As I write this, the unspeakable terrorist attack on the two mosques in New Zealand happened two days ago.
And I am in the kingdom of Islam, Saudi Arabia, surrounded by the muezzin’s call to prayer five times a day, and embraced by the unparalleled hospitality of the Arab people. It took me 20 years to come back to this beloved place in which I grew up.
Before I left California, most people gave me a quizzical look when they heard I was going to Saudi Arabia. Only the atrocities of government reach the other end of the wire when we depend on media to inform us. To my mind, travel, language, and food are the connective tissues that filament us together like so many mycelia reaching across the forest, letting us remember art movements, music and the ways each culture works to preserve and propel itself through time. If one can’t travel, then let them transport to another culture through food or words.
Saudi Arabia is at the southern end of the silk and spice trade routes, and also has its own ancient trade routes of frankincense and myrrh, which originate in Oman and Yemen. Its food is rich, rustic, and refined all in the same bite. And every bite for me this last week has been a return and a triumph. Alhamdulillāh.
F’il mish-mish is an Arabic saying whose English equivalent is “When pigs fly” or “In your dreams,” meaning that something will never happen. Mish-mish is the colloquial word for apricot; the formal Arabic word is al-barqouq. Literally translated, f’il mish-mish means “in the time of the apricots” or “when the apricots bloom.” The only time I ever used it was when I was in my early twenties and had a particularly ardent admirer while staying in the Sinai Peninsula with my sister. It was as if I’d said, “In your dreams, buddy!” He got the message.
Anyone who has eaten an apricot fresh off the tree will know the deeper meaning of this Arabic phrase, which refers to the fleeting season of apricots and, therefore, the short-lived time we have to bite into a winter’s worth of waiting for the sun to return. For many of us, the spring and summer seasons only officially turn when we taste our favorite stone fruit in a swoon of juice and patience. In the depths of winter, if anyone told me I’d taste the perfect apricot without mealiness, only the flavor that falls somewhere between a scent and a taste, I would scoff, “F’il mish-mish.” Yet here we are, as spring returns every year. What a perfect moment to reflect on this phrase, just as the apricots are in the first ripening stage on the trees throughout the Bay Area. Just as I went into a mosque today to show my friend Majid that I honor his religion, that I want to hear the Al Fātihah, the first lines of the Qur’an, and hold his sorrow in peace.
Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, falls in May this year, and one of the favorite ways to break the fast each evening is to drink qamar al din (“moon of the faith”). Amardine, the dried apricot paste ubiquitous to Syria, is blended in rose water laced with orange zest to make a light sort of smoothie. I prefer it made with dried apricots, and this year I will try it with fresh apricots, as much as it may pain me to throw each plump, velvety fruit into the blender. Whether I make hamantaschen for Purim or roast lamb for Easter supper, sabzi polo ba mahi for Norwuz or the perfect poached egg to celebrate the egg moon, I do so to quite literally incorporate the wholeness of us—to take it in through the body corporeal. It’s fun, delicious and profound—very much like my traveling adventure through Saudi Arabia.
California, our water-fragile Eden, boasts 35 varieties of apricots, ranging from small yellow bite-lets to egg-sized jewels. They are a finicky fruit that doesn’t ripen off the tree, nor do they travel well, but some foods deserve to be coddled, I think. Especially because they keep giving, even after we have devoured 50 over the course of a few days. If you save those apricot pits, you can boil them in milk and cream to make apricot pit ice cream, which tastes much like peach leaf ice cream, nutty and astringent. Try drying some in a dehydrator to make qamar al din on June 4, when Ramadan ends. May the quiet little relative of the rose help us embody hospitality, a sharp wit, kindness, and beauty—the words I have to describe this place I never dreamed I could come back home to.
This spring, I plan to eat my dreams of peace in the form of an apricot.
Protect all people. Eat with them. Share your drink.
- ½ cup dried apricots (or amardine)
- ½ teaspoon rose water (or orange blossom water)
- ½ teaspoon orange zest (plus more to taste)
- Mint sprig (for garnish)
- In a bowl, cover the apricots with 1 cup hot water and let sit at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
- Place the soaked apricots in a blender. Add the rose water, orange zest, and up to 3 cups cold water and blend until smooth.
- Garnish with the mint.
*This story and recipe come to us from Edible San Francisco.