Controversial Cous Cous

When we first moved to Indonesia I spent the longest time at our local grocers looking for coriander. I eventually gave up and grabbed something which seemed to smell and look similar. Wanting to show my early travel prowess I announced with great excitement to a group of new friends that I’d made an amazing discovery.

“It’s called Cilantro and it’s just about exactly the same”.

When the group could eventually maintain its laughter a fellow Aussie put me out of my misery  “It is the same you idiot”.

It was my first introduction to the fabulously popular international game of  Name That Food. A game which is closely related to the slightly more frustrating past-time of hungry travellers Find That Food.

I’ve spent the last 14 years of my life playing both games in various forms around the world. If the game stretches out for too long it usually ends with me doing an interpretive dance/game of charades while standing in a vegetable stall. Do you know how hard it is to mime an eggplant?

Over the years I’ve enhanced and developed my culinary vocabulary. Capsicum to peppers. Zucchini to corguettes. Spring onion to scallion. Rock melon to cantaloupe. Eggplant to aubergine. Jam to jelly. But there is also the world of the unknown. Right name, wrong food.

In North America I quickly learnt that gravy was not gravy, biscuits were not biscuits and jelly, jam and jello could have me requiring a dark room and a panodol – except there was no panadol. In a cafe in Canada the little travellers searched for the bubbles in the lemonade I’d ordered, “oh this is home-made” I explained, “it’s not fizzy drink, it’s kind of like lemon cordial. I’ll ask what they call lemon fizzy drink.”

“Ma’am, I don’t think we want to go there today do we?” the waitress replied.

As confused as we were by her answer, it’s a phrase I’ve kept with me. Do I really want to go there today, do we really need to have the potayto/pahtahto, tomayto/tomahto discussion again? Interestingly, the little travellers now always refer to anything fizzy as Pop. Our Canadian life has stayed with us in various forms.

In Libya it was the yiros shop on every corner that got the conversation going. After debating with fellow Aussies over whether it was a yiros, kebab or souvlaki, we learnt we were all wrong, it was a Shawarma. And after 4 years in the Middle East it will now always be a Shawarma.

And then there’s the political food. A recent salad search had me looking for Moghrabieh in the local shops, a large round cous cous that I’d heard the locals refer to as Lebanese Cous Cous. I’d found a fantastic recipe for my lebanese cous cous which involved pumpkin that had been roasted in brown sugar, nutmeg, chilli flakes, cumin and garlic. I’d added rocket, sultanas and prosciutto. It was declared Instagram worthy.

“Is that what Americans would call Israeli cous cous?” someone asked.

My Lebanese cous cous was now controversial cous cous. As controversial as an Australian and a Kiwi at an International School bake sale discussing the heritage of a Pavlova.

I thought about our waitress in Canada. I don’t think we want to go there today do we?


*What have I forgotten? Have you rediscovered cilantro? Insulted a turnip by calling it a Swede?


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