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Memorable Breakfasts Which I Relished in the Arab Lands

posted on: Jul 6, 2021

Memorable Breakfasts Which I Relished in the Arab Lands

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

We were traveling northward in the early morning hours from Morocco’s top resort of Agadir to Essaouira when our bus stopped at the small town of Tamanar to allow us time for breakfast.  As I was sipping on my cup of Moroccan mint tea, the bus driver who was sitting next to me, in true Arab hospitality, offered to share his morning meal. Although I was intrigued with what he was eating, at first, I politely refused. However, after some persuasion, I agreed – eager to discuss the dish he was having for breakfast.

During my two and a half months’ stay in Morocco, I often wondered what the people had for breakfast before the French occupied their land. Rarely could I find anything offered in restaurants for the first meal of the day except the croissant- introduced by the colonialists. 

It is apparent that Moroccans do not know that croissants were invented in Vienna in the 17th century by the Austrians after they had defeated the Turks. The eating of this pastry represented a symbolic gesture of consuming the Muslim crescent. Most Moroccans are practicing Muslims and I am sure that if they knew the history of their favorite breakfast food, the morning enjoyment of the croissant would fade away. 

Now as I dipped a piece of bread into a mixture of honey, pulverized almonds, and oil, I discovered that, indeed, there were Moroccan breakfast dishes in pre-French times.  The subtle taste of the argan fruit oil- from a tree which only grows in Morocco- combined with the rich almond flavor and the nectar of the honey, made the meal an unforgettable treat which I have never forgotten.

Not much different was our breakfast one early spring day in the heart of the United Arab Emirates. It was an exotic morning repast with an Indian touch. 

Leaving with my wife and daughter, in the early morning, Abu Dhabi, the ultramodern capital of UAE, behind, we made our way on a newly built smooth desert expressway, driving to Al Ain- the oasis ‘Garden City of the UAE. On both sides of the road and in the median, palm trees encompassed in green shrubbery overshadowed the edging sands- mostly out of sight because of the greenery. 

At a sign indicating a roadside restaurant, I turned my auto and stopped in front of a small eating place. Inside, there was a small general store and a tiny restaurant operated by two men from India. As we sat down, the smell of fresh Indian bread filled the air, intensifying our hunger pangs. 

These were soon to be relieved as we feasted on freshly baked Indian bread dipped in honey and washed down by refreshing Indian tea. The piping hot bread, baked on a heated steel plate, was so tasty that we ate on and on. Even after we departed, I fancied that I could still smell the mouthwatering bread aroma. It was a morning delight that still lingers in my memory.

On the other hand, my most memorable morning meal was ‘the mother of all Arab breakfasts’ which I enjoyed during my first trip to Damascus, Syria’s capital. In my many ensuing trips to that country, I was to relish many similar breakfasts. However, I have never forgotten that first early morning meal in the world’s oldest city. 

After a comfortable night’s sleep in one of the modest hotels in the heart of that bustling city, I awoke famished and excited – hardly being able to wait for my first meal in an Arab country.  Downstairs in the hotel’s restaurant, I asked a smiling waiter, “What do you have for breakfast?”  the waiter quickly rattled off a series of western dishes.

“But don’t you have an Arab breakfast?  I’ve come all the way from North America to eat Arab food.”  The waiter seemed embarrassed.  “Of course! Just tell me what you would like.”  I grinned, “Bring me the best you have in Arab food.  I’ve been waiting a long time, thinking of my first meal in the Arab world.”

Soon I was relishing the top morning dishes, eaten for thousands of years in the Middle East.  From among these were: hot Arabic bread, a platter of fresh herbs and vegetables, fool mudammas (fava beans), labna in olive oil (Arab type cream cheese), preserved olives, hummus, baba ghannooj (eggplant purée), and piping hot manaqeesh (cheese and thyme pies). As I sipped my Arab coffee, I thought to myself “It’s a royal morning spread, putting the continental and other western breakfasts to shame.” By any standards, it was a morning meal to remember. 

SOME OF THE DISHES SERVED DURING MY FIRST DAMASCUS BREAKFAST

Fava Bean Pottage – Fool Mudammas

Memorable Breakfasts which I Relished in the Arab Lands

1 cup dried fava beans, soaked 4 tablespoons lemon juice

  overnight and drained 2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons olive oil 2 tablespoons finely chopped

salt and pepper to taste fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon cumin

Place beans in a saucepan; then top with 2 inches of water. Cover and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes to an hour or until beans are very tender, adding more water if necessary. Drain beans and place in a mixing bowl; then add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper, ground coriander, cumin, lemon juice, and garlic. Stir well until some of the beans are slightly crushed.

Place in a serving bowl; Then sprinkle with remaining oil. Garnish with coriander leaves and serve. 

Chickpea Purée – Hummus bi-Taheena

Memorable Breakfasts which I Relished in the Arab Lands

2 cups cooked chickpeas salt to taste

1/4 cup water pinch of cayenne

4 tablespoons taheena* 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

4 tablespoons lemon juice 2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, crushed

Place chickpeas, water, taheena, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and cayenne in a blender; then blend into a thick paste.  (If a thinner consistency is desired, add more water).  Place in a shallow platter and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  Just before serving, decorate with parsley, then sprinkle with oil.

*NoteTaheena (crushed sesame seeds) is found in health and Middle Eastern markets.

Eggplant Purée – Baba Ghannooj

Memorable Breakfasts which I Relished in the Arab Lands

1 large eggplant 3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic a few parsley sprigs

salt to taste 1 tablespoon pine nuts

1/3 cup lemon juice 1/2 small tomato, diced

1/3 cup taheena

Place eggplant in a pan; then bake in a 425oF oven, turning frequently until tender.  Allow to cool; then remove skin and mash pulp well.  Set aside.

Mash garlic with salt; then add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and mix until smooth; then stir into the eggplant. Place remaining lemon juice and taheena in a blender and blend for a few moments, then stir into the eggplant. Spread on a platter; then sprinkle with the oil and garnish with parsley, pine nuts, and tomato. 

Note:  A simpler way of preparing this dish is to place all ingredients, except garnish ingredients, in a food processor and process into a paste; then place on a platter and garnish.

Instant Labna

Memorable Breakfasts which I Relished in the Arab Lands

Cottage cheese and yogurt, closely related, blend well.  In fact, when combined together, they become as one.

1-pound cottage cheese, also salt to taste

  known as farmer’s cheese 1 tablespoon olive oil

  or baker’s cheese

6 tablespoons plain yogurt

Place cheese, yogurt, and salt in a blender; then blend for a minute.

Spread on a platter; then refrigerate for at least an hour.  Remove and sprinkle with the olive oil just before serving.

Sumach and Thyme Seasoning – Za’tar

Sumach, a condiment used almost solely in the Middle East, is an important ingredient in this dish, which is used to season other foods.  As a condiment, it gives bread, olives, and yogurt an exquisite taste.  Za’tar can be found mixed and ready to use in almost all Middle Eastern markets.  If it cannot be found, this simple recipe can be followed.

1 cup dried thyme, pulverized 3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

1 cup sumach 1 tablespoon marjoram

1/4 cup cooked, dried unsalted 2 tablespoons salt

  chickpeas, finely pulverized

Combine all ingredients together, then store them in a jar for future use.

Preserved Olives in Za’tar

Memorable Breakfasts which I Relished in the Arab Lands

1-pound black olives, washed 2 tablespoons Za’tar (see above)

1/2 cup olive oil

Combine all ingredients and store in a covered jar, serving as needed.  Stir the olives before each serving.

Thyme Pies – Manaqeesh bi Za’tar

Memorable Breakfasts which I Relished in the Arab Lands

1-pound frozen pizza dough, 6 tablespoons Za’tar (see above)

  thawed, or the equivalent 1/2 cup olive oil

  amount of home-made dough

Form the dough into 12 balls, then cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, mix za’tar and oil, then set aside.

Flatten dough into 1/4-inch the grounds, then place on well-greased baking trays. Spread za’tar-oil mixture evenly with fingers over top of rounds. Bake in a 350oF preheated oven for 20 minutes or until edges of pies are well browned. 

Cheese Pies – Manaqeesh bi Jibn

Memorable Breakfasts which I Relished in the Arab Lands

1-pound frozen pizza dough, 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

  thawed, or the equivalent 1 tablespoon oregano

  amount of home-made dough salt and pepper to taste

Form the dough into 12 balls, then cover with a damp cloth and allow to stand for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, mix cheese, oregano, salt, and pepper, then set aside.

Flatten dough into 1/4-inch the grounds, then place on well-greased baking trays.  Spread cheese mixture evenly over top of rounds.  Bake in a 350oF preheated oven for 20 minutes or until edges of pies are well browned. 

Note:  Both the thyme and cheese pies are at the epitome of taste when eaten just out of the oven.