RITES OF PASSAGE
Greg Malouf, acclaimed chef of Middle Eastern cuisine, restaurateur, author
As a chef, my travels are nearly always determined by the hunt for new food experiences. This focus on one's tummy sounds rather self-indulgent, but a lesson I've learnt time and again is that food is one of the best ways into a country and its culture. I think it's something I first truly understood on a trip to Turkey researching my book, Turquoise. I didn't speak one word of Turkish but I was still able to make myself understood when talking to farmers, producers, chefs and home cooks. A shared delight in food – cooking and eating it – will always forge common ground.
On a trip to Iran a few years ago, I got stranded after nightfall on Hormuz Island in the Persian Gulf. The only option was to hire a small motor boat (and driver) to take me back to the mainland. I couldn't have been further out of my comfort zone as we sped over the waves crossing one of the world's busiest and most dangerous waterways, with oil tankers and small smuggling boats whizzing all around us. But it was utterly exhilarating and reinforced my belief that the best moments come when you open yourself up to new experiences. I've had 30-odd years stuffed full of travel adventures, and these are worth more than any material treasures I might buy as souvenirs.
On another trip to Iran, I was invited to a spur-of-the-moment lunch by a pistachio farmer. Over delicious food (eaten, local-style, on the floor) he expressed delight at my Lebanese heritage and boasted that he frequently sent money there to fund Hezbollah. Suppressing my own distaste at his views wasn't just about manners, but about understanding that everyone's circumstances are different and moral codes are complicated. Later, I noticed his wife taking out food to a couple of dodgy-looking men. I learnt that they were itinerant beggars and that providing food and shelter was the norm. The lesson? People are multifaceted and are all worthy of respect.
These days I travel incessantly for work, much of it throughout the Middle East, so a few years ago I moved my base to Dubai. It was a huge step away from the "normal" career path I'd been following in Melbourne, but my travels have taught me that it is possible to think differently about one's own life journey. It's been one of the most exciting – and challenging – periods of my life, opening up all manner of opportunities that I'd never have had back in Australia.
I was recently invited by a dear friend to her home in the Lebanese mountains to cook at a big celebratory lunch. I spent a blissful afternoon watching people delighting in the food and gorgeous surroundings. Later, there was Arabic music and dancing and being part of it all sparked a real sense of joy and of belonging. Travel might be about broadening the mind, but it's also served to strengthen my sense of identity and has taught me to have real pride in my own heritage.
Melbourne-born Greg Malouf is widely considered the master of modern Middle Eastern food.
Together with Lucy Malouf, he is the co-author of eight internationally acclaimed cookbooks.
Greg Malouf will produce a special dinner for guests on Traveller Tours' Explore Morocco 16-day guided journey through Dubai and Morocco, departing May 25, 2020. See insightvacations.com/au/special-offers/explore-morocco