The Healthy Foods of the Arabs are Inching into the World's Health Stores
By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Oh no! Not kishk again! Why can’t we have fried bologna for breakfast?” I asked my mother. Her eyes blazed, “I want you to be always healthy. Kishk is the healthiest food in the world.” At that time, as a child growing up during the Depression years on the western Canadian prairies, bologna and sardines were for me the foods of paradise – not hummus, kishk, taboula, or the broad beans, burghul, chickpeas, lentils and the many yogurt dishes which day after day graced our table.
It was some years after I left home that I came to appreciate her words. When it dawned on me that the dishes our mother cooked were some of the healthiest foods in the world, a new culinary universe opened up before me. In the ensuing years, I prepared these foods and, as my horizons widened, added other dishes from the Arab world, like the couscous of North Africa and the date dishes of the Arabian Peninsula, to my repertoire of healthy edibles.
Even the usual Arab condiments and sauces for these foods, some of which were beyond our means in the Depression years, are healthy, nourishing and tasty. Garlic, lemon juice, olives, olive oil, onions and tahini (crushed sesame seeds), employed daily for cooking throughout the Arab world 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 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).
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.
The cooking of the wheat preserves most of its nutrients which include calcium, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin B and protein. Unsurpassed as a nourishing eatable, burghul is an inexpensive, natural, wholesome and succulent versatile product of wheat – a great replacement for rice.
Rivalling burghul in its nourishing value are lentils – now grown extensively in western Canada. 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 folacin, 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 create a complete and tasty vegetarian meal, lentils should be combined with a grain like rice or burghul. The epitome of this combination is the dish mujaddara – a tasty simple fare of lentils and rice or burghul, considered to be one of the healthiest foods in the world.
Due to its inviting taste and nourishing qualities, it is possible that in the foreseeable future, mujaddara will become one of the basic foods in the Western Hemisphere. Should this happen, then many will understand the Biblical story of how Esau sold his birthright to his twin brother Jacob for a bowl of pottage made from this legume.
Chickpea dishes often graced our table during my youthful years. Even though delicious when eaten green, chickpeas are usually employed in cooking when dry. Like beans, burghul, lentils, and rice, they make an excellent ingredient in all types of soups, stews and stuffing.
For many centuries in the Arab lands, chickpeas have been employed as a 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 restaurants’ menus.
Better known than chickpeas in the Western World are broad or fava beans. Their pods are delicious if picked green and tender. When a little riper but still green, the seeds can be removed from the shells and served as snacks or utilized as a vegetable in preparing the daily meal. However, the beans are usually allowed to dry on the plant before harvesting, then employed like dry lentils, chickpeas, and peas in soups, stew 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 marvelously versatile and adaptable food, it added richness, flavor and an appetizing aroma to a myriad of our dishes.
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 burghul 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 many North Americans. Today, its image as a health food par-excellence has taken hold. ASome 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, in North America, 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 adds 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 the 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 Mesopotamian civilizations, are today found on the health menus of Europe and North America.