Food was front and center in the here and hereafter. A sumptuous feast was in the offing. But what was for dinner in the afterlife? Chasing the whim of what food went with funerary art, after several blind alleys I landed at Oleana, the Inman Square restaurant invented by Ana Sortun, a Norwegian Seattle native.
by Sally Steinberg
The logo of the Egyptian show “The Secrets of Tomb 10A: Egypt 2000″ at the MFA (through May 16, 2010) is a pair of mysterious eyes staring from the painted wooden surface of a sarcophagus. In the belief system of the Egyptians, the deceased watched the transit to the afterlife through these eyes.
And what a transit it was!
Afterlife prep is in full swing in the bustling historical present depicted in the funerary art. The Djehutynakhts, the tenants of Tomb 10A, were Egyptians of local prominence, a governor and his wife, in Middle Kingdom Egypt, not people on the street, but not kings or pharaohs. This is their tomb, with its paraphernalia of funerary offerings.
The coffin paintings and wooden models of figures making things for life in the beyond assure a beneficent and copiously provisioned eternity, with “everything good and pure” to sustain them.
The “spells” –injunctions and prayers for the afterlife written on the outside of the coffin–guaranteed comforts. There would be the eating and drinking they knew and looked forward to in perpetuity. Groceries were at the ready–ducks in transit, grains pounded, beer bottles on heads. There’s even a kitchen boat. Food was front and center in the here and hereafter. A sumptuous feast was in the offing. What was for dinner in the afterlife?
The haunting eyes bewitched me all the way to the banquet, a way in to this great civilization of antiquity, with its own discipline, Egyptology, suggesting the monumental nature of the culture. I wanted to know what comestibles would suit the ancients buried here, and whether I could find a meal in Boston to honor the spirit of the show. What might the Djehutynakhts have eaten? Would the lady of the house have had Lotus? Crocodile? A sort of “Babette’s Feast,” Egyptian style? Grilled oryx anyone?
The smidgen of food savvy I gleaned during a month in Egypt seemed inadequate. I never developed a taste for the highly regarded molokhiya, a brackish, blackish-green lava flow, studded with floating chicken bits, with the consistency of bodily effluvia. Molokhiya, or mallow, is a leaf, very nutritious, without the sex appeal of spinach. Whatever taste accompanies the slimy texture is subsumed by it.
There is ful medames, the bean slop beloved by Egyptians, spiced up with garlic and lemon, said to behave like a stone in the stomach.…..not offensive if you like that sort of thing, which a lot of cultures do, a bean pot to rival Boston’s baked beans. These Egyptian crowd pleasers escaped my gustatory sensibilities.
I thought the ancients must have had better fare than these (to me) unpalatable concoctions, but what did I know? These are the contradictions that make for “aha” moments of cross-cultural exposure. Perhaps these pasty and viscous edibles were the fuel igniting the fires of artistry that produced beautiful works. But I imagined better stuff in the culinary lexicon.
As I went from temples with mummified crocodiles and a clinic where they used garlic and honey to cure the thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to, to Saint Catherine’s monastery in the rocky wastes near Mount Sinai, a fitting place for the Ten Commandments to be sent down express, I inhaled the heady aromas of spices in the markets, I saw dates on palms fringing the Nile, and skiffs plying the river for the fish that provided the living of the fishermen.
I ate Nile perch, a fish so revered in antiquity that its consumption was sometimes forbidden, but it was mangled into a fish-and-chips affair in a bare bones eatery with earthquaked pavements and hawkers of sugar cane outside. I wondered about finding food to suggest the grandeur that was Egypt.
So I did some food archaeology. My culinary adventure became the conduit to an out-of-culture experience, historical and current. The coffin paintings show a scene of abundance, the feast in waiting for the Djehutynakhts, meats on braziers with cornucopias of leaves and blooms. They are a visual menu—fowl and game, fruits and roots. Figs and lotus, oryx and gazelle.
Lotus and papyrus figure as edibles and symbols in Egyptian life. The lotus was eaten and baked into bread, according to Herodotus. The tomb paintings show arching spread-winged water fowl, radiating plumage, fanned out and resplendent, and extravagantly full onions.
Animal sacrifice was obligatory. We see cuts of meat from heart to shank–of the graceful oryx, thought to be the prototype of the unicorn, to oxen and gazelle and duck, for slapping on coals. We even see the painted coals. A hefty heavenly barbecue. The Djehutynakht feast would include flatbreads, a symbol of hospitality, and lettuce, thought to have aphrodisiac effects, a food with its own god. I conjured up lotus bread with salad, gazelle heart canapes, and barbecued oryx.
Since oryx and lotus are scarce in Boston, I launched upon a culinary safari here to turn up a funerary banquet. I did not find an Egyptian restaurant. The museum restaurant mustered braised lamb with flatbread. But…I needed more, to summon up not just that part of the world but the elevated style of this feast of antiquity. I foraged for culinary treasures reflecting the beauty and bounty of the exhibit in an idiom consonant with its cultural origins.Chasing the whim of food to go with funerary art, after several blind alleys I landed at Oleana, the Inman Square restaurant invented by Ana Sortun, a Norwegian Seattle native, serving up food that is not as it would be in a Middle Eastern restaurant but a newly minted creation.
Oleana puts together Ana’s awakening to the Middle East with the produce of her husband’s farm, and with the flights of gustatory fancy that can result when you free up your mind to make something new based on something old. It is fitting that the name Oleana, which is Ana Sortun’s full first name, means Promised Land. “Oleana is my full name, a common old-fashioned Norwegian name. It’s also a song. It’s a story about a paradise or promised land.” Like the one in the afterlife.
The cuisine at Oleana reflects the exotic slant of the show, the abundance, the ingredients on the coffins and still in use, and the elegance of style showcased in this corner of antiquity. Oleana is at the top of the restaurant pyramid—no pun intended!– in Boston. As a restaurant of superior quality with Middle Eastern leanings, it is rare among the fine restaurants of America.
At Oleana ingredients from the Egyptian coffin are to be found. It’s a flash forward from Middle Kingdom gastronomy. Duck and figs, garlic and onions, flatbreads and pomegranates. Beef comes glazed with tamarind, there is duck with sumac and rose, and rabbit with orange blossom. There are ancient Egyptian spices—cumin and coriander, mustard and cinnamon and rosemary. The bounteous ways of Oleana echo the ancient Egyptian practice of banquets.
Although Ana says Egypt today is not a place famous for food, there are Egyptian dishes at Oleana with historical antecedents and current iterations. We can exult that our quest bore specifically Egyptian fruit. There’s Egyptian carrot puree with dukha, a spice and nut mix of hazelnuts, coconut, cumin and coriander used with olive oil as a condiment for bread.
“For the carrot we use harissa and ginger and olive oil and vinegar. That was a riff on an Egyptian dish.” In addition, “Every year we’ve done Palace Bread—its origin is Egypt but it’s an Ottoman thing. It’s bread cooked in honey or sugar syrup until the bread caramelizes all the way through. It’s dessert, and you serve it with thick cream and pistachios. We do kushary, the Egyptian rice and lentil dish with fried onions and tomato. We’ve done a tomato sauce on fish, the inspiration of the mother of an Egyptian woman who used to work here. It’s simmering tomatoes with a lot of cracked coriander and toasted garlic into a rich tomato sauce, not heavy, just rich with spice.”
The magical appeal of the show is paralleled in Ana’s experience, as she ventured to Turkey at the invitation of a customer in a restaurant where she was working. “She lived in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border—a famous food city.”
Ana knew nothing about Turkey or its food–her mother was a “good, plain American cook,” and Ana had never heard of most of the ingredients she uses now. “I was thinking genies and flying carpets. I’m not Mediterranean at all. It’s changed everything about how I cook. It became a study.” Opposites attract. “I was blown away by the way Turks eat. My first memory was arriving, and 30 women put on a big potluck for me outside. Each brought something from home, their repertoire. It was a huge lunch, 30 things” –like grape leaves stewed with sour plums and lamb, and purslane salad with pomegranate molasses and cucumbers.
The emphasis on vegetables and spices, the array of dishes, and their incredible lightness of being, the focus on small mezze, instead of the Western primacy of flesh and its place at the center of attention–these led to an altered state in Turkey. She set about exploring this region of sultans and palaces.
The cuisine from this epiphany serves our pleasure and gastronomic enlightenment. Ana avows that she is creating not expected, traditional fare, but her own variations. When someone from those cultures arrives, although she admits to nervousness, she says that she is not making their dishes, she’s making her own. There is no disconnect.
You have kale lamejun topped with mozzarella and hot pepper labne, served with roasted carrot soup, or lentil sliders with zhoug, a hot sauce, or spinach falafel with beet tzatziki. You can’t get this on the street near the Bosphorus, where the fried fish sandwich is the thing to have.
Ana thinks in terms not just of ingredients but of flavor profiles, which means she can tweak a dish with oblique accents, kale to top the lamejun, for example, a surprise adornment for traditional flatbread. “They don’t use kale and roasted shallots, that’s our twist on it. I try to learn the rules but then we break them. We use seasonal stuff because of the farm. The spices might be typical but the vegetables might be different, so we keep the flavor profiles the same.”
Flatbreads are as old as the times we are investigating. They were made in ancient Egypt and are made there today. Hieroglyphic prayers on the coffin reveal that bread was a key food among the 1,000 portions to be ready for Djehutynakht and the missus.
Ana says, “The tamarind-glazed beef has been on the menu since we opened, it’s called Sultan’s Delight, it’s a spin off of the traditional creamy eggplant with cubes of lamb. Using tamarind and things like pomegranate molasses is very Middle Eastern.”
Smoky creamy eggplant, molasses of pomegranate, the iconic fruit—these are secrets of the East. The lamb stuffing a squash really tastes like lamb, not mystery meat. And then there’s salted butter ice cream, a wake-up call of iconoclastic culinary sleight-of-hand. There’s no typecasting—the food is its own thing, but it takes off from the adventure of an American girl in eastern Turkey. What can you tell ‘em back at the farm….?
Which leads us to her husband’s Sudbury farm. “He fell in love with vegetables, he’s always loved plants. He grew up on a family farm, and he went back to his parents’ land to start his own thing.” The farm has evolved into Siena Farms, named after their 4-year-old daughter. All the fruits of its fields are used at Oleana.
Oleana is 9 years old. A year ago Ana created Sofra, her café/bakery/store on the edge of Cambridge, with its array in many colors of spices and mezze, of pies savory and sweet.
“Sofra is the Turkish spelling of an Arabic word that means what you prepare for the table, everything from plates and forks to food. It’s a hospitality word.” There are flatbreads with sesame, walnut and squash, or eggplant, shitake, goat cheese and za’atar, the renowned Middle Eastern savory herb. The special griddle for cooking them, called a “saj,” is handmade in a Lebanese village. Ana loves her warm buttered hummus, not the usual Lebanese hummus made with tahini. “It’s craveable, it’s a flavor profile you end up craving when you haven’t had it for a while.”
The desserts speak of faraway lands, Syrian shortbreads, and Umm’ali, the Egyptian bread pudding inside of phyllo dough, with milk and dried fruit. There’s even a Persian donut, dusted with spiced sugar that contains rose petals and cinnamon and nutmeg and coriander and cardamom.
Ana says of Sofra, “It’s a unique concept, and people are diggin’ it, it’s packed.” Boston is nothing if not open to new ideas in eating, and Boston gastronomes like Oleana and Sofra.
Go there for dish after dish of exotics and aromatics, spice blends so deft and subtle that you can’t pinpoint what they are–one spice doesn’t overpower the others and unbalance the dish. This is alchemy, combining ancient culinary ways with thinking outside the box. Monkfish with smoked cinnamon aioli and chick pea crepe, lamb with fava bean moussaka. No wonder the waitress is good at her spiel. She’s having fun, and she’s theatrical without being histrionic.
So give yourself up to the pleasures of discovery, joy in new tastes and horizons along with respect for civilizations of other places and times. The Djehutynakhts led us to enjoy it in the here and now, and to be conscious of its reminders of long ago and far away. Imagine yourself at the banquet of these Egyptian notables, even if there’s no gazelle heart on toast. The flux between immersion in the moment, a plunge into the sensuous immediacy of taste and texture, and the simultaneous awareness of its reference to another culture, its background–isn’t that the way to live?
Sally Levitt Steinberg is a writer, journalist and oral/personal historian. She has written several books, including “The Donut Book”, the world’s definitive book of everything-you-need-to-know about donuts. It was chosen twice as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it has been featured in all the media, including NPR, the Martha Stewart radio shows, and the film “Donut Crazy” for the Travel Channel, and its materials form The National Donut Collection at the Smithsonian Museum.
She has written a biography, “The Book of Joy,” as well as several personal histories and a book on interior design. Her essay, “Coffin Couture,” was cited as the best piece in the recent anthology of personal history, “My Words Are Gonna Linger.” She has written articles for many publications, including “The New York Times,” “The Boston Globe,” and “The New Yorker.” She lives in Boston.