Advertisement Close

Nomads and Camels: Geographic Influences on the Bedouin Diet

posted on: Nov 2, 2022

Nomads and Camels: Geographic Influences on the Bedouin Diet
Bedouin in Petra Jordan / WikiCommons

By: Jordan AbuAljazer / Arab America Contributing Writer

Known in Arabic as Badawi, the Bedouin people are a nomadic group in the Middle East and North Africa region known for their long and extensive history throughout the region. Bedouins reside most predominantly in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and several regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Because of their long history of surviving the harsh desert, Bedouin people are typically regarded with respect. In many ways, their lifestyle is a preservation of the Arab culture as it has existed for thousands of years.

However, this does not mean that Bedouins are an uneducated or unseen group. Islamic faith and an ability to read Arabic are common in Bedouin communities, as well as their robust culture values intricate art forms such as dance, music, and oral poetry and literature. In recent history, the modern urbanization of Arab countries has presented quite a few difficulties for Bedouin people. Though they have largely been forced to adapt to the economics and governances of the countries they reside in, Bedouin culture remains a vibrant migratory culture that is well-known and respected in the Arab world.

Bedouin settlement patterns go through two main phases. In the summer season, the Bedouin people move into cultivated land to herd sheep and goats and farm crops. In the winter season, they move into the desert to herd camels. As is true of most attributes of Arabic culture, the practices of Bedouin people are impacted heavily by the geography of the region. Beyond the cities spread throughout Pre-Islamic Arabia, nomadism was practiced by many in order to maintain regular access to animals, crops, and markets.

The Food

Meat

Camel / Flickr

Naturally, nomadism has also had a large influence on the foods traditionally eaten by Bedouin people, much of which have become staple foods of Arabic culture in general. Bedouin cuisine revolves primarily around the animals they are able to herd in relation to the current season and the region in which they reside. This is a large reason why camels are so heavily valued in Bedouin culture. The strength and versatility of camels allow Bedouins to subsist on the dairy and meat camels provide as well as use the animals for transportation. During the summer, the Bedouin diet transitions to one that subsists on the meat and dairy provided by sheep and goats as well. When and where crops can be harvested are also a large part of what determines the Bedouin diet. Once the rain of the winter season has passed, Bedouins return to desert regions to harvest the desert plants for medicine, food, and feed for their animals.

Though there are many traditional Bedouin dishes, a few are considered to be the core of the cuisine. Even as the same dishes are recreated in Arabic restaurants, they are still attributed to Bedouin culture. Usually, meals are accompanied by a traditional coffee that is thick and made with ginger.

One might assume that the Bedouin emphasis on animal herding would naturally lead to the Bedouin diet solely being meat-based, however, such dishes are reserved for formal occasions. The preservation of an animal’s health is important for the survival of Bedouin people, so the meat is used more regularly as a side or flavoring for yogurt and soup dishes.

Bedouin dishes also vary by region. For example, several dishes made by Bedouins in Yemen are strikingly different from those in Jordan. However, there are a few qualities of Bedouin food such as the use of meat as a flavoring that remains consistent throughout the region. The dishes discussed here will focus particularly on the Levant region of the Arabic world, which includes Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine.

Bedouin Bread

The Bedouin technique for making bread has existed for centuries and continues to be a unique staple of the Bedouin diet. As much as it is enjoyed for its taste, bread is used as both a utensil and a sitting tray for other dishes. As Bedouins eat a rice dish, for example, they are able to tear the bread resting at the bottom of the platter to scoop up the dish itself. Bedouin bread is first flattened into round sheets and then may be baked in a number of ways. Most traditionally, the bread is baked by encasing it between two pans and baking it in a sand pit where hot coals have been placed.

Dates

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dates-275x184.jpg
A date palm tree bearing fruit / WikiMedia

The date is perhaps the most important food in Bedouin culture. Dates grow on large palm trees that are native to the Middle East, and their historical presence in Arab culture has been documented in religious texts, literature, and more. Once the dates are harvested from palm trees, they are dried out and stored for later use. When other foods such as meat, grain, and rice cannot be sourced, Bedouins are able to rely solely on the consumption of milk, water, and dates until the next season arrives. Because of their sweet taste, dates are also the primary ingredient of Bedouin desserts.

Mansaf

Lamb shank mansaf / Flickr

The national dish of Jordan, mansaf, is a traditional dish with historical ties to Arabic courtesy and formality. The dish consists of rice, meat that is most commonly camel or lamb, and a yogurt stew. Once the dish is cooked, it is served over layers of bread on a large metal platter. For formal occasions, the skull of the slaughtered animal is placed on top of the dish as well. Both the host family and their guests sit around the platter and eat with their hands. For the smaller cuts of meat that cannot be equally spread to all participants of the dinner such as the kidneys and brain, the head of the hosting family, the sheikh, personally takes them from the dish and hands them to the guests.

Bedouin culture is best framed through the efforts made by those in the desert regions of the Middle East and North Africa to build life and community that can subsist on the geography of their area. In turn, the nomadic settlement patterns of the Bedouin people have shaped their eating patterns as well. Bedouin food and the environments in which they are cooked, offered, and eaten are closely tied to each other. To take part in the foods eaten by Bedouins is to also come to an understanding of the long history through which Bedouin people have preserved the traditions and practices of Arab culture.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!