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Arab Influences In The Culinary Art Of Mexico

posted on: Aug 19, 2015


BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

During this century, the Arab emigrants from the Middle East to Mexico were surprised to find a number of foods which were not strange to their culinary taste. These dishes, with the exception of hot peppers as an ingredient, could have easily been cooked in the kitchens of their homelands. A few years ago, when visiting my relatives in Mexico City, I realized this fact when we sat down to an Arabic meal, Mexican style. The food was Arab, yet it had the touch of Montezuma’s land.

What are the connection between Mexican food and the Arab lands? How did the victuals of Baghdad and Damascus become a part of the Mexican cuisine? The story of this culinary interaction is a fascinating tale.

When the Arabs burst out of the Arabian Peninsula at the end of the 7th century, they carried with them not only their new religion but also the products they had inherited from the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. As they spread out from their desert homeland, they did not destroy the cultures of their predecessors. Rather, they absorbed, then utilized them as a base for the rich Arab-Islamic civilization which was to be the catalyst of world progress in the ensuing centuries.

Moving steadily westward through North Africa, the Arab-Islamic armies brought with them new industrial and agricultural products to the newly conquered lands. In 712 A. D., after having occupied the whole of the North African shore, the Arabs began their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Here , they found few of the foods which they had been accustomed to in their homeland. In that era the cuisines of Spain and Portugal were simple and frugal. According to G.C. Booth in his book The Food and Drink of Mexico, when Mulay al-Karim, the Moor, rode proudly into Spain, he sneered at the sparse food of the infidel land.

This sparseness was soon to be remedied by these sons of venerable civilizations in the Middle East who loved fine food. During their stay in Spain, they introduced a great number of vegetables and fruits into the Iberian Peninsula. Even today, almost all these eastern plants still carry, in Spanish, their Arabic names. Berenjena, eggplant, is from the Arabic badhinjan, alcachofa (artichoke: al-khurshuf), alubia (kidney-beans: al-lubiya), espinaca (spinach: isbanakh), albaricogues (apricots: al-barquq), caña de azúcar (sugar cane: sukkar and qana), limón (lemon:­ laymun), naranja (orange: naranj), sandías (melons: sindiya ), and zafaris (pomegranates: safari ).

These were only a few of the Arab introduced vegetables and fruits utilized in the many dishes which Mulay al-Karim longed for when he set foot in Spain. The rich Moorish-Spanish cuisine of the later centuries could not have come into existence without the Arab introduction of new legumes and fruits.

To better grow their dozens of vegetables and fruits never before cultivated in the Iberian Peninsula, the Arabs of Spain, who in the subsequent years were named by the Europeans Moors, introduced a widespread system of irrigation. Although known and employed in the Middle East for many centuries, this system of watering plants, en mass, was unknown in pre-Islamic Spain. The lush irrigated gardens which the Moors bequeathed to the Spaniards were, in the succeeding centuries, to make Europe and later the Americas, bloom.

When the Spanish Conquistadors landed in the New World they brought along with them a rich kitchen inherited from their Moorish past. An appreciable number of these Conquistadors were themselves of Moorish stock and thus, for generations, were accustomed to the exotic food of the Moors. G.C. Booth suggests that one of Mulay al-Karim’s descendants was among these Conquistadors and was responsible for introducing some of the Moorish-Spanish dishes into Mexico.

In Arab Spain, the Moors had developed a number of foods based on the cuisine of their former countries of origin in the Middle East and North Africa. The utilization of fruits, olives and nuts in the soups and stews of the Iberian Peninsula are as Moorish as the language of the Koran. By the time the Spaniards had conquered the New World, much of the agricultural and industrial talents of the Moors had become part of their heritage. Hence, the sweet stews introduced by the Conquistadors into the Americas have their origins in Spain’s Moorish past.

Estofado, a meat stew, is a dish the Arabs picked up in Central Asia, then carried it back to the Iberian Peninsula. Here, it was refined and enjoyed by the gourmet-loving Moors. After their defeat, it became a Spanish dish which was later introduced into Mexico.

Albóndigas, a meat ball recipe, is another food which has a strong connection with the Middle East. It was brought by the Muslims from Baghdad to Andalusia, then passed on to Mexico by the Spaniards. Its name derived from the Arabic al-bunduq (hazel­nut) firmly attests to its origin. Like estofado, the same type of dish is still a part of the North African cuisine.

Many will be astonished to know that the famous Spanish gazpacho is a Moorish soup developed in the hot lands of North Africa. P.S. Feibleman in his book The Cooking of Spain and Portugal derives the name gazpacho itself from the Arabic khubz mushrib (soaked bread). In the hot summers of southern Spain, its refreshing taste and simple ingredients made it an ideal soup for the hard working peasants. The dish became so popular in that former Moorish land that it became a symbol of Andalusia. When the Spaniards brought it to the New World, the Mexican cooks just added a few extra savory ingredients.

However, the introduction of Moorish food into the Spanish kitchen is not entirely a pleasant story. In the same year that the Moors were defeated in Spain, America was discovered. In that epoch religious fanaticism was rampant. Moorish traditions were banned and many trials were held for converted Muslims who broke this law. However, the judges of the Inquisition had an insurmountable task, since much of the Moorish ways of life had become as Spanish as the judges themselves.

A case in point is the renowned Spanish dish, paella. When the defeated Moors were forced to convert to Christianity, anything with a Muslim connotation was forbidden. Among the banned items was Arab food. The once proud Moors who loved their many types of couscous, a wheat dish, which is still the main food of the North Africans today, devised ways to make similar victuals.

Rice, the Spanish arroz from the Arabic al-ruzz, a plant brought by the Arabs into the Iberian Peninsula, was not banned. Substituting rice for wheat and altering their method of preparing couscous they invented paella. This Spanish dish, invented by ones who longed for their couscous was enhanced by a few extra ingredients after becoming part of the Mexican cuisine. But there is one other theory generally believed to be the more common acceptable etymology. Deriving from the Arabic baqiyah (the remainder), referring to leftovers in the regal kitchens, the cooks would take these table scraps home with them, mix them with rice and produce their baqiyah or paella.

The introduction of Moorish-inspired Spanish foods into the Mexican kitchen was effected in various ways. The Moriscos, Muslims newly converted to Christianity, were not allowed to emigrate to the New World. It was believed they were still Muslin in secret and hence, might teach the Indians Islam, and thus undermine the Christian faith. On the other hand, for Muslim slaves it was another story. They were in demand for their skills and were brought into the Americas on a steady basis. With them they brought their secretly preserved food, which had been banned in Spain.

At the same time as the slaves were transmitting their dishes into New Spain, which included Mexico, others were introducing the culinary arts of the Moors in a different fashion. During the years of the Reconquista (Christian reconquest of Spain) a part of the opulent Moorish culture had become more Spanish than the Catholic faith.

The Moorish effect on Spanish life permeated all aspects of society. Spanish mosques, which been converted into churches, inspired the architecture of Spanish religious edifices and the Spanish language had been impregnated with thousands of Arabic words. Above all, the Moorish influences in the foods of the Iberian Peninsula were overwhelming and these elements in the Spanish culinary art were transmitted into the New World, including Mexico.

The first viceroy to Spanish America, Antonio Mendoza, who himself was partly of Moorish blood, grew up in the Moorish palaces of Alhambra and was accustomed to Arab dress and food. Hence, unintentionally, he was instrumental in setting the pace for introducing, in a number of fields, including the culinary arts, Muslim traditions into New Spain.

When, today, a Mexican sits down to eat a satisfying dish of zanahorias rellenas, stuffed carrots, he is in fact consuming the food of the Moors. Stuffed vegetables were, and still are, a speciality of the Middle East. There is little doubt the Arabs introduced them into Spain. This, with the word zanahorias, derived from the Moorish/Arabic name for carrots isfariníyah, makes it quite certain this tasty dish was first served in the Arab lands. When it came to Mexico, the Mexicans, of course, added the hot peppers.

Almond sweets of all types, which are common in Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, are of pure Moorish origin. They were developed in the Middle East and as were other products consumed in these lands, carried to Spain, then transferred to the New World. The Mexican sweet, almendrado (almond pudding), which although modified somewhat by gelatine, is still basically a dish, which was enjoyed in Moorish Spain.

Yet, no matter how much the Arabs contributed to the Spanish, then Mexican cuisines, this inheritance from the Moors forms only a part of the culinary art of the Spanish-speaking world. The Mexican kitchen today is a collection of cuisines. It rests, in the main, on the pre-Spanish dishes of the Aztec and Mayan Indians – a copious cuisine, which included many fruits and vegetables unknown in the Europe of Columbus. Among these were avocados, chilies, chocolate, corn, papaya, peanuts, pineapples, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and vanilla. When this rich inventory of food was blended into the Moorish-inspired Spanish kitchen, the result was a delightful Mexican cuisine. Without question, the exotic mouth-watering dishes of modern Mexico reflect this historic evolution.

However, this tasty world of Mexican cooking is virtually unknown to the outside world. Many people when they think of Mexican food think of beans, tacos, tamales and tortillas. Little do they suspect that there is a vast Mexican culinary world, which excites the passion, seduces the body, then sends one into ecstasy. In the picturesque haciendas of the wealthy, or the adobe and reed peasant huts, there exists today, one of the most diversified kitchens in the world. No one who studies history will question the fact that in the formation of this cuisine, the Moors had a hand.

I will never forget a beautiful tourist guide in one of Acapulco’s numerous travel agencies telling me, “Of course we are proud of the Arabs, and why shouldn’t we be? Here, many of us in Mexico say, ‘Our fathers were the Spaniards but our grandfathers were the Arabs’ “.