Discussing the SWANA’s largest culinary archival library.

It’s a warm summer evening here in Tunis, and a fresher mid-day in Toronto, when Salma Serry and I hop on a Zoom call. Despite the usual choppy Wi-Fi problems, we engage in a discussion about food and its role in revealing the history and culture of the SWANA region.

Serry is a culinary detective uncovering the hidden stories, meanings, and politics behind the food we devour through her platform, @Sufra_archive. This platform showcases her unparalleled collection of over 600 historical cookbooks, providing an insightful archive on Instagram that underscores the notion that food is never merely “just” food. Salma’s archival project provides context and history behind each photograph, food item, and story.

Recently, there’s been a strong interest in archives on social media. Why is our generation so interested in archives and nostalgia, and why is it booming on Instagram?

It might be that our generation is just overwhelmed with the speed of technology, and the constant change that follows; there is a lot that gets unrooted. 

Also that technology drove us away from museums or archives in the classic sense. Social media becomes this way of renegotiating the archive and the museum as an institution.The same way that, let’s say Twitter has become the voice for journalism today or Instagram or TikTok is where the news happens. It’s interesting because it kind of negotiates who has power over telling any story.

What was the starting point of “Sufra Archives”? How did you get involved with food and archives?

I’ve always been interested in reading about food history. But the more I read, the less I found about food history in West Asia and North Africa. There’s so much out there that is written as an established field of history for food in the West but very few for the SWANA region, especially in the modern history; it was mostly linked to medieval times, all the way back. 

So I started pretty early on developing, an interest in collecting culinary materials, specifically with cookbooks. Maybe it was my grandmother’s cookbook collection that kind of told me that there are things out there that are as legitimate as, you know, the most important culinary cookbooks from France.

At the same time, I also got into a master’s studies on food history. And when I was doing that, I needed to access, some of these cookbooks and, culinary materials such as menus or photographs related or featuring food, food ads. And so I think the more immediate need to start collecting was born from that purpose to be able to do my research, to be able to aid my studies. 

This is how it came together. And, in that absence of a dedicated archive or dedicated library or, even just general libraries that acknowledge the importance of historical cookbooks, the alternative was going to flea markets and warehouses, where publishing houses almost closed down.

What types of materials or artefacts are typically found in a food archive, and how do you source them?

Cookbooks is a big one of course!  There is also menus; I usually search for them in auction houses, antique shops, or stores. Sometimes, I delve into researching old restaurants in various cities or towns, reaching out to owners or their families. And you find all these materials, often tucked away in businesses that have been passed down through generations.

Also any kind of receipts, invoices, for suppliers, for food businesses, not just necessarily restaurants, but bakeries, cafes, butcher shops, grocery stores, candy factories.. even orders that are issued from schools for catering.  I also went through orders from schools or companies that use catering services;  boarding schools often maintained detailed records of their kitchen supplies and shopping lists.

And then also, handwritten recipe notes from housewives or recipe-filled notebooks. So, it can literally be any material; archives can range from personal family traditions to the records of large grocery stores or catering companies.

What criteria do you use to determine the significance of a food-related item for inclusion in the archives?

I’m interested in modern food history, from the last two centuries from the late 18th century to the 19th century and beyond.

What truly makes an item important, I believe, is how much it can tell us about the context of the time. I look for connections and stories that tell us about political landscapes, class struggles, and the dynamics between different social classes. Or how certain items reflect or shape narratives surrounding race, gender, and the role of women in society, in general, about domestic and home economics. 

There is also the role of media, especially in terms of advertising and journalism that I am interested in. If our archive includes press photos, they often capture moments of conflict or struggle. Journalists and photographers gravitate towards such events, and it allows us to explore different perspectives based on the agendas of the publications. It goes beyond mere food-related content, but rather gives us insights about food and the community; because its never just about food, right? 

For Sure. I mean, I also bet with tourism, it must be interesting to read food articles in the press and how food, and spices, are portrayed to foreigners.

For sure, the exoticizing!

But also in food brands and advertising, it’s interesting to look at the language used to engage women and the underlying messages related to balancing work, home life, responsibilities, and the position of women in society. I think about Iran, for example, there was a period in the late sixties and early seventies when the media hypersexualized the image of women. This hypersexualization extended even to something as domestic as food! 
So we see really eroticism in these ads, intertwined with seemingly banal products like tomato sauce. You would see a woman dressed in a sensual red dress, with big hair and makeup, striking a seductive pose while carrying a plate of salad and its dressing. 

It says a lot about how media institutions think of how to address an audience. And in ads, there are various factors, including globalization and the influence of Eurocentric modernity, that contribute to an almost obsessive fascination with European foods and the European way of eating. This extends beyond mere culinary ingredients and includes cultural practices related to food, too.

How did your passion for food research and filmmaking intersect with your decision to establish Sufra Archives?

I have studied filmmaking, and I made a couple of short films. Incidentally, even before the archival project was an idea, I guess I was drawn to food. A friend of mine recently asked me if I noticed that all my films before somehow revolved around food. 

And I had no clue. But I suppose the intersection is really stories. They’re both tools to tell a story and, dig in deeper into a narrative to find answers. Um, it’s also just ways to geek out.

Can you tell us more about your research on the modern history of food in the UAE and its connection to migrant communities (Library Circles program)?

Being a migrant myself, I grew up in Sharjah, which is a city next to Dubai. As a fourth-generation migrant, my family has a long history in the region, dating back to when my great-grandfather first moved there. This personal connection pushed me to explore not only my own place within this context but also the broader history of migration in the UAE.

What’s tricky in a place like Dubai is the constant and rapid changes. Time moves swiftly, and migration brings with it a sense of impermanence. Unlike a traditional sense of migration where a diaspora settles in one place, in the Arab Gulf, migration tends to be temporary. So,  there are often stories and experiences that are easily lost or overlooked.

 I recognized some urgency to preserve these narratives and stories, and I started with a project commissioned by Art Jameel Library in Dubai, where I focused on showcasing migration stories by looking at menus and expanding the conventional definition of what constitutes a menu. Over time, the project has evolved, and I am currently writing a thesis at the University of Toronto on the transnational history of migrant food in the Arab Gulf.

What are some memorable or surprising discoveries you’ve come across while researching historical cookbooks and culinary memorabilia?

It’s always a tough question to answer because there are just so many that, that come my way. Almost every day, there’s something new that comes up. But something that I’m always struck about is how prevalent European modernity was in Arabic cookbooks. 

Even in cookbooks featuring traditional recipes, there are often mentions of terms like “frangi” or “herbe,” showing this appetite for French and British cuisine. It’s particularly evident in the case of puddings, where you would rarely come across a book from the early 20th century that didn’t have an entire chapter dedicated to them. Puddings were a huge thing at the time!

It really doesn’t feel like the type of dessert that you would eat in the region. Interesting.

Very; these desserts deviate from what is typically consumed in the region. But when we consider the history of domestic education in the area, it begins to make sense. Particularly in Egypt, where specialized schools for domestic education were established, and using inspiration from British educational models.

These schools provided culinary training to girls and women, shaping generations of cookbook authors who predominantly followed English and British culinary traditions. So, while these British-inspired foods may have been featured in cookbooks and held cultural ideals, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they were widely prepared or popular in everyday households. Cookbooks often reflect cultural aspirations and influences rather than mirroring the exact culinary practices of the time.

I see your point – there is a perception that cooking French food is associated with a certain level of sophistication. Are there any unique items in your collection that you find fascinating?

Yes! One of them is a cookbook written by a gentleman named Ali Imam Atayaa, who worked at the Dar al-Kutub, the national library in Egypt. He was a polymath of sorts, with diverse interests, and wrote books on a range of different topics such as prostitutes or sports in Egypt. 

What makes his cookbook really particular is that it is one of the very few from that time, published around 1934, where the author credibly mentions the references and sources from which he borrowed recipes. This practice of borrowing and copying recipes from different sources was common during that era, both in the Arab world and globally, and it wasn’t considered plagiarism. I was drawn to his book not only for the recipes but also because he dedicates it to his sister and includes a rare photograph of himself and his sister. It’s unusual to find a cookbook from that period that includes an image of a woman or acknowledges a woman’s role in the household.

Another cookbook that comes to mind is called “قصص نسائية” (Women’s Stories). It was written in 1914 in Egypt and was used as a reading book for young girls. The book includes chapters with recipes and offers guidance and advice on the role and behaviour of women and girls. While presented as advice, it has an instructional tone that really gives you insights into societal expectations of the time.

Some of the recipes in the book are intricate, elaborate pie recipes and other ambitious dishes. It’s interesting to see that these recipes were intended for very young girls, and the book is written in an overall very easy vocabulary, yet they showcase a high level of culinary knowledge expected of them. 

What are your plans for continuing to explore food history and culture in SWANA?

Now, my main focus is on finalizing the archival project that is generously funded by the Arab Council for Social Sciences and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half, and I’m in the final stages of concluding it with the help of my amazing research assistants. The plan is to launch a digital archive to make the materials more accessible and user-friendly. I’m currently working on developing a website.

The website will allow users to search for specific keywords and find materials such as brochures, cookbooks, and receipts related to their search. It will provide a straightforward and searchable digital archive, making it easier for people to explore the collection. If you write for example “pasta middle east”, you could find some material from a pasta factory brochure for example. The website will be live by the end of this year if everything goes according to plan!

Yasmine is a Tunisian-Italian freelance writer based in Amsterdam. Her writings are strongly inspired by her North African upbringing and culture, and her thoughts on identity and diasporic nostalgia. You will mostly find her reporting on societal phenomena in the MENA region, often in relation to digital culture, art, and fashion