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Drinking Arak--A Gourmet Ritual in the Middle East

posted on: Jan 3, 2018

By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Called by the Arabs of the Middle East, ‘the milk of lions’, arak, also known as arack and arraki, is the national alcoholic drink of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.  It is given this nickname because of its highly potent overpowering strength.  character.  An aniseed-flavoured colourless spirit distilled from grapes which turns cloudy milky-white in colour after water and/or ice are added, it is much sought after in the Middle Eastern lands by those who enjoy traditional Middle Eastern alcoholic beverages.  Usually enjoyed before it matures, it is a fiery rough liquor made for tough palates.

Never downed on its own, Arak is always served with mezza (tidbits of food) which could include up to a variety of a hundred dishes.  A dinner invitation to friends and colleagues who savour alcoholic drinks always begins with this gourmet ritual.  After a few ounces of arak and enjoying a number of the mezza dishes guests are usually sated.  That is why when the main course of the meal is served, the food is usually hardly touched.  Sipping on arak while nibbling and eating appetizers is always considered as the highlight of the meal.

Various forms of arak, which in Arabic means both sweat and juice, are popular in all the countries edging the Mediterranean and parts of the Far East.  In the Greater Syria area, it is distilled from fermented grape juice or, at times, sugar and is considered by the inhabitants to be greatly superior to similar hard liquors in other countries.  The same spirit in the Balkans and Turkey, called raki – another form of the word arak – is made from a variety of products like grain, molasses, plums and potatoes.  Other similar drinks are the arak of Iraq – made from fermented date juice, the zibib of Egypt – a peasant-made drink and Greek ouzo – the most popular aperitif in that country.  Further west, along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, the Italian anesone, French pastis and Spanish ojén, served as aperitifs or refreshers, are all sweeter versions of arak.  Also, in the Far East a comparable liquor known as arrack, distilled from palm sap or rice, is very popular.

It is believed that the arak is among the first of these liquors – seemingly developed by the Christian and Jewish minorities in the Middle East. Credit has been given to the renowned 10th century Arab physician Albukassem (Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi) who, it is said, while experimenting in his laboratory, distilled this new substance.   However, the Arabs did not use his invention to produce alcoholic spirits since in Islam, liquor is forbidden.  Hence, his discovery was employed to distil perfume from flowers and to produce kohl – a women’s eye cosmetic where a black powder is liquefied, then converted to vapour and allowed to re-solidify.

The Arabs carried the art of distilling kohl to Spain from where it spread to the remainder of Europe.  In these Christian lands, it took on a much different use – the production of liquor.  With the utilization of this method of producing hard spirits, the Arabic name al-kohl, which became alcohol, was adopted due to the similar method the Arabs used in manufacturing this cosmetic.  The words in English relating to the art of distillation, besides alcohol, like alchemy, alchemist, and alembic attest to the Arab origin of producing the many intoxicants found in western lands.

Arak, in the past, was generally of local or village manufacture, but in the last few decades it is increasingly being produced in large manufacturing plants.  The modern hard drinks of the West have not overwhelmed this ancient peasant refreshment.  It is still the preferred liquor of those who enjoy alcoholic drinks in the Middle East.

One has only to sit in the restaurants and nightspots of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria that serve alcoholic drinks to appreciate the people’s attachment to this product of the grape.  On every table, a bottle of arak surrounded by endless plates of mezza, much like Spanish tapas, is the focal point of the party.  Middle Easterners believe that it is very important to snack while sipping their drinks.  They would never dream of drinking their arak without nibbling on an endless array of foods.  Many believe that eating cuts down the lethal effect of the `lion’s milk’ – to its fans, the epitome of drinks.  There is a saying among the Arab Christians that `anyone who drinks arak becomes its advocate’.

One need not travel to the Middle East to enjoy arak with its accompanying mezza.  If arak is not available in Middle Eastern markets or liquor stores, ouzo, even though not as potent, can be substituted.  For a party of 12 people the following would be a modest table of these tidbits of food served with a litre of this powerful drink: a dish each of: pickled black olives, feta cheese, drained yogurt sprinkled with dried mint and olive oil, sliced tomatoes, fresh broad beans, assorted pickles, diced boiled potatoes with an olive oil and lemon juice sauce, fried liver and sliced boiled tongue.

Of course, no glass of arak would be complete without one of the following mezza dishes accompanying it.  Also included are two unique recipes that use arak as an ingredient.

Baba Ghannuj – Eggplant Purée

Drinking Arak - A Gourmet Ritual in the Middle East

1 large eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons tahini

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Pierce eggplant with fork on all sides and place on a baking tray.

Bake eggplant until skin is crisp, then remove and allow to cool.  Peel and place pulp in a food processor with remaining ingredients, except parsley.  Process mixture into paste then place on a platter.  Decorate with parsley, then sprinkle with a little olive oil and serve.

Hummus bi Tahini

Drinking Arak - A Gourmet Ritual in the Middle East

2 cups cooked chickpeas

4 tablespoons lemon juice

4 tablespoons tahini

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons water

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 tsp cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1 small tomato, finely chopped

Place all the ingredients, except tomato in a food processor and process into a fine paste.  Place on a platter and decorate with tomato.  Sprinkle with a little olive oil and serve.

Khiyar bi Laban – Cucumber in Yogurt

Drinking Arak - A Gourmet Ritual in the Middle East

2 cups plain yogurt

1 medium cucumber, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in a serving bowl and thoroughly combine just before serving.

Tabboula

Drinking Arak - A Gourmet Ritual in the Middle East

1/4 cup fine burghul

2 bunches parsley, stems removed, thoroughly washed and finely

Chopped

2 medium ripe but firm tomatoes, finely chopped

1 cup finely chopped green onions

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

4 tablespoons lemon juice

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Place burghul in a bowl and cover with water.  Allow to stand for 15 minutes.  Squeeze water out of burghul through a strainer.  Place in a salad bowl with remaining ingredients.  Thoroughly combine just before serving.

Note:  For a special mezza table, meat, spinach and thyme pies, kubbah – a meat and burghul dish – both cooked and raw, stuffed vegetables, fried sausages and numerous salads are some of the extra dishes that are usually added.

Arak Punch

Arak can be also served as an ingredient in punch.

3 cups water

8 cloves

2 small cinnamon sticks

4 cups dry red wine

1 cup arak

Ice cubes

Place water, cloves and cinnamon sticks in a pot and bring to boil.  Cover and boil for about 10 minutes, then remove cloves and cinnamon sticks and allow to cool.  Place in a punch bowl with the remaining ingredients.  Stir and serve.

Note: If a sweeter punch is preferred, a sweet wine can be substituted for the dry red.

Arak and Meat Casserole

Serves about 8

Further, arak goes well with food when used in cooking as this dish will testify.

4 tablespoons olive oil

2-pounds ground beef or lamb

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 cups stewed tomatoes

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup arak

Heat oil in a frying pan, then stir-fry meat over medium heat