03 February 2021
“When it rains, we make sopaipillas,” my abuela (grandmother) says as she begins to roll a large ball of yellow dough on her kitchen table. “Who doesn’t want a small treat when it is so gloomy outside?” she continues, laughing as she uses a cup to swiftly carve out the circular sopaipilla pattern onto the dough that is now flat on the table. My abuela turns to the stovetop, uses a match to light the gas from the burner, and then slides a large, black pan over the flame. I hear the oil inside start to crackle and pop. “In they go,” abuela sings as she sets the sopaipillas in the pan to fry. She looks back at me with a smile, “it will only be a moment now.”
Food was the first language that I could speak with my abuela. As a kid, before I learned Spanish, my parents would fly my brothers and me from our home in North Carolina to visit my mother’s family in Quillota, Chile. My abuela would sneak me hugs and candies before dinner, and I would linger in the kitchen until she let me try whatever she was cooking for the big family almuerzo (lunch). Then, as the aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends, and my 15 cousins piled into the small dining room, plates were circulated with egg soup, chopped cabbage, piles of rice, and tender chicken. My abuela always made sure I had a little extra on my plate.
During the summer of 2018, I returned to visit my grandmother in her small kitchen. The verbal communication now flowed smoothly, but we still understood each other best through food. On this trip, my abuela let me observe as she prepared lunches and treats for family and visitors and recounted stories of when she’d first learned to make them. Sopaipillas are one of my favorite dishes—their sweet and warm flavor reminds me of the joy of family and being around people as they speak and eat and laugh. Making sopaipillas alongside my abuela, I am reminded of how deeply linked food and hospitality are.
I felt hospitality in another kitchen that summer. I had originally flown to Chile to conduct interviews and observations for a research project for my doctoral program at Northwestern University. I was exploring diasporic food culture in Middle Eastern migrant communities and their descendants in Chile and how cuisine could shed light on the connections and parallels between the Middle East and Latin America. Chile has a long history (about 150 years) of receiving migrants from the Middle East, primarily Palestine. Today, the integration of these communities and the influence of later generations is visible in economic, sociopolitical, and cultural spheres throughout Chile. Perhaps the most visible representations of diasporic presence are the hundreds of restaurants selling comida árabe (Arab cuisine) that are found in almost every small town and major city. When I wasn’t eating at my grandmother’s house, I spent my time interviewing the owners and staff of these restaurants and receiving their numerous acts of hospitality.
As researchers, we often ask a lot of those who participate in our studies without offering much in return. We ask participants to let us into their spaces, to tell us about their histories and realities, and to take time away from their busy lives to do so. Many of the people that I met during my interviews broke down the social distances between us through acts of hospitality—inviting me to eat, showing me around their restaurant, or offering me something to drink. Conversations were often facilitated by black tea or thick Turkish coffee. On one memorable occasion, a restaurant owner brought out some complimentary Arak, an anise-based liquor, as an after-dinner top off as we conversed.
Ahmed, a restaurant owner in the city of Concepción, went above all expectations when I went to visit him. It was 2:30pm, and the lunch rush at Ahmed’s restaurant had all but subsided. I had been interviewing Ahmed off and on about his restaurant for the last hour. He would answer a question of mine then make sure everything was running smoothly as customers trickled in and out. I had gone through all of my interview questions when Ahmed asked, “Can you stay another hour for lunch with me?” I nodded, and Ahmed disappeared into the back of the restaurant with his crew. He emerged 20 minutes later with two platters, one with a tomato and cucumber salad and the other with mujadara – a dish of lentils covered with caramelized onions.
I ate together with Ahmed and the other workers, and we spoke for a while, switching between Arabic and Spanish. It was at this moment, after the interview was over, that Ahmed and his coworkers opened up about life in Chile. Ahmed had moved to Chile a year and a half before I met him. He had tried starting a restaurant in seven other countries before settling in Chile. His family was still in Damascus, their home city in Syria, and he had not seen them since he had moved to Chile. He was excited, though, as his restaurant was doing well enough that he could move his wife and two sons to join him. They would be arriving in under a month, Ahmed explained with a smile.
For Ahmed and his family, the restaurant was a means to reconnect in Chile, and food was how Ahmed remembered his neighborhood in Syria and his life there. But food was also a way to share with me — a way for Ahmed to ground his narrative in the most concrete and sensorial manner. Like my grandmother and her sopaipillas, togetherness and hospitality are best shared across the table. To understand belonging, connection, and identity as researchers, we must begin to think with our stomachs and recognize the generosity and hospitality of those we work with.
On my last day in Chile, I had to turn down Ahmed’s invitation to have lunch again with him and his family who had recently arrived from Syria. I had greatly wanted to join him, but I was busy saying my goodbyes and packing treats, spices, and recipes from family members and research participants who wanted to send me off with memories of our encounters and a little piece of home.
Nicholas Bascuñan-Wiley is a PhD candidate in Sociology and a Mellon Cluster Fellow in Middle East and North African studies at Northwestern University. His ethnographic research explores Palestinian diasporic culture and translocal connections within Latin America. His most recent project focuses on the culture of food and eating as it is shaped by the long-term and long-distance connections between communities in Chile and Palestine. Nicholas tweets @nick_bwiley