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The Exciting History Of Arab Foods

posted on: Aug 3, 2016

The Exciting History Of Arab Foods

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

One day, walking around the Zócalo in the heart of Acapulco, Mexico’s top resort, I was surprised to find a small café with an Arab owner. Seemingly overjoyed at meeting us, he invited my daughter and myself to come and join him for breakfast a few days later. During that morning’s repast I discussed with him Mexican food for an article I was in the process of writing. When I asked him about the original dishes of that country, he thought for a while, then said, “Oh! I don’t know! All their foods came from the Arabs. One of their most favoured dishes is paella – a true Arab invention.”

Although this older gentleman who had spent 40 years in Mexico, most of them cooking its food, might have been exaggerating, his words had a ring of truth. Besides Mexico, the whole of the Latin-speaking world owes much of its culinary traditions to the Arabs. The 900 years they were in the Iberian Peninsula and their near 400 years in Sicily and southern France, first as conquerors then as conquered, have left a lasting influence in the Arab foods and seasoning of the Latin-speaking lands. The restaurant owner without knowing the sophisticated history of Arab foods had grasped the essence of the greatness of the Arab culinary odyssey.

Of all the great cuisines in the world, the Arab kitchen is, perhaps, the least known in the West. However, this is not due to its lack of diversity and quality. The Arab lands, stretching from the borders of Iran to the Atlantic Ocean, are a large world encompassing a vast number of culinary delights. Yet, this virtually unknown cookery has a fascinating and colourful history.

When in the 7th century the Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula arrived on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and then went on to occupy North Africa, they found a wide variety of foods, some of which went back to the beginning of civilized history. From these newly occupied lands which were the cradle of civilizations and which had seen culture after cultures rise, flourish, then decline, they inherited a rich cuisine. Sumerian, Babylonian, Phoenician, Hittites, Arameans, Assyrian, Egyptian, Nabatean, Greek, Persian, Byzantine and Roman were some of the bygone empires that contributed to the Arab’s newly established kitchen.

The simple dishes they had brought with them from the Arabian Peninsula were added to the accumulation of edibles they found among the conquered peoples. Later, the Turks and after them the European conquerors added to this repertoire of historic foods. Further the many exotic minorities that inhabit the Arab world such as the Armenians, Berbers and Kurds contributed their own peculiarities, as did the religious communities including the Copts, Druze, Maronites and Sephardim Jews with their ritualistic dishes.

All these influences, no matter how they were acquired, were enhanced and developed to produce an incredibly rich Arab cuisine. Some culinary historians have stated that this abundant table includes, perhaps, 40,000 dishes only exceeded by the Chinese who are said to have a kitchen of some 80,000 dishes.

During their golden age, from the 8th to the 13th centuries, the Arabs after developing an opulent kitchen, carried much of it to the Iberian Peninsula. Through the ensuing centuries, in their Thousand and One Nights cities of Cordova, Fez, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, the Arabs developed a rich haute cuisine. In the palaces of the emirs and sultans, the legendary feasts and banquets, in their variety and richness, were unmatched by any other ruling class of that age.

Many of the dishes were evolved to match the affluence that society had created. During these centuries, throughout the Arab world, in poems and songs, food was glorified. Cookbooks were written, some of which still exist, describing in great detail all aspects of that rich kitchen.

The Arabs in these centuries compiled excellent usable cookbooks, one of which contains 500 recipes for chicken alone. From these, still remaining with us, is that of the 10th century Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq who wrote Kitab al-Tabikh – a food work which refers to numerous cookbooks, now lost, compiled long before his time. However, the most important cookbook that has come down to our times is another work by the same name, Kitab al-Tabikh, which was written by Muhammad Hassan al-Baghdadi in 1239 A.D.

The Exciting History Of Arab Foods

(PHOTO: Two pages from the ms of Kitab al-tabikh in the National Library of Finland)

After their defeat, a great number of the Iberian Peninsula Arabs settled in North Africa. With them they carried the rich cuisine of Al-Andalus – the Arab/Muslim region of the Iberian Peninsula. In the elegant palaces of the rich in Fez and Marrakesh where the superb Arab-Islamic civilization of Spain had its greatest impact, the culinary art of Morocco reached its epitome of perfection. Paula Wolfert in her book, Couscous and the Other Good Foods From Morocco maintains that Moroccan cooking is the last of the great undiscovered cuisines.

Today, in the homes of the wealthy, especially in Fez, entertaining guests is a ceremony full of colour and romance. The rich foods, opulence of the surroundings, the elegance of the national dress, the Andalusian music, the dances, the conversation and the courtesy of the hosts create an atmosphere of a sublime cuisine and an affluent culture – much of it a carry-over from the Arabs of Al-Andalus.

Most of the rich Moroccan sweets one sees in the food stalls of North African cities were developed in Arab Spain and brought to North Africa by the expelled Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. A number of the desserts and many of the other dishes prepared in Morocco today can be found in a cookbook entitled, Fadaalat al-Khiwaan fee Tayyibaat at Ta`aam wa al-Alwaan written in the 13th century by Ibn Razeen at-Tujeebee – an Andalusian Arab from Murcia. In the ensuing centuries, this famous Arab-Andalusian food author and other culinary writers in the Arab Al-Andalus were to have a great impact on the foods of the world.

As happened in North Africa, it was the same story in the Western Hemisphere. Many of the settlers from the Iberian Peninsula who landed in the Americas had ancestors who were once Arab-Muslims and they brought their traditions and foods with them. Their dishes were enhanced by the foods of Indian civilizations they found in the Americas. Yet, as the restaurant owner in Acapulco had observed, many of them still have an essentially Arab character.

Throughout the centuries, from India, China, the Malaysian archipelago and the countries of East and Central Africa, the Arabs introduced into their own cuisine many new herbs and spices, fruits and vegetables. These were later transmitted to Europe and altered in a dramatic fashion the culinary art of that continent. The introduction, especially of the costly herbs and spices, established in the European mind the idea that the countries where these spices originated were lands of fabulous wealth.

In the Arab world itself these exotic condiments and foods did not affect the eating habits of the inhabitants in a uniform fashion. The vastness of the area and the diversity of the people were conducive to producing a varied cuisine. Today, some of the Arabs, especially in the countries edging the Arabian Gulf and in Libya and Tunisia in North Africa, like their food highly spiced, employing hot peppers to produce fiery creations. Others are content with simple and wholesome dishes that have not changed since first eaten in the Middle Eastern lands more than 5,000 years ago.

It is said that the rich heritage of the Arab kitchen has made the Arabs a people who are preoccupied with food. There could be some truth to this since wherever the Arabs migrate, they take their cooking with them. Despite their propensity to assimilate quickly in their newly chosen lands, they hold on with tenacity to their cuisine many introducing these foods to their friends and neighbours. Diplomats and other foreigners who reside in the Arab countries in the majority of cases acquire a lasting taste for Arab foods. Many learn the art of Arab cookery and, when they return home, Arab dishes become a part of their daily menu.

The Exciting History Of Arab Foods

From the Arabian Gulf to Morocco, many of these rich historic victuals, inherited, then developed by the Arabs, are still, to some extent, culinary secrets hidden behind an eastern veil. However, since the world is becoming more and more cosmopolitan the future of these foods is bright indeed.

Always tasty, enticing, healthy and nourishing, they will not remain tucked away for very long. Today, in many of the large American and European cities, Arab breads, falafel, hummus, both meat and vegetable pies, and taboula are found in corner cafes and restaurants. There is no doubt, tomorrow, many others will follow.   As happened in the past in the Latin-speaking world, Arab foods are continuing to influence the kitchens of nations across the world.

My passion for good food and good history has culminated in writing cookbooks to expose the great food cultures of the world, especially that of the Middle East and North Africa. Most recent are my two research-cookbooks co-authored with my daughters Leila and Muna: Scheherazades’s Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World (University of Pennsylvania Press), and Sweet Delights from a Thousand and One Nights (I.B. Tauris).