Coined over a century ago, by colonial powers, the term ‘Middle East’ is geographically ambiguous as it considers the region ‘east’ from the perspective of Europe rather than being factually presented as West Asia.
WANA is a definition of the region not rooted in imperial political geography, but rather in historical human geography. The bridging of West Asia and North Africa reflects the key patterns of development in the region, the geopolitical interdependencies, the legacies of the various historical empires to have ruled the region and the resulting shared yet diverse heritage.
The Cuisine of WANA
The cuisine of WANA encompasses the territories of the Armenian highlands, parts of the Caucasus, Anatolia, Cyprus, the Levant, the Sinai Peninsula, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and North Africa.
Situated at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia, the WANA cuisine is a veritable melting-pot of empires past – Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Byzantine, Arab – and to a very minuscule extent, European.
It is a cuisine that predates the modern nation-state construct, one which arbitrarily lays claim to national dishes and distinctive culinary identities as a way of legitimising national identities and colonial independence, despite the profoundly obvious shared lineage outside of these colonially imposed national boundaries. As such, it would be reductionist and flawed to discuss the cuisine as a set of distinct national gastronomic legacies belonging to a specific nation-state rather than through the lens of its shared ancestry.
The WANA cuisine is deeply regional with interdependent culinary lineages that permeate nationalistic borders that hide important micro-distinctions and nuances influenced by rural life, terroir, and micro-localised ingredients, dialects, and traditions. One example is maftoul. Widely considered a Palestinian dish, it is, in fact, also prepared in southern parts of Lebanon which today shares a border with Palestine but no less importantly, a close historical trading relationship.
As history tells us, cuisine is in fact adaptive and adoptive, kneaded, shaped and slow-baked by empires, migration and diasporas.
WANA cuisine is a formidable example of cultural assimilation, appropriation, diffusion, fusion and cross-fusion. By leaning on a regional rather than nationalistic narrative, one is allowed a broader conversation on the duality of gastronomy; its ability to be at once a very intimate expression of evolutions that have led to modern culinary identities, but also undeniably rooted pathways of trade, terroir, language, folktales, and the long-flickering flames of history and empires