne, you can buy the spices already mixed, at the suq.” 

“Yes, but Salwa, I don’t understand this. Do you have the ingredients written down, with the amounts required?” 

Salwa wrinkled her brow. “There’s nothing to write down. It’s just meat, eggplant, noodles, tomato sauce and béchamel! Besides, the amounts are never the same.”


Anne continued, “Yes, but how do I know how much of each thing to use? I know it depends on how many people are eating, but how do I know the proportions?”
 “As you can see!” Salwa said, with a smile, waving her hand over the casserole, but the expression on her face said that she was perplexed by all these questions. She continued, with Anne writing down her words verbatim, until she got to the part about the oven.

“What oven temperature do you use?” Anne asked. 

“I don’t know,” said Salwa. “Medium.” By this time, Anne knew enough to quit asking questions if she were ever to get this recipe written down.  “So you bake it until the top turns red,” said Salwa, and Anne, of course, asked, “How long?” “Well, it depends on the temperature of the oven, and the size of the baking dish. You bake it until the top turns red. That’s all.”  

Anne wrote down, “Bake for thirty minutes at 350, or until the top is slightly browned.” 

“You Americans!” exclaimed Salwa, “always making things more difficult than they are.” 

“You Arabs!” said Anne, “always vague, never precise!” 

We all laughed, because every one of us, no matter where we came from, understood how an Egyptian-American recipe exchange between two housewives could serve as a model exemplifying the communication gap between East and West.