Eating My Way To Cultural Identity

Middle Eastern Treats Transport Fair Goers to Beirut and Beyond

First Impressions is a Prague Wandering series that chronicles the early days of expatriate life for young Americans studying in Prague. The series is intended to capture the shock and awe that many foreigners experience when venturing outside their comfort zone.


By Celine Sidani


French bread added a touch of a panache to a Mediterranean festival full of far-flung goodies.  Photo by Celine Sidani.

I sat in a white-and-blue striped beach chair, a plastic glass of 60-koruna (3 USD) champagne in one hand and a slice of baguette topped with creamy chèvre in the other. Two lovers sitting on the beach chair beside me fed each other mini fruit tarts, kissing between almost every nibble. I would have thought I was sitting in some quaint, cobblestoned street in a French village if it weren’t for the band made up of three white-haired men singing alternative rock in Czech, or the wooden food stand next to me displaying castles of chunky sausages and serving mugs of Pilsner two times the size of my head. Or, of course, the cut price of the alcohol.

I reached my arm over to the countertop and grabbed a sample of a small, fried pouch of dough filled with minced meat.

“What is this called?” I asked the bearded man behind the counter with my mouth still full. His white rubber gloves were shining with grease.

“Borek, a traditional Balkan treat,” he replied smiling, pointing to the laminated information card standing next to the pies. I quickly placed a 50-koruna coin into his rubbery palm and grabbed the biggest piece of Borek I could find on the tray.

I found myself at the Festival of Mediterranean Tastes and Smells on a quiet Thursday afternoon in mid-September, while I was wandering around Namesti Republiky in search of a coffee shop. At first it was the music, large crowd of people, and smoky air that caught my attention. But ten steps inwards, it became the smell of the food.

“One bite into the puff pastry and I was transported to the center of Beirut, Lebanon.”

I later discovered that the open-air festival, which takes place every summer in Prague, Pilsen and Brno, started out in 2007 as a French delicacy market, and expanded over the years to showcase cuisines and music from several Mediterranean countries. There were well over 15 wooden food and drink stands, displaying a range of tastes from fresh Greek olives to French escargot, or from Portuguese wine to Lebanese rosé.

After ten minutes of bobbing my head to band lyrics I did not understand and watching the lovers nudge their noses lovingly against one another’s, I finally decided to gulp down my bubbly champagne, scarf down the few remnants of my Borek, and walk over to the next stand.

Before making it completely around the street fair’s perimeter, I was immediately drawn to a stand encrusted with golden Arabic writing. Crushed pistachios, tender dates, and moistened walnuts all wrapped in thin filo dough and drenched in sugary syrup were piled high on the table. There were other Middle Eastern treats such as sambousek, fried stuffed pastries. The word marhaba, or hello in Arabic, was about to escape from my lips when a young, blue-eyed man wearing an apron greeted me with dobrý den, hello, or more literally, good day in Czech.  

Dobrý den. I’ll take some sambousek. One cheese and one lamb, please,” I said, recalling my family meals with homemade sambousek at my grandmother’s dining room table.

I took my iPhone out to snap some pictures of the familiar food display and sent them straight to my parents and younger sister back in New Jersey. The sambousek resembled seashells one would find at the beach; to keep the filling in the center of the dough, the edges of the pastry were spiraled inwards. The blue-eyed man could not help but smile and even chuckled as I took my first bite and let out a satisfied “mmm”. The combination of feta and parsley was comforting.

One bite into the puff pastry and I was transported to the center of Beirut, Lebanon. I was sitting in my grandmother’s dining room, surrounded by mini, floral porcelain plates filled with Mediterranean mezze—hummus, falafel, tabbouleh salad, halloumi cheese, stuffed grape leaves, and of course, sambousek. Every 30 minutes, my grandmother would sneak into the kitchen to refill the plates with fresh appetizers while my uncles were shoving grape leaves down their throats and laughing at each other’s crude political jokes. Home, I thought, as I took my last bite.             

Three cuisines and two glasses of champagne later, I was still not ready to leave the market. If the three eighty-year-old rock stars were still strumming their guitar strings, I was going to continue my culinary marathon around the wooden stands. I had my eye on the escargot and grape leaves, anyways, and told myself I would not leave without another bite or two of the sambousek.

Celine Sidani is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is South Brunswick, New Jersey.

This article was adapted from an assignment for the travel writing class at New York University in Prague.


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Categories: Fall 2014 Issue Number 1, First Impressions, Travel

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.


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