Hospitality may have different expressions in different cultures, but at its heart is warmth and the spirit of giving. In a special feature, Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary visits five homes to sample cultures of different countries.

Central to every culture is the tradition of hospitality whether it is expressed by welcoming a stranger or celebrating a festival with family and friends.

Every family, every culture has different practices and rituals. And usually it is the women of a household who help carry on the tradition, often passed from to them by their mothers or grandmothers.

Friday visits five homes of different countries to sample the culture of hospitality and discovers that food is central to this outreach.

Ecuador: gregarious hospitality
This little lush country in South America is blessed with scenic landscapes of mountains, jungles
and beaches. The people are friendly; they greet and talk to neighbours and friends at any time of the day.

Dee Hewitt is a proud Ecuadorian and teaches at the American School of Dubai. She says: "In our country, it is about groups and friendship. People are laidback, warm and always ready to welcome friends and neighbours. Hospitality traditions differ according to the geographical terrain. Ecuador is divided into beach or coast-line stretch called La Costa, mountainous or rugged region called La Sierra and jungle region called El Oriente.

Along the coastline it is mostly an outdoorsy lifestyle where people have beautiful houses by the beach. Socialising takes place from terrace to terrace. Every morning around 11am,
it is ceveche time when you invite neighbours over for a friendly chat and delectable ceveche, a healthy snack of par-boiled shrimp, prawn or fish marinated in lemon served with chopped tomatoes, cilantro and parsley.

It is served chilled with a side dish of roasted tostado (maize) and popcorn. This tradition is observed faithfully
by the rich and poor.
In the mountainous region of Ecuador, which also has the capital city of Quito, life is a shade urbanised. People work in banks and offices and have less time for socialising. "But what is surprising", says Hewitt is "people find their ceveche time. Around 11am people manage to
sneak out of their offices for a 20-minute break!"
Evening tea is more popular in the La Sierra region. Around five, housewives serve impanadas or humitas. "An impanada is a pie made
of wheat flour stuffed with minced meat, peas, parboiled egg, onions, etc, and deep-fried, quite like the Indian samosa, but less spicy.

In fact we love the mix of a sweet and sour taste and so we eat impanadas with
sugar granules.
"Humitas are like dumplings. The corn bread is stuffed with chicken, raisins, chilli and egg. This is then rolled onto a special leaf, folded and steamed. Either one is served with a chilled juice or tea," says Hewitt, adding, "People also love to dress up for the smallest occasion, even if it is a visit to the neighbour's house. The hostess makes sure to display her best crockery, cutlery and china, and the maid will wear the whitest uniform. We socialise at least
twice a week."

Spain: party people
The Spaniards are a passionate race with a predilection for adventure and a natural affinity to seek the pleasures of life. Their homes are warm and noisy, bustling with extended families. There is always plenty of food on their table.

Silvia Romeu-Valle, who lives with her diplomat husband and her children in Dubai, recreates the ambience of her home in Madrid.

"The Spanish are party people and we love to entertain guests," says Romeu-Valle who recounts memories of times spent in a house enlivened by laughter, music, dance and food.

"Entertaining is an art and no one knows it better than the Spanish. I
try to recreate as much as I have learnt.
I pay attention to table settings, glasses, cutlery and seating. I try to bring diversity to the guest list and music which is flamenco or Spanish pop with a touch of Arabic."

Food is an integral part of entertaining. She begins by serving an aperitif along with cheese, followed by one of the most popular starters – tortilla de patata (corn shells with potato stuffing). Serving cheese with pineapple slices is also typical.

"For the main course, we serve soup, followed by meat, fish and vegetables. It is a Spanish tradition for the men to prepare Paella, a rice dish flavoured with saffron, seafood, green peas and vegetables. While they busy themselves, the women set the table."

At her family home the guests are usually cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. "I recall a Christmas in Madrid when we made the giant doughnut cake Roscon de Reyes. My father would put several coins inside the cake and the kids, nieces and nephews would eat like crazy to get as many
as they could."
Another interesting tradition is the observance of the sobremesa and merinda time. "Merinda is the freewheeling chat after lunch and sobremesa is after dinner. No one can ever tell a guest to call it a day. We love
talking and chats at the table can extend up to three hours. To accompany the conversation we
have coffee, sweets and tea," says Romeu-Valle, who is trying her best
to teach her children the nuances
of Spanish hospitality.

Somalia: give guests the best Nassim Abdi hails from the Buroa region in northern Somalia but spent her childhood in Mogadishu, the capital. "Somals are basically nomads and our culture is very hospitable. We don't believe in calling up to say we will be visiting. We drop in and share whatever is available. We also believe in giving the best to our guests from the best place to sleep to the best food to eat.

This tradition has stayed on with us."
Abdi's parents had to be extra hospitable since her father had moved away from the village and they were living in the city. "Our home was open to family, extended family, friends and any other resident of Buroa who may have been visiting Mogadishu. Our family was large and bustling with eight kids along with aunts, uncles, nephews or cousins," she recalls.

Once again, food plays an important part. Somals don't believe in a course-by-course meal. "We serve everything together. The rule is that the table must be full.

So we have our soups, stews, vegetables, fish, meat and rice served all at the same time. Tea
is accorded a very important role in welcoming guests.

"We brew our tea with ginger and add
milk and sugar. It is almost like the India chai latte," she explains.
A very important dish served to guests and packed for long-distance travel is Muqhmad. "These are juliennes of meat, dried, cut, roasted in clarified butter or olive oil and tempered with traditional spices.

In the earlier days when the lifestyle was primarily nomadic, guests would be given packets of Muqhmad to take with them on long journeys; even parents of the bride would give her Muqhmad in case she had to travel for long. Even today every Somal household has its supply which can be eaten by itself or with soft bread."

In Dubai, Abdi finds that she is centrally located for her Somal cousins and relatives returning from the UK or the far East before they proceed
to Somalia. And when they come, Abdi entertains them in the true Somal tradition.

Saudi Arabia: great generosity
Majdi Al Ayed is an epitome of tradition and modernity. As the managing director of a family-owned public relations company in the GCC, he beautifully blends the tribal traditions of Hail, a region he comes from in Saudi Arabia with his education in Lebanon, Jordan and the US.

"I originally belong to Al Shamri tribe. The Bedouins are naturally very hospitable people.
I am proud of my roots and love my country. Our family home is in Jeddah now.

"As a child I lived in Lebanon and Jordan but my mother always observed the best traditions of our tribe. She would grind her special Arabic coffee and boil it with cardamom. For my elder brother's graduation in the US, my mother took the trouble of carrying her Arabic coffee to serve the guests.

She imbued in us a love for welcoming guests. Even though I may not follow the traditional rituals,
I understand the sentiment behind them."

Food is an important part of Arabian hospitality and Al Ayed, who oversees the work of all GCC branches
in Dubai, makes it a point to fly to Jeddah every weekend to participate in the family Friday lunch.
He says, "This is absolutely sacrosanct and all of us make it a point to be there, except one of my brothers who lives in Egypt. The rest of the family including in-laws and cousins get together. My mother doesn't cook herself but entertains lavishly.

We have different preferences – my sister is vegetarian whereas my elder brother only eats chicken or seafood. So my mother makes sure she has something for everyone."

What began as a small family affair now represents the warm hospitality that Al Ayed's mother observes and extends to other family members and cousins. He has taken a leaf from the family hospitality tradition and tries to introduce some aspects of his traditional culture in corporate hospitality.

US: melting pot of cultures
Catherine Marie Brignac, born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, US, feels good that she has inherited a rich tradition of hospitality from her Creole grandmother and Syrian mother-in-law. She and her husband Peter Michael Mitias teach at the American University of Sharjah. Her husband, though of Syrian origin was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, US.

She reminisces: "My earliest memories of entertaining are of grandmother's home. Jeanne Ann Malbrough prepared a homemade dessert every Sunday afternoon. She always had coffee available and she always expected guests to stop by in the afternoon.

When we were not at her home for the weekend, she and my grandfather James Brignac would make rounds at their friends and families homes for the same. My family has lived in Louisiana for over 300 years, but still retains their French and Spanish customs, as well as language. Unfortunately, my father's generation was one of the last to maintain their native French language.

"My mother enjoys entertaining, however, most of her efforts involved entertaining for her children. My father always prepared Beignets [French donuts] on the weekends for me and my siblings and a houseful of friends. Many of my childhood friends still recall memories of
special parties my
mother planned.

"Our home was always the gathering place for us as teens because of my father's Jambalaya, a Spanish rice and chicken dish native to South Louisiana and gumbo, a spicy Creole soup.

"My mother-in-law, Samira Andrea Mitias, is also a fabulous entertainer. She prefers to host more formal dinner parties, and her home was also the gathering place for Peter's friends as he was growing up in Mississippi. Today, she and I are always planning parties for her visits. Many of my friends in Sharjah know Samira and look forward to her visits because of her company and our bountiful table.
"My husband Peter learnt a lot about cooking Creole food from my father before his passing five years ago. Peter is known for his whole fried turkeys at Thanksgiving and his wonderful barbecues. We have hosted parties in our small garden for 75 people and we do most of the cooking."

Note: Creole refers to the first inhabitants of South Louisiana, generally of Spanish and French descent, and generally in the New Orleans area. This is not the same as Cajun, which refers to the French who settled around Lafayette, Louisiana from Nova Scotia.

- Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Senior Features Writer, Friday