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Middle Eastern Foods That Kept Us Healthy During the Depression Years: Part 1

posted on: Feb 28, 2018

By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

During the 1930’s Great Depression, the hot winds were fierce as they blew across the western Canadian prairies.  No more than eight years old, I was struggling with a pail of water, half as large as myself, through a blinding sand storm.  Every day my chore was to carry water from a well half a mile down from our hill-top home, for two aged sheep we were fattening  for the autumn kill.  Exhausted, I reached the barn where my mother was feeding the sheep green vegetable leaves. “Why do I have to bring water for these sheep?  Why can’t I take them down to the well to drink?”  I was near to tears as I sat down by my mother’s side totally exhausted.

She smiled at my childish tantrum, “It is essential that we do not tire these animals. They must be heavy with fat when we butcher them for qawarma in the autumn.”  My parents, who emigrated from Syria in the early 1920’s, had taken a homestead in southern Saskatchewan, but no sooner had they ploughed the land, then it turned into desert.  To survive, they utilized the ingenuity they had inherited from their forefathers.

In their country of birth, farming had never been a life of luxury. Living with little wealth for thousands of years our ancestors, like most peasants in the lands of antiquity, had developed a variety of foods which have stood the test of centuries.  Chief among these foods were qawarma, burghul, kishk, chickpeas, lentils, a variety of greens and yogurt.  As had our forbears, my parents, in their new land, even if they rarely had money, always had food for their numerous offspring.

Qawarma, a preserved meat similar to pemmican, was the mainstay of these historic edibles.  It had been developed in the Middle East, perhaps since man first became civilized.  In their new homeland, my parents kept up the tradition of making this time-honoured type of cured meat.  All summer long, a few aged sheep or an old cow would be force-fed many times a day, and sometimes even at night, until they were loaded with fat.

In the autumn, after the animals were butchered, the fat was removed and melted. The meat was then cut into very small pieces and cooked in the fat.  When the meat was well cooked, along with the fat, it was placed in earthenware utensils or glass jars.  These were stored in a cool earthen cellar, becoming our meat supply for the following year.

With no refrigeration of any kind, it was an ideal way to ensure we had meat for the whole year.  Our neighbours, during the summer months, could only think of a roast or steak.  As for our family, we always had our tasty qawarma soups, stews and stuffed vegetable dishes thanks to this Arab method of meat preservation.

Almost at par with qawarma was our next most important food, burghul – made in the Middle East since the dawn of history.  As youngsters, we had to partake in all the phases involved in the production of our yearly supply of what is commonly known as cracked wheat, usually amounting to some two hundred pounds.

The first job was to scour the bare prairie land for the odd pieces of wood discarded by farmers and then build an outdoor fireplace.  After washing the wheat, we would place it in an oil drum, cut in half, then cover it with water.  The hardest part of all was to carry the heavy buckets from a nearby well.

After the wheat was cooked, but not overdone, we spread it on white sheets under the hot sun.  In about two days when the kernels turned bone-dry, we dunked them into water, then put them through a grain chopper.  My mother would then willow the crushed-cooked-wheat to remove the loose bran and again spread the burghul on the sheets until all the moisture had evaporated. Burghul was not a word with which we children were enamoured.  I always loathed the July days when it was burghul-making time.  How I cursed that cooked grain.  “Why could we not be like our neighbours’ children who had never heard of burghul?” I often thought to myself.

Called by some ‘the noblest food achieved by wheat’, burghul was introduced to North America by the Armenians, Syrians and other immigrants from the Middle East at the beginning of this century.  However, only in the last few decades has it become known to the general public of the large urban centres in the Western world.  Today, unlike during our pioneering era, it has become a much sought after food by vegetarian and other health conscious people in North America – sold in almost every health food store and in many supermarkets.

Alongside burghul, yogurt was never absent from our home.  We always had a few milking cows and much of their milk graced our table as yogurt – known in the Middle East long before Biblical times.  A wholesome and healthy milk product virtually unknown in North America in the 1930s, it helped to keep our family fit during the Depression years and long after.

Like our ancestors in Syria, we relied on what the ancients called ‘the milk of eternal life’ as a remedy for numerous types of digestive problems – from dysentery to stomach aches and all types of other stomach ailments.  However, what I vividly remember are the dishes that mother prepared from this miracle food of the kitchen.  She sweetened it for dessert and served it as an appetizer or, after draining out its water, as a soft cheese.  All through the Depression years, yogurt found its way into many of our salad dressings, sauces, soups and drinks.  There is no doubt that this milk product, which the ancient Arabs called `the elixir of life’, aided greatly in keeping our family hale and robust during our early farming years.

From burghul and yogurt, we made kishk, considered by some food historians to be the oldest cheese known to humankind.  There is no doubt that during the great Depression of the 1930s, kishk, a powdered cheese, more than any other food, kept our large family nourished.  With this near perfect edible, we made a variety of savoury dishes which not only stifled our hunger, but satisfied our taste buds.

However, to produce this tangy food was no easy task.  At the same time we were preparing the burghul, we made a large amount of yogurt, then placed it in cloth bags and drained out the water to a soft cheese consistency. The solidified yogurt, known in Arabic as labna, was then mixed with coarse burghul.  The mixture was then formed into walnut-size balls and dried in the sun. Later, it was ground and put through a sieve – the final operation in the production of our kishk.

Today, kishk is available in most Arab and Armenian markets in North America.  For thousands of years it was one of the main peasant foods which nourished the farmers of the Middle East.  During the 19th century, American missionaries travelling through the Syrian mountains noted that the peasants were poor, yet they were as healthy as the farmers of America.  After a number of years of research, it was discovered that kishk was the answer.

This ancient food, which is produced from two of the main staples of mankind – wheat and milk – contains most of the nourishment needed by human beings.  With only kishk, perhaps, fortified by a few fruits or vegetables, man could be a healthy specimen.

Kishk often enhanced our daily dishes prepared from two pulses: chickpeas and lentils – both on the Middle Eastern daily menu for thousands of years.  Virtually unknown in western Canada in the Depression era, chickpeas thrived on my parents’ prairie homestead.  Year after year our garden overflowed with this hardy Mediterranean vegetable.  In the all-encompassing drought of the Depression years, when hardly any grains or vegetables grew and people went hungry, we always had our tasty dishes of chickpeas.  Today, it is much different.  In western Canada they are planted on a commercial scale – a far cry from the days of my youth when chickpeas as a food were unknown.

My mother prepared this legume in endless ways.  Often she roasted the still-green mature pods, then peeled and served them as appetizers or she stripped and utilized them raw in cooking in the same manner as green peas.  However, more than often, she used the dried chickpeas as a replacement for, or with, meat in soups, stews and stuffings.  I did not think of it then, but in nutritious value and taste these Depression-era chickpea dishes are equal to any of the foods of the world.

Hand in hand with chickpeas, lentils also contributed greatly to our diet. During the 1930s, in the western Canadian prairies, this ancient pulse was not known to the vast majority of our fellow farmers.  However, for us, it was always found growing in our hand-watered garden.

In the dry soil of the prairies, this hardy plant which had adapted to the arid conditions of the Middle East, grew and thrived.  None of our fellow farmers were familiar with lentils and we, like the other Arab immigrants, kept the knowledge of cultivating lentils well hidden.  Being foreigners with inferiority complexes, we ate our delicious lentil dishes hidden in our home, safe from the prying eyes of our neighbours.

Now, when I look back to these years, I think to myself how foolish we had been.  Instead of acquainting others with this ancient healthy food, we were ashamed to mention its very name.  In fact, as children, my siblings and myself thought that our parents were forcing us to eat inferior food.

One day, exhausted from working in the fields, my father and I sat down to eat our daily meal.  The south Saskatchewan heat had been especially aggravating as we summer-fallowed the land.  Now with the dust washed from my face and hands, I felt relaxed and hungry.  As we sat down around the table, my mother brought out a steaming pot of stew.

The aroma filling the air was mouth-watering.  I lifted the lid, “What are we having this evening?”  My mother smiled, “Yakhnat ‘adas (lentil stew).  Eat! It’s a healthy-tasty dish.”

“0h! no!  Not lentils again!  We just had a lentil salad yesterday.”  I was angry.  It seemed to me in these Depression years that our diet consisted, in the main, of lentils.

All this has changed in the last few decades.  Some years ago, I visited my sister’s family who were farmers in Saltcoats, near Yorkton.  To my astonishment, I found that lentils had become one of the major crops in Saskatchewan, and many people were talking about this legume as a health food. It was then that I realized how unwise I was in my youthful years.

Enhancing our qawarma, burghul, yogurt, kishk, chickpea and lentils dishes were the wild and garden greens, especially dandelions and mint.  In spring and early summer, the tender wild shoots of lamb’s quarters or pig weed, sorrel, dandelion and a host of other prairie greens were prepared almost daily. Without question, these greens were responsible, to a great extent, for not one of us children, in our growing years, ever needing to see a doctor.  Of course, there were other reasons which helped to keep us away from medical facilities like the lack of money and the nearest doctor being 25 miles away – a considerable distance in the horse and buggy days.

From all the prairie greens on which we feasted, dandelion leaves were my mother’s favourite.  However, to me, helping to pick them was only another of our boring farm tasks.

“Come!  Get a pail and let’s go!  The salq (a colloquial Syrian-Arabic word meaning wild greens) are at their prime today,” my mother urged as she put on her boots.  It had rained overnight and the south Saskatchewan prairie land was soggy, but it smelled fresh after the night’s rain.

The atmosphere felt invigorating as we made our way up a hill across the valley from our homestead abode.  Trailing behind with a pail half as big as myself, I was irritated, thinking, “Why were we picking weeds that our neighbour’s children, after once watching us harvesting silq, had told me were poisonous even for animals!”

Little did I or our neighbours’ offspring know that these wild greens were some of the healthiest foods in the world.  There is no doubt that dandelions had a large hand in adding a variety to our diet and keeping our family healthy during the years when the south Saskatchewan plains were turning into a desert of blowing sand.

Every year our kitchen overflowed with endless dishes made from the tasty and nutritious wild greens.  However, as children, we never appreciated the delightful foods resulting from these prairie plants.

As to mint, it was another story.  Thinking back when I was a young boy, I remember a conversation in our garden about this pungent herb.

Why are you growing these smelly weeds in your garden?”  Our neighbour’s wife was walking with my mother, praising our thriving garden, until they stopped at a patch of mint edging our homestead well.  As my mother explained to her how we used mint almost every day – in spring and summer fresh; and during the remainder of the year dried – I, a lad of perhaps ten, listened to their conversation while drawing buckets of water from the well.  I could not believe that our neighbour did not use this fragrant herb that I loved.

In the Middle East, my mother had used mint leaves in every course of the meal, from appetizers to desserts and drinks, especially tea.  Hence, they added much to the taste of her jellies, salads, sauces and soups as well as to giving a tang to a wide variety of yogurt and stuffed vegetable dishes.

This inherited tradition of including mint in our daily menu helped immensely in perking up our meals during the Depression years.  With no money to buy other herbs and spices, mint was our top food enhancer.  Going well with beans, burghul, carrots, eggplants, lentils, peas, potatoes and tomatoes, it was a life-saver when it came to preparing our tasty foods.

In later years, I often pined for our Middle Eastern prairie foods and eventually I began to cook my mother’s dishes.  Subsequently, I travelled many times to Arab world and this led me to write a great number of articles about our homesteading dishes and the foods of the Arab lands.  This prompted me to write a number of cookbooks relating to Arab cooking and the dishes we relished on the plains our southern Saskatchewan homestead: From the Lands of Figs and Olives, Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa, Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead, Arabian Nights Cookbook: From Lamb Kebabs to Baba Ghanouj, Bison Delights: Middle Eastern Cuisine, Western Style, and my most recently published a couple of months ago Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead:  Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer.

In next week’s column, I will present some of the recipes that we enjoyed on the farm.