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FRONT BURNER | FOLKLORE / CHARLES PERRY

Indian Ocean Rim Cuisine

May 03, 2000

Oceans divide, but they also unite, because it's easier to drag stuff across water than across land. Europe, West Africa and the Americas have influenced one another in all sorts of ways because of the last 500 years of transatlantic trade.

The same sort of thing has happened over a longer period, if less conspicuously, in the Indian Ocean, because of the monsoon trade routes linking East Africa, Arabia, India and Indonesia. It's particularly noticeable in the area called the Hadramaut, the desolate Arabian coast between Yemen and Oman, whose people have always depended on sailing to survive. As recently as 1939, a census showed 80,000 Hadramis living in Indonesia, and this explains the Indonesian dishes that have become traditional in the Hadramaut. Meanwhile, the Middle Eastern pilaf kebuli and the Persian noodle called laksa are found in Indonesia.

Because of the trade with India, the Indian bread roti has reached Yemen (or at least the word "roti" has; often it refers to a European-type sandwich loaf there). In the Persian Gulf, curry spice mixtures are used and cooks make a curry-like dish called salu^n, which seems to come from the Indian and Pakistani dish sa^lan, with the name being confused with a word meaning salty or tasty.

The trade routes reach far down the coast of East Africa. That's why Swahili speakers know of Middle Eastern favorites like the rice dish biriani, the savory pie sambusa (better known as samosa) and sweets called halua (think halva). They even use Arabic and Indian words for okra (bamia, bindi), though okra is actually native to Africa.

The farthest tip of the trade is the big island of Madagascar off the coast of Mozambique. There you can just barely recognize the Middle Eastern words for pepper (pilipily) and cloves (karafuu), both borrowed through Swahili.

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