Saturday, March 27, 2010

Defying Racial or Ethnic Categorization: Mexican Tabbouleh

It may be Lebanese, but the color palette is distinctly Mexican :)

Growing up most of my life there was always a dilemma when I had to fill out a government issued document which requested I specify my "race" and "ethnicity." Back then (and maybe now too - haven't filled one out in a while) the "racial categories" looked a little like this:

Please select ONE:
Native American or Alaska Native
Other: (please specify) _______________

So where exactly did I fit in? Apparently I am not the only one who had this problem. I suppose as a small child my parents probably made the decision for me, but as an adolescent, and in a world where being "other" was as good as wearing your underwear on the outside of your clothes for the rest of the 8th grade, the decision was an uncharted mine field of worries and insecurities.

Brenda's Adolescent Stream-of-Consciousness Thought Process
*deep breath*

Am I white? Well, white usually means European...and light eyes. But I have Spanish blood. Isn't that European? And some Spaniards have light eyes. But I don't have light eyes, or light skin. Although it's not really "dark." But I tan well. Well, I'm definitely not black, definitely not Native American...and definitely not Asian. But wait, technically Mexicans are kind of "native" to the Americas. And they were in Texas far before the whites. And anyway what makes them different from the Karankawas or the Comanches? I guess they didn't live in teepees. Whatever...but am I white enough to be "other white" or am I just "other?" Why don't they just put HISPANIC!? Or wait, is that an ethnicity? Maybe I'll ask the teacher. No, she won't know. Who cares anyway? Aren't these things supposed to be voluntary? Ugh, what-ever. Other. I guess I'm "other."

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And then there was the dreaded "please specify" blank where I had to decide what kind of "other" I was - whether I should write "Hispanic," "Latina," "Mexican." I felt like going up to the teacher and saying in my best Wire-esque Sen. Clay Davis accent, "Shiiiiiiiiit lady, if the school and government aren't clear on what is and isn't a race, how the hell am I supposed to be? This is some shameful shiiiiiiit." But I'm not that ghetto. Or brave.

It was actually kind of laughable in the end. The choice - at least I believe so - never really mattered much in terms of how I saw myself or how my teachers and good friends treated me. In reality, oddly, it was a chance for reflection on my racial identity and how that fit - or didn't - with everyone around me. I suppose that's a strange but good opportunity I would not have been afforded had I been able to just check the "white" box without a single doubt in my mind from the start.

But it wasn't until many years later, in college, that I found out that technically I would not have been so very wrong to do so. As that's when I started noticing government documents had added new racial categories including "White Hispanic" and "Black Hispanic." That made my life a little easier because then at least I didn't have to be "other" anymore. : )

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White Hispanics: The Mexican-Lebanese & Tabbouleh

I bet you didn't know it but there is a huge Lebanese population in Mexico. Those two cultures are not necessarily an obvious match, but they seem to have melded quite nicely and even turned out several delicious hybrid foods and people.

If you want some of the history behind this in a concise readable manner, check this article out about the Lebanese in Puebla, Mexico. In the meantime, here are, to me, the four most interesting points regarding Mexican-Lebanese gastronomy, life love and the defying of racial categorization. >: )

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Top Four Interesting Points Regarding Love, Mexican-Lebanese,
Tabbouleh and Racial Categorization to boot.

salads, brides - the whole nine yards

4. Tacos Arabes?!
If you've ever seen a Mexican Tacos Al Pastor taco stand, you know how similar it looks to a kebab shop. The meat is skewered and roasted vertically on a spit (or trompo, in Spanish), much like shawarma or the Turkish döner kebab. Thanks to Lebanese immigrants, almost everywhere now, you can buy "Tacos Arabes" in Mexico which refers to meat shaved off the shawarma-like spit and served on thick flour tortillas - the closest thing to pita or "pan Arabe" you'll find in most Mexican households.

And the traditional "kebab" was taken one further step away from its originally heritage when Mexicans invented "tacos al pastor" or "shepherd tacos" which are also roasted on a trompo with a giant chunk of pineapple at the top. Though they pay homage to their origins in the name, these tacos are generally made of pork, not lamb, and always served on corn tortillas - the Mexican way.

3. White Hispanics?!
What is a "white Hispanic?" Well, turns out it is a Hispanic who is racially white. I am still unclear on what that means exactly - but my best guess would probably be something like: "Hispanics with European ancestry." But then that doesn't really fit people like Salma Hayek (acress extraordinaire) or Carlos Slim (richest man in the world), or me for that matter, now does it? So basically it seems to be a definition of exclusion: people who are not racially black, Asian or "native."

When you put it that way, it all seems rather convoluted and unnecessary, dontcha think? : )

2. The Tabbouleh Test?!
Tabbouleh is not a complex dish, but it does include several components, and how one chops, blends and proportions these components makes a big difference in terms of taste and authenticity. Is the bulgur soft enough? Is the dressing too acid or too oily? Are the tomatoes and cucumbers too small or too large? And is the parsley pervasive or an afterthought? As a Mexican home cook, I'm not too bothered one way or another as long as it tastes good. But if you're a Lebanese man's fiancee, there is a lot more at stake!

In Lebanese culture it is customary to test a future bride's worthiness by having her make Tabbouleh for the women of the husband-to-be's family. The woman is judged particularly on how finely she can chop the parsley and whether or not she allowed any of the tough parsley stems into the mix. I don't know if I would have made it.

1. Mexican Tabbouleh?!
I always found it rather odd that my mother grew up eating Tabbouleh on a regular basis in a fully-Mexican household deep in the heart of Mexico City. But once I started reading about the Lebanese influx into Mexico, it all made sense.

Despite the salad being of Lebanese and Arab origin, it has become extremely popular in Mexico and throughout Latin America. My family has modified it slightly to fit their Mexican palate, and I have further made it my own with tweaks here and there. It appeals because it is fresh, inexpensive, and delicious - and goes well with almost any meal, as a starter, side or even main. And if you're one of those people who thinks parsley is nothing more than a garnish found at diners - this is the dish that makes that under-appreciated herb really shine.

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Brenda's Mexican Tabbouleh
Serves 6

An ethnically ambiguous version of Tabbouleh.

This is a great springtime salad, and let's face it, despite the last clouds and cool breezes hanging about, spring has sprung my friends!

I have altered this traditionally Lebanese salad by reducing the amount of parsley, adding copious amounts of lime (I am Mexican after alll!) and garlic, and mixing in generous amounts of ripe avocado. I serve it as a side dish with breaded chicken Milanese and mashed potatoes, or as a full lunch accompanied by some pita and a couple of hard boiled eggs.

1 cup bulgur wheat
1 cucumber, peeled
1 medium ripe tomato
2-3 ripe haas avocados, chopped roughly
4-5 limes (or lemons), juiced (about 1 cup juice)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup parsley, finely chopped (no stems!)
1/3 cup good olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1. Pour raw bulgur wheat into a large, flat container so that it is in a thin layer. Pour lime juice over it - there should be extra lime juice around the wheat, which will soak in. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4-6 hours or until the bulgur wheat has soaked up all the lemon juice and is soft.

2. Dice the cucumber and tomatoes into small squares and add to the bulgur wheat. Add the parsley, garlic and avocado.

3. Pour the olive oil over everything, salt and pepper to taste and then mix. Add more lime juice or olive oil as necessary. Serve cool.

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  1. Brilliant! Your Mexican tabbouleh is the best of two worlds. I've never made tabbouleh before (although it's a favorite dish) so I didn't know that there's no 'cooking' (i.e. the use of some form of heat) to make this.

    As for those wonderful demographic/census categories, I was fortunate to fall into the all-encompassing 'Asian' heading (at least it wasn't 'Oriental'). Later, as they were expanded, I was a bit thrown off by 'Pacific Islander', which also seemed to apply. More recently, I've declared myself 'Filip-Irish' and 'Brazilipino' - where's the box for 'schizo'?

  2. I loved this post! You really nailed the issue with those darn forms - I can say "white" but I've often thought those darn forms were too narrow in their description and you covered all the points.

    I cannot wait to try your tabbouleh recipe - I knew of the Lebanese connection but only because I'd been researching the culture, so I suspect I had an unfair advantage.

    Regarding your email: had to switch from FireFox to be able to comment - just does not take me to the point where I can verify I am a human and then my comment disappears - aside from that little problem I like Firefox.
    Not sure what the deal is about my site - seems to be ok judging by the fact that others have been able to leave comments. Gggrrrr - web stuff is enough to make you crazy sometimes.