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Hilde Lee: Cuisine from the Arab World Offers a Taste of History

posted on: Oct 25, 2020

Hilde Lee: Cuisine from the Arab World Offers a Taste of History



Not a week or even a day goes by that the Middle East is not in the news. Although this is a food column, I try to add some insight into the lifestyle of a country or location to give more of an atmosphere that complements the foods. We have been armchair travelers recently, enjoying Egypt one week and Morocco last week.

Let’s see what the Arab world of the Middle East has in the way of typical foods. No, I am not forgetting that the Jewish High Holy Days start on Sept. 18 with Rosh Hashana and end on Sept. 27 with Yom Kippur. The foods for this religious period are not the everyday foods consumed in Israel. Thus, we will focus on the everyday foods of Israel another day.

The Arab world basically includes Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. We also can include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Food has no boundaries and depends on the likes and dislikes of the inhabitants of specific lands.

There is a saying in the Arab world that one’s eating shows one’s love. And an Arab might add, “And the poor woman killed herself with work, yet the feast lasted only one day. But what a day, and what a feast!”

Since Allan, my husband, worked with a client in Saudi Arabia, he often talked about the formal feasts that he attended. They were held in the desert. The food was simple, consisting of boiled lamb and rice covered with a seasoned butter sauce. This was piled on buttered whole wheat bread and baked in a domed cast-iron griddle. Each person used his right hand to tear off a piece of lamb with some rice and place the food in his mouth. The Arabs of the desert have eaten this way for centuries, but now it is a treat reserved for special guests — only male. “I cannot go?” I said to Allan. Oh, no!

For centuries the Bedouins with their camel trains zig-zagged across the deserts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia carrying spices, silks and carpets for trade with southern Europe. As these caravans of traders came into contact with the tribes of the southern Mediterranean, they adapted some of the cuisines of Greece and Rome. As a result, the dishes of Christians, Muslims and Jews became entangled.

Arab cooks and homemakers take great delight in spending hours decorating a dish with a pattern of red pepper pieces, brown cumin and green parsley. Dishes are colored with saffron. Onions, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers are mixed with slices of beets and often displayed in restaurant windows.

The coastline of the Mediterranean teems with all types of fish — mullet, sea bass, turbot, swordfish and cod. These are grilled over charcoal, baked or poached. They are served with a creamy sauce of pine nuts, almonds and walnuts pounded with lemon juice and garlic. Lamb dominates the Arab cuisine. It is grilled over charcoal, baked or cooked with vegetables in robust stews.

Although countries of the Arab world share many dishes, there are also regional and national specialties. Ful medames, a dish of brown beans flavored with garlic, oil and lemon juice, is served at breakfast, lunch and supper in many Arab homes.

Let’s stop a moment and find out what was different about Arab cuisine, as compared with European or Far Eastern lifestyles and their foods. Islam originated among nomadic peoples, the Bedouin, of the deserts of Arabia. There were (and still are) endless drifts of sand with very little water or vegetation — completely different from the agriculturally fertile regions. There was no state — only tribal leaders or sheiks.

These nomadic regions had a rugged way of life. There was no private property. The herds of animals, if there were any, were communally owned by the tribe. Because there was so very little pasture available, people and animals were continually on the move. Between the vast deserts, however, there were a few cities with sizable settlements, and often a holy shrine. Mecca was one of these cities — a place to trade and worship.

Islam has some food prohibitions that are quite complex. Pork is forbidden in Islam, as it is in Judaism. Birds of prey and carnivorous animals are also forbidden. Animals must be ritually slaughtered and a prayer said over them.

There are fasts in Islam, which are not just abstention from meat. The devout Muslim abstains from all food and drink during daylight hours during the entire month of Ramadan. Muslims drink no alcohol.

Muslim customs, rather than law, dictate that people sit on the floor for the evening meal during Ramadan and some other times of the year. They eat with three fingers that have been washed. There are no utensils, apart from spoons for soup. Flat bread accompanies most main courses. No alcohol is consumed.

As Islam expanded over regions that were once part of the Byzantine Empire, whose people were direct heirs of Greece and Roman civilizations, Islamic culture adopted their science, medicine and literature in addition to its own. They became a very learned civilization. The Muslims added to Greek science with a fruitful exchange of ideas. They also absorbed the Greek culture.

The dominant style of cooking in the Islamic world is also that of Baghdad. Young meats, like veal, lamb and kid, were favored. These were usually roasted or fried in butter or oil and cut into small pieces so that they could be scooped up. Meat also was cooked in sugar or some kind of syrup. Chicken is the most frequently eaten meat.

Perhaps the most important food that is spread from one end of Arab world to the other is rice. Spinach is favored as a vegetable, and eggplant is a close second. Fruits, such as apples, peaches and grapes, are used in cooking.

Persian cuisine favors sweets. Its cooks invented marzipan, which is made from almond paste and sugar and is molded into little shapes. The Persians also invented iced drinks and sherbet.

This is the cooking of the elite. Even today, among other classes, there is great diversity in cooking from place to place — from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.

Then, there is also the cuisine of Israel, from Adam and Eve to kosher rules for cooking and modern-day Israeli cuisine. We’ll talk about that another day — hopefully, next time. However, in the meantime, Happy Holidays.