Arabic’s Influence on the ‘Tongue’
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
A good part of the food we eat in the West is of Arab origin, not only in its ingredients, taste and design, but linguistically as well. This is an undeniable fact, not well-known even to the Arabs themselves.
What most people in the West generally know of Arabs are the stories from The Thousand and One Nights with their harems, fantasy and pleasure-seekers. However, if they are more modernized in their thinking, they presume the Arabs to be fanatics or cruel camel drivers, waving scimitars or living in tents. For those who are kind and with a good heart, they envision the Arabs as people of lust spending their time writing poetry and having pleasure. These stereotypes have even reached the food factor for a good number of people think that the Arabs live by dates and camel milk alone.
To correct this image somewhat, let us take an imaginary North American worldly family sitting down to dine during a hot summer day for an exotic meal consisting of dishes originating in the Arab world known to many North Americans. They begin their gourmet meal with a chickpea dip (an Arab appetizer, hummus), now popular throughout the world. The next course is a chilled gazpacho soup that they no doubt, believe is of Spanish origin. More than likely, no one is aware that the Moors in Andalusia created this soup which they called khubz mushrib – (soaked bread), and from which gazpacho is derived.
As happens often, the young children in this family, being somewhat spoiled, are not satisfied with the exotic feast-meal their mother has prepared. They ask their parents to take them to the corner food fast food outlet and buy them falafel sandwiches (bean patties that get their name from the Arabic (filafil – peppers). The mother pats them on the back saying, “Not today! I have prepared for you taboula (an Arab salad which has become popular as a health food in the Western world). I know, how much you like this salad.” The mother likely does not know that she has prepared a dish that derives its name from the Arabic (tabil – spice).
To quiet the children, the mother serves them taboula, while the husband brings out a large steaming platter of couscous (Arabic – kuskus), a North African dish par excellence that has become known worldwide. The aroma of spices fills the air with their enticing seduction. Caraway from the Arabic (karawya), cumin (kammun) and tarragon (tarkhun) seem to merge together creating a mouth-watering temptation. The children, as they eat their taboula, seemingly are fascinated by the bright color of the couscous, made yellow by saffron (za’faran), the Arabic derived name found in most Western languages.
For the main course, that morning, before deciding on making couscous, the mother had toyed with the idea of preparing shish kibab (shish kabab) – a barbecued dish enjoyed in the Middle East since the beginning of time. Because it was very hot outside their air conditioned home, she rejected the idea, then toyed with the notion of making kibbeh (kubbah) (a meat and wheat pie that is gradually becoming familiar to the western housewife and whose name has entered some of the English dictionaries), but finally decided on couscous.
Alongside the couscous, the mother had also prepared an artichoke, (Arabic – al-khurshuf), scallion (‘asqualan – during the Crusades an important city in Palestine) and spinach (isbanakh) salad, made tasty by sumac (summaq) – a Middle Eastern spice that is barely known in the Western world. This was accompanied by two dishes: a tuna fish (tunah), enhanced by turmeric (kurkum); and a tahini (Arabic – tahinah) salad made from crushed sesame (Arabic – simsim) seeds – the source of, besides tahini, a healthy oil employed in cooking and a whole series of products.
With their meal, the children are served a lemon (Arabic – laymun) and orange (naranj) juice mixture with a little addition of sugar (sukkar – borrowed by almost every language of Europe from Arabic) and a pinch of anise (from the early Arabic word anisun that came to English through Greek). The father has an alcoholic (Arabic – al-kuhl) drink while the mother, as becoming of the fair sex, sips on a sherry – (Sherish – the Arab name of the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia).
After clearing the table, the mother serves the family carob (Arabic – kharrub) and caramel (qanah) pudding along with a grape-syrup (sharab), followed by a sherbet (sharbah) dessert. The children, like most children, have a sweet tooth and enjoy and are content with this part of the meal.
Later, the husband, due to over-eating complains that he has an upset stomach and asks his wife for soda water (Arabic – sudah). She brings him the soda water, and then afterward serves him Mocha coffee (Mukha, the name of the Yemeni seaport from where almost all the coffee in the world was once shipped; and qahwah, the Arabic name from which almost all the languages in the world derive their name for coffee). For herself, she makes a cup of jasmine (Arabic – yasmin) tea and for the children both julep (julab) and tamarind (tamar Hindi) drinks. Along with the drinks, the family relishes the sweet halvah (Arabic – halawah) and rich-tasting baklava (from the Arabic, baqlawah – considered the epitome of all Arab sweets).
As a finale, the family sits down to watch television while the father and mother munch on fresh apricot (Arabic – al-barquq), bananas (banan – fingers), damson plums (taking their name from the city of Damascus), and tangerines (tanjah – the Arabic name of Tangiers). The children appear happy and content as they suck on fresh sugar cane (Arabic – (qanah) and hard candy (qand). For all, it is a feast to remember.
This short imaginary story indicates how much in the area of food alone, the Arabs contributed greatly to the West. It is a true assertion of the Arab influence on the kitchens of the Western world. Yet, this is only a small segment of the total Arab’s share in Western civilization. There is much more. And to write of their contributions to the sciences, mathematics, architecture, literature and medicine would require more than one online site.
Remembering this history, one should try our imaginary feast, knowing that all these foods have been passed on by the Arabs to the West from other civilizations or invented by the Arabs themselves. Then, on a full stomach, sated with these delicious foods, the Arabs will appear in a much better light and perhaps the stereotypical images will fade so that credited contributions by this rich and fascinating culture will be rightly accepted in our society.