Food and Cuisine, Part of the Migration Process

Sylvia Oussedik

Writer and professor, Spain

The typical cuisine of a place is always the result of an evolution based on contributions of the different peoples who have passed through the place in question. Thus, the products that are today considered essential in Mediterranean cuisine are, in fact, borrowings from other lands that have been assimilated with the passage of time. This process, always inevitable and enriching, continues today thanks to the migration movements between the two shores of the Mediterranean. Immigrants travel with their culinary practices and habits, while acquiring new food customs that they adapt naturally to their new life and, occasionally, import to their countries of origin. This mixing takes place, therefore, in both directions, as a reflection of human beings’ need to share and dialogue, expressed through food.

Food is an important element in the definition of cultures and today. We can still trace in each country and each region of the Mediterranean area their traditional and ancestral dishes, food habits and table rituals, enabling us to recall the history of both shores and each one of its islands. Since their origin, all cuisines were the result of mixing and are unfailingly the result of an evolution. There is no recipe, however old it may be, that does not contain within its list of ingredients, techniques and utensils the contributions owed to the different peoples that have passed through those lands.  

The products are first imported, integrated and incorporated progressively into consumption and, at a later stage, are adapted to the agriculture of the place. The climate, agricultural techniques and other factors lead to their modification, even improvement, and on more than a few occasions these products are re-exported. 

However, many of the vegetables considered essential to Mediterranean cuisines come from other latitudes: in origin, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers were American; oranges and citrus fruits, Asian; aubergines, spinach or artichokes came with the Arabs… and thus we could revise the long list of products that today we consider inseparable from our cuisines to realise that, although we talk about local cuisines, almost all their ingredients have an arrival date. There are a few exceptions, such as wheat, whose grain has been modified considerably since Antiquity; the vine, with an equally eventful history; the olive tree, present in the countries throughout the Mediterranean since Antiquity; and, of course, other products which, from their wild state, were adapted to agriculture and have evolved.

Culinary methods and, consequently, the utensils required have also evolved. For example, cookers and energy sources have changed. Throughout the Mediterranean, the first hearths used wood and they can still be seen in different parts of the region, whether in Spain or Turkey, the Balearic Islands or the Atlas mountains. Later, coal stoves were used until gas ovens arrived and today we can enjoy induction heat or a microwave oven in the remotest place.

Wooden spoons, ladles, sieves, bowls, plates and other equipment of ancestral cuisine, although it is true they can still be found and acquired with relative ease, are equally being substituted in everyday use by other utensils often not as beautiful, but certainly more practical. We are in a moment when we can admire a beautiful ceramic piece in a museum and then see another of identical use in a private house.

Other equipment of ancestral cuisine, although it is true they can still be found and acquired with relative ease, are equally being substituted in everyday use by other utensils often not as beautiful, but certainly more practical

Earthenware pots, pans, couscoussiers and tagines have also given way to stainless steel and modern designs. By way of example, we can quickly recall the transformation experienced by couscoussiers. The oldest, almost unknown now, were probably made of basketwork, and these were followed by others made of clay. To seal the two parts that made up this pot, a paste of flour and water was prepared which, once dry, made the two parts compact and the steam from the boiling water in the lower part would pass through the couscous deposited in the upper part. Thus, the cereal cooked perfectly. The next couscoussiers, made of cast iron, were sealed using a long cloth tape, aseqfel, soaked in water. Today, this tape is being replaced with a band of silicon which adjusts perfectly.

Consequently, after these modifications in terms of products, utensils and methods, the recipes have been reinterpreted and progressively gone through changes. The traditional recipes continue to be an inestimable heritage that should be conserved, studied and not forgotten, but renewal is inevitable and the desire to innovate is legitimate.

Cuisine in the Migration Process

How have all these food products, utensils, methods and habits travelled along the Mediterranean coasts? In the history of the Mediterranean basin, the population movements have formed an intrinsic part of its future. Sometimes for commercial reasons and, on other occasions, military or of another kind, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and Europeans have contributed to this rich mixture. The arrival of peoples bringing with them their culture, expressed in diverse forms (arts, music, clothing, cuisine, and so on), has happened almost ceaselessly since the most remote Antiquity.

In more recent history, from the middle of the 19th century the migration movements were reactivated and, in recent decades, they have intensified even more. This is not the place to examine the political or social dimension of this phenomenon, but to look at how far it is changing food in the Mediterranean basin.

Immigrants’ culinary practices and food habits travel with them. Perhaps they do not form part of their primary luggage, scarce or non-existent, but once settled they do not delay in recovering them. As demonstrated by different studies, at first those who arrive are usually relatively young men, unused to cooking, who live alone or in shared flats. Their diet tends to be deficient: they eat something in the bar below, convenience food, etc. But, once minimally settled, they start to recover the habits and practices of their places of origin. Seemingly, in many telephone boxes the conversations with their homes include cooking advice and recipes which they then attempt to put into practice. In later migrations the women arrive, generally through family regrouping but increasingly on their own. Some have cooking skills, although some of the very young have hardly been in the kitchen in their homes and have learnt to cook here. They also consult relatives by telephone and, apparently, internet is equally useful for these purposes and is used to send them home cookery recipes and advice by e-mail. Therefore, it is undeniable that the presence of women changes the type and quality of food in the homes they move into, and even more so with the arrival of the children.

When on holiday they return to their countries of origin, one of the things that these immigrants usually do is take the opportunity to learn some homemade dishes and return with mixtures of spices, herbs, special products or cooking utensils. But let us not forget that, at the same time, they take with them customs and recipes learnt in their host country. The mixing happens in both directions.


The markets of the Mediterranean are clearly centres of a very interesting commercial activity where we find a display of the local products that define the territory. Moreover, they are clear indicators not only of some exotic products that will pass through them temporarily, but of others that, responding to a real demand, are generally destined to remain. Fruit, vegetables, pulses, spices, herbs, but also meats and their derivatives, show us that the rooting of new cultural forms is on the increase. Given the growing demand for a product, after a tentative appearance, it becomes stronger and consolidates, until the point when its origin is forgotten and it is fully assimilated.

Small Supermarkets

Moreover, some years ago small shops began to appear, generally run by immigrants, which supplied the public with products from their countries of origin. At first, they offered small cooking utensils and imported packaged foods; now, increasingly, they are packaged or fresh products but produced right here. In the last few years they have proliferated considerably and their impact is acquiring great importance. But, along with the products they offer we must also take into account the way in which these shops are changing other aspects of everyday life. Opening hours and days vary from traditional outlets. From Monday to Sunday and with much longer hours, they supply not only big cities but also increasingly smaller places. Not without a degree of reticence, they are starting to be integrated into the citizen network.

Restaurant Menus

It is certainly difficult to know where we are in terms of the modification of food in the private sphere. In other words, knowing which products and which recipes are present and to what extent. However, the study of restaurant menus offers us immediate information about this. Let’s take as an example a product and dish from North Africa: couscous. Today, it is one of the dishes most eaten by the French. In France, it forms part of school menus and is found on restaurant menus. It is akin to the place occupied by paella on Thursdays in Spain. Magali Morsy, professor of History of the Arab World at the Sorbonne University and author of the book Le monde du couscous, explained that, on one occasion, having stopped to eat in a restaurant in Bourgogne, she was given a menu of foreign dishes and another with French dishes. The latter included, of course, couscous. The degree of identification of the French with this dish is such that perhaps it is why in New York it is called French couscous.

Some years ago small shops began to appear, generally run by immigrants, which supplied the public with products from their countries of origin

In Spain, couscous, practically forgotten since the Golden Age, has been rediscovered only over the last fifteen years. It started being sold in diet shops as a healthy product, although at high prices. Then came the first Arab outlets that supplied immigrants at more moderate prices. Today, it is easily found in any big supermarket and not only the base product, which is now marketed by national brand names, but also the couscoussier and other ingredients that accompany it. Gradually, couscous has appeared on the menus of non-ethnic restaurants and as an optional accompaniment instead of rice, potatoes or pasta in popular restaurants. Increasingly fewer people ask what it is and on radio programmes in Barcelona I have had the occasion to talk to listeners who asked if it could be made in a frying pan or even awok. The traditional dish, prepared following well determined methods, with the help of appropriate utensils and using a broad repertoire of recipes, will in part be lost. It is true that a couscous made with a couscoussier is not the same as one made in another type of pan, but it is inevitable that there are changes and, during this process, some changes will be imposed and others not, and new recipes will emerge to enrich the cuisines of the 21st century.

Fast Food

Sometimes, the daily menu continues to be excessively expensive for some pockets or does not solve the lack of time available to eat for a growing number of employees. A few years ago, fast food was synonymous with hamburgers or hot dogs, a little later the sandwich bars appeared with a more varied and balanced offer. Today, added to the list of establishments that offer fast food, there are outlets that make Italian or Oriental pastas and the doner kebab. The latter has established itself in a few years spectacularly and has introduced a new concept of food outlet. These are very small spaces where the main dish, meat roasted on a spit, is prepared and cooked in front of customers practically in the doorjamb. The different accompaniments (chopped cucumber, tomato or onion, sauces, etc.) are so within reach that that they can be chosen almost without entering the premises. Anyone who stands near one of these establishments will observe how eating is simplified. Youths and older people, workers, tourists, and people of all kinds enter. However, this is not a style of catering outside the Mediterranean spirit; quite the contrary, it is profoundly rooted in the habits of this basin. Eating in the street, in public, more or less quickly is a very widespread practice both in the north and south and can be documented since the era of Roman domination. This explains the success of these establishments, not only because of the convenience with which they solve current needs, but also their link with profoundly internalised habits.

In the Mediterranean we have always communicated much better when eating. Food makes clear what unites us and what separates us and the paths that strengthen a relationship. The film A Summer in La Goulette (1996), by the Tunisian director Férid Boughedir, illustrates this perfectly. In the film, Muslims, Christians and Jews meet, share food and resolve their differences.

In the Mediterranean we have always communicated much better when eating. Food makes clear what unites us and what separates us and the paths that strengthen a relationship

I saw something similar between October 2007 and December 2008 in the neighbourhood of Torre Romeo, in Sabadell (Barcelona), where there was an especially significant experience in this regard. Taking the different cultures there as the starting point, a project was implemented whose objectives, among others, were to make known the new citizens present in the town, promote interculturality and incorporate citizens as active subjects of culture expressed through collective creation. Given the historical past of the town, especially linked to the textile industry, it was decided that this project would focus on clothing. With this aim, some dressmaking workshops were set up in which women from different origins would make traditional clothes for everyday use, adapting them to new needs or using fabrics from their countries of origin. They were able to exchange fabrics, adornments, accessories, models or patterns. In parallel, the students of the Municipal School of Arts followed the process in these workshops, observed their production and talked with the women. This led them to design eleven fusion fashion collections under the tutelage of the designer Antonio Miró.

Independently of the high creative level achieved, during the holding of these workshops, these women started to talk about their places of origin, their families, their religions and inevitably their food while they sewed. The interest they expressed in what the other ate quickly led to the decision that, in turn, they would bring specialities from their countries, and thus there were days when they had honey-coated fritters with mint tea, and even ate couscous with lamb at five o’clock. Quite spontaneously, there were surprising and encouraging situations. When the seamstresses were warned about the prohibition of consuming pork by their Muslim companions, they decided to innovate. They left the mantecados they wanted to make for another better occasion and began to revise their recipes, to discuss them with their companions and, finally, to adapt them by substituting the pork fat with butter.

The conversations about cuisine were very rich and many ideas emerged for incorporating into the traditional dishes products that some were unaware of. And the fact is that sharing food encourages conviviality, complicity, communication and dialogue. Observing how and what someone eats means getting to know him. Eating with someone, sharing each others’ foods, probably shows a willingness to share many other things.