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The Healthy Foods Of The Arabs Are Inching Into North American Cuisine

posted on: May 10, 2017

By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer 

Hummus, kishk, labaniyyah, mujaddarah, taboula, broad beans, couscous, burghul, dates, chickpeas, figs, lentils and yogurt – most of these were in my mother’s repertoire of daily foods in western Canada during the Depression years. Even the Arab condiments and sauces she used with these foods are healthy, nourishing and tasty. Garlic, lemon juice, olives, olive oil, onions and tahini (crushed sesame seeds), which she used daily for cooking, are some of the healthiest food enhancers known in the culinary world.

The appreciation of these foods and their embellishments, sneered at by our school chums a few decades ago, are now sold in almost all the health food stores in North America. Society has come a long way from when, as children, we munched our Arab food in school, hidden away from our peers, fearful they would see us eat our sandwiches of stuffed-pickled eggplants and kubbah (burghul and meat patties), packed in Arab bread (pita).

Mjaddaret Al-Burghul (Arabic recipe made of lentils, bulgur and onions)

Burghul, a cooked wheat cereal, which was the basic food of our family in western Canada, is the same fare eaten by the masses of peoples in the Middle East since the dawn of civilization. A very healthy cereal, it is today a much sought after food by vegetarian and other health conscious people in North America

Cooking the wheat preserves most of its nutrients that include calcium, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin B and protein. Unsurpassed as a nourishing eatable, burghul is an inexpensive, natural, wholesome and tasty versatile product of wheat – a great replacement for rice. Rivaling burghul in its nourishing value are lentils – now grown extensively in western Canada – in fact the Canadian province of Saskatchewan has become the largest exporter of lentils in the world.

An easy to grow pulse it is low-fat, containing about 116 calories in half a cup of cooked lentils. Highly nutritious, lentils are chock-full of minerals, like iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and rich in calcium, carbohydrates, vitamins B6, and especially protein. They have one of the highest protein contents of any vegetable, containing more protein than an equal amount of meat.

To get the full punch of this protein content and to create a complete and tasty vegetarian meal, lentils should be combined with a grain like rice or burghal. The epitome of this combination is the dish mujaddarah – a tasty simple fare of lentils and rice or burghul, considered to be one of the healthiest foods in the world – a dish for which it is believed Jacob sold his birthright.

Lebanese Chickpea Stew

Chickpea dishes often graced our table during my youthful years. Even though delicious when eaten green, chickpeas are usually used in cooking when dry. Like beans, burghul, lentils and rice, they make an excellent ingredient in all types of soups, stews and stuffing. Above all, chickpeas are the basis of hummus and falafel – two Arab dishes spreading like wildfire throughout the West.

For many centuries in the Arab lands, chickpeas have been the replacement for meat in numerous foods. For a vegetarian, these chickpea dishes are without equal. In availability, price, food value, flexibility in cooking, and taste, chickpeas stand near the top, compared to their sister garden treats. Hummus, a divine chickpea-tahini appetizer, is today found on many North American gourmet restaurant menus.

Broad or fava beans are better known than chickpeas in the western world. Their pods are delicious if picked green and tender. Dry, they are utilized like dry lentils, chickpeas and peas in soups, stews or to make the ancient tasty dish, falafel, now a common North American food.

For our family, during the Depression years, yogurt overshadowed all the garden legumes in food value and versatility. Like the Arabs have for centuries, we ate it as a main course or a side dish, often with almost every meal of the day. A marvellously versatile and adaptable food, it added richness, flavour and an appetizing aroma to a myriad of our dishes.

Kibbeh in yogurt sauce

The dishes that I remember most and which I still often prepare is labaniyyah, a hearty yogurt soup, and labana, a very healthy type of yogurt-cream cheese. Kishk, another food mother often prepared, is still common only among the peasants in the Greater Syria area. Made from burghal and yogurt, it is one of the healthiest foods known to humankind, but virtually unknown in the North American health food world.

Yet, even more than its culinary attributes, yogurt has a great number of health qualities. Modern nutritionists have established that this versatile dairy product relieves stomach ulcers, dysentery, and promotes excellent digestion. Much more easily digestible than milk, it is ideal for the aged, pregnant women, children and the sick. In addition, it is believed that regular eaters of this fermented milk tend to have clear skin and find no problem in enjoying a good night’s sleep.

However, only recently has yogurt gained universal popularity and become a staple in the diet of Canadians and other North Americans. Today, its image as a health food par-excellence has taken hold. Some label it ‘the miracle milk product’; others ‘a mystery food’; while the romantics call it ‘the elixir of life’.

From burghul to yogurt, Arab foods are made succulent by garlic, lemon juice, olives and olive oil, onions, tahini and fresh vegetables – they are all now considered as Canadian health foods. There is no doubt that these condiments give the famous Middle Eastern parsley-burghul salad, taboula its renowned appeal as a tasty health food par excellence.

The North African couscous, now a common dish in Europe and many parts of North America, is a healthy, economical and tasty food. The consumption of this burghul-like product of wheat is today spreading throughout most of the western world.

In the Arabian Peninsula the myriad of date dishes add immensely to the repertoire of hale and hearty Arab foods. For centuries the Bedouins, on only dates and milk, have lived a relatively healthy life. Today, dates, for thousands of years the staff of life for the desert Arabs, are slowly creeping in the kitchens of Canada and, in fact, the whole western world.

Perhaps, more than any of the other foods of the world, the Arabs have, through the centuries, refined their edibles into a tasty-healthy fare. It is no wonder then that these victuals, with a history going back to early Egyptian and Mesopotamia civilizations, are today found on the health menus of North America