Ras El Hanout and Preserved Lemons: Memories, Markets, and the Scent of Borrowed Tradition

Jean Duruz

October 5, 2015 - 12:00 to 14:00


Connaught Seminar Series

This event will take place at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. Find a map of the campus here


Claudia Roden, born in Cairo into a Syrian Jewish family of merchants, has lived in London since the mid-1950s. Here, in London, Roden cooks “to rejoice in our food and to summon the ghosts of the past”. The remembered sensory landscapes she describes include the “smells … the brilliant colours and sounds of the markets” of her home town. Such landscapes are captured, quintessentially, in Roden’s now-classic A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, and, more recently, in Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. Interestingly, as well as Roden’s own “mixed” family background and the food cultures she has faithfully documented, the spaces of markets themselves are traditionally hybrid ones (in France, according to de la Pradelle, these are sites of “inextricable chaos … the profusion of foodstuffs and combination of odors … the extreme diversity of both visitor-customers and vendors”). Markets hence become a richly-nuanced starting point, but also a “grounded” ending point, for this paper’s discussion of the intersecting meanings of heritage, hybridity and locality. Tied to the market (and to its related spice shops, casual food stalls and groceries), the haunting taste of place identified in this paper is that of ras el hanout, a complex Moroccan spice mix  used primarily in lamb, beef and chicken dishes. In this paper, the taste and aroma of ras el hanout, together with the piquancy of preserved lemons, provides a running thread. We follow this thread through a series of narrative fragments, linked by different dimensions of space, time and remembering: first, Roden’s nostalgic practices of culture preservation from a location that is, temporarily and spatially, “home” yet “not-home”; second, the streets, food stalls, restaurants and cookbooks of “ethnic” Paris where “different” communities challenge dominant meanings and memories of French “cuisine” and ways of occupying a global city; third, jars of ras el hanout lined up on shelves in a Moroccan stall in Adelaide’s Central Market, symptomatic of the most recent addition to an Australian city’s layers of  “profusion” and “diversity”. As a coda, we draw on my own long-distant memories of the pungent smell of roast lamb, served at an Australian family’s Sunday lunch – a smell so pervasive that it threatened to exceed domestic boundaries to become the collective, drifting smell of suburbs and towns themselves. Examining the resonances of these linked stories, the paper poses a number of questions: how do tastes and smells, transplanted and hybridized, contribute to an understanding of meanings of “heritage” and “locality”; how do food markets perpetuate romances of migrancy and cosmopolitanism, and constitute a “place” for cartographies of remembering; what are the politics of “ethnic” cookbooks, neighbourhoods and food smells in terms of mapping geographies of belonging; can food traditions, legitimately, be borrowed, as heritage? What scents and sense can we make of these? A critical discussion of Nora’s les lieux de mémoire and les milieux de mémoire suggests a productive framework for this analysis.

Speaker's Bio

Jean Duruz’s work focuses on issues of cosmopolitan citizenship and multiculturalism in Australia, as well as in a number of other societies, including those of Singapore, Malaysia, Britain, the United States and Mexico. It addresses questions of reciprocal human relationships and cultural exchanges in cosmopolitan societies - ways that these relationships and exchanges can enhance social sustainability. A major strand of her work uses food as a window for analysing relations of class, gender, religion and ethnicity and for understanding issues of inclusion, integration and citizenship in a changing society. Her work has implications for issues of social justice and inclusion, cultural integration, urban and regional planning, tourism and the social and cultural role of small business. She is the co-author (with Gaik Cheng Khoo) of Eating Together: Food, Space, and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham & London, 2015).