Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Culinary Adventures in Learning Music and Dance

In my culture, we mark celebrations and the start of something new with the taste of sweetness, often marked by a bite of something sweet. I thought I would start my first blogpost of the year with a mention of something sweet. Coincidentally, this post is also triggered by an incident:  a few days ago, after rehearsal, I went to a family-owned Iraqi eatery for dinner, and the lovely lady there gave me a large zalabiya. Biting into this delicious treat, I was immediately struck by memories of  home and the Indian jalebi (the South Asian jalebi is indeed a descendant of the Arabic zalabiya and the Iranian zolabia, as Tim Richardson, in "Sweets: A History of Candy" points out, and many readings throughout the internet also mention). The irony  is amusing: despite having grown up in Delhi, the home of the streetsnack jalebi and city of the celebrated Jalebiwali Gali (alleyway of  Jalebis)  in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, I was  famous in my family for not having a sweet tooth as a child (I have since acquired a bit of a sweet tooth as an adult, but not entirely), and always found jalebi to be an overly sugary and overrated, and yet being introduced to the Iraqi zalabiya, I was suddenly fascinated by the jalebi.

Our study into the music and dance, especially dance, is not complete without a study of the contextual clothing culture and jewellery of the region and specific culture that the dance practice springs from. To this experience, Mike and I  also add in the adventure of exploring the cooking foods of the cultures we study music and dance from. It is part of our preparations before we go to a new culture for immersive study, as well as after our travels. Before our 2015 study trip to Turkey, where I was studying Turkish Romani and Anatolian dance forms under a Canada Council for the Arts grant, Mike and I attempted our own versions of Turkish cooking from traditional recipes. Several of the dance forms I study draw inspiration from the activities of everyday life, including activities involved in preparation of food, such as churning of butter, fetching water from the river, preparing desserts, stirring pots of honey for baclava, gathering wheat during harvest, preparing tea, delicately carrying tea glasses, cutting pomegranates, pouring tea, and many other activities. I find that the corporeal experience of cooking the foods brings me a little closer to the realities of these physical experiences.

It is also interesting how the different preparations include different physicalities. I include below two different photos of tea/chai, which would involve very different physicalities in preparation:

Indian chai in the home of my Kalbeliya dance teacher Gulabo Sapera in Jaipur.  Milk tea, with ginger and spices. 

Azeri tea, made on a charcoal samovar outdoors, on a beautiful spring day in Toronto, at the home of my student. Served with dates and candies, and also featuring my students artwork underneath. 

I find that the two distinctive tea traditions would involve very different physicalities in their preparation. 

Metaphors of different foods, desserts, tea, and wine are often present in the poetry that many of the dances I study are based on. In my dance training,  also find that many of the metaphors used by my teachers during their teaching often compare movements to the cooking and preparation of food. Quite often, many of my dance teachers themselves make excellent specialty dishes. 

However, it is more often that I miss the foods of the places that I study in. I  often stay in my regions of dance study for a period of time. I have a deep love for simple, homecooked food, and for me, nothing feels more complete than a hearty homecooked meal. When I come back to home base in Toronto, I try to recreate these experiences through culinary adventures. Upon my return from my study trip to Odisha in 2012, during which I stayed in the home of my teacher, Gurushri Durgacharan Ranbir, I tried making dalma, the wholesome, hearty and delicious Oriya lentil and vegetable curry taken with rice. Since our recent trip to Rajasthan, focused on the study of Kalbeliya and allied dance and music traditions, Mike and I have tried making our own versions of Misi Roti, with some substitutions based on our local availabilities. I also deeply miss my everyday breakfast of chhatua in Odisha, and also the breakfast at the Dicle University State Conservatory in Diyarbakir in  Turkey during my 2015 study trip, during which we stayed at the Conservatory's guesthouse.

In Toronto, biting into the delicious and crunchy sweetness, I found that the zalabiya's overwhelming sensory hit suddenly made me think of the interconnectedness of so much food throughout the Silk Road, which is an area of focus in our artistic work and scholarly study at Ensemble Topaz. I thought I would start my first post of this year, which has already been a very busy year, with the taste of something sweet. In the coming weeks, I hope to write about my recent dance learning adventures in Rajasthan, India, where I studied the Kalbeliya dance and its allied movement and music traditions, with gratitude to the Ontario Arts Council and Chalmers Family Foundation.  In the meantime, I might also try to make zalabiya from a traditional recipe.

Current Read: 

  • "Sweet Delights from a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets" by  Habeeb Salloum and Leila Sallomiartas

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