Connecting food and social change

New study of food staples sheds critical light on generational shifts in Emirati society

Social anthropologist Marzia Balzani of New York University Abu Dhabi and her research assistant Ayisha Khansaheb of Zayed University researched a group of elderly Emirati women about traditional meals
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A new study exploring the evolution of Emirati cuisine and domestic life has provided important insight into generational shifts taking place in society. As The National reported yesterday, social anthropologist Marzia Balzani of New York University Abu Dhabi and her research assistant Ayisha Khansaheb of Zayed University asked a group of elderly Emirati women about traditional meals and their feelings towards privacy to detect shifts in society.

The results were fascinating. Take harees, a traditional porridge made of ground wheat and mixed with meat – long a centre piece of the Emirati kitchen. The dish takes time to prepare and was once reserved for Ramadan, weddings and other special occasions, but harees is increasingly enjoyed throughout the year.

The shift in habits that researchers identified points to a rise in prosperity and the import of labour. Many women have stopped preparing traditional dishes – leaving those tasks to domestic help – and have joined the workforce. The average age of marriage has also increased as women spend more time out of the home.

Unsurprisingly, something has been lost in this shift and that something might just be the flavour of contemporary renditions of traditional dishes. One of the women interviewed by the researchers said that the harees she now enjoys doesn’t taste like anything from her childhood. Despite advancements in society, which have elevated the country to the status of regional power, something tangible has been lost in the home.

Of course, this is an inevitable process. All societies change, adapt and transform over time. Emirati society is no different but there are warnings that must be heeded. As diets have shifted towards western-style foods, so have rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The effect of our multicultural society is perhaps best witnessed in the sheer variety of food on offer in our cities.

The notion of privacy has also changed over time, according to the researchers. Many of the women who were interviewed weren’t comfortable with the idea that their voices would be recorded and put in an archive. Younger generations, enthralled by social media, have largely abandoned this concern for privacy. This debate is happening all over the world but in a close-knit society such as our own, the implications are far-reaching. Regardless of the conclusions that we can extrapolate now, this type of research will be vital for all in crafting the society of today and tomorrow.