Story of Arab Food – the Eastern Arab World Part 2
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
When the Arabs were expelled from al-Andalus in the 17th century, a great number settled in North Africa. With them, they carried most of the rich sweets one sees today in the food stalls across these lands, especially in Morocco. The luxurious Andalusian culinary heritage gave the Moroccan kitchen an aura of regal splendor, maintaining the traditional in the contemporary. Today, in the homes of the wealthy, especially in Fez, entertaining guests is a ceremony full of color and romance.
From the Iberian Peninsula, a good number of what the Arabs used in their cooking, from spices, herbs, vegetables, fruits, and prepared dishes, spread to the other parts of Europe, then later to the Americas, some even retaining their Arabic names as in the case of Mexico’s albondigas from the Arabic al-bunduqiya, the English mawmenny from al-ma’muuniya and Brazil’s kiba from its Arabic ancestor, kubba. Today in the European languages many foods and spices still carry their Arabized Asiatic names such as sumac, tarragon, and sesame. And this linguistic contribution continues into our times.
The Arab larder of dishes is today so large that it has become part of world cuisine. Some culinary historians have stated that this abundant table includes, perhaps, 40,000 dishes only exceeded by the Chinese who are said to have a kitchen of some 80,000 dishes.
Among the influences in these dishes was that of the Ottoman cuisine. Despite Ottoman cuisine being labeled as one of the three greatest of the world, following those of China and France, in the march of history, many influences crept into the food of the huge Ottoman Empire. The old civilizations of the Middle East, Arabs, Persians, and Byzantines all had a part in the creation of the Ottoman kitchen. Part of the Ottoman Empire’s realm included the Greater Syria region the heart of contemporary Arab cooking.
This region consists of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. The kitchen of this area did not develop by accident but took shape century after century as culture after culture flowed through the Middle East.
It was from here during the medieval period that the great cosmopolitan cities of Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad became the centers for the development of the culinary arts. It is said that new dishes are not created by peasants but by those with time to spare and those who have the money to experiment with new ideas. The wealthy, with much leisure time, were able to create new dishes and evolve the old. Cooks in the palaces of the caliphs and emirs vied with each other with their creations.
Besides the importance of the wealth producing Silk Road reaching its western end at Aleppo and Damascus, no less important, in the creation of both cities’ affluent lifestyle, was the Frankincense Route from where the perfumes and spices brought by Arab dhows to southern Arabia were transported overland to these cities. Today, memories of the exotic goods carried on these routes are still found in the souks of Damascus and Aleppo.
Throughout the following centuries, other Middle Eastern cities imitated the foods of these historic urban centers. What is known today as Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian or Palestinian food was originally developed in the kitchens of these historic cities and their environs?
Visitors need only enter the old quarters of Aleppo or Damascus and breathe in deeply the aroma of exotic spices, in order to feel that they are in a medieval world of action and color. The Suq al-Hamadiya of Damascus and Aleppo’s network of 15th century stone-roofed streets are infused with a bewildering mixture of people at work or on the move.
This living picture of daily activity depicting what was then of the medieval world is reflected, for example, in Aleppo’s repertoire of unusual recipes – many going back to the court cuisines of the past – while others show the influence of the large Armenian community in the city.
Dishes flavoured with pomegranate syrup, grilled meat smothered in yogurt, barbecued meatballs with sour cherries, a green wheat pilaf called freekeh or one of the dozen varieties of Kubbah, fruits and vegetables mixed into stews, its kababs and kaftas, and its variety of dips and sauces, however, vie in competition with those of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus which boasts of its gastronomy proclaiming that its ancient past has given it its future. Damascenes speak in pride of their basha wa ‘asaakiruhu, harak ‘usba’hu, shish barak and their dozens of types of filo pastries.
Under the Umayyads, the first ruling dynasty of the Islamic Empire, Damascus became the capital of a realm that stretched from China in the east to the heart of France in the west. For a hundred years the wealth of this vast domain enriched the city and it became the most illustrious capital on earth with a celebrated cuisine.
Today, the culinary art of the city is alive and well. There is no doubt that Eternal Damascus, where Alexander the Great and the Arab caliphs once strolled has, after centuries of civilization, developed one of the finest of the world’s kitchen. The words of a medieval traveler who wrote, “Damascus serves the choicest of foods” are still applicable today.
Next to Syria is Lebanon, a small country with a large selection of delicious dishes. The country takes pride in its cuisine and the Lebanese have made sure to take it with them wherever they emigrated. These dishes, common throughout the Greater Syria region, have been exported throughout the world by the Lebanese as they settled elsewhere. The name ‘Lebanese’ for Arab Middle Eastern foods has now become a common identity for these dishes.
The Lebanese have been so successful at marketing their food worldwide that its Aleppan and Damascene heritage has been forgotten. In the Arabian Gulf, countries where there are thousands of restaurants owned by people from the Greater Syria area, even the Syrians and Palestinians call the food offered in their restaurants, ‘Lebanese Food’.
On the other hand, no matter what the food is called or from what part of the Greater Syria area it comes, most of the dishes are healthy, nutritious, appealing and tasty.
In the area of appetizers, Mazza, is a Lebanese specialty, even more, renowned than Spanish tapas. No Lebanese will consider a meal complete without the serving of from 6 to 100 appetizers. It is best to skip the main meal when dining in Lebanon. For me, the appetizer component of the meal is a gourmet world gone mad.
Within the regions of the Arab Middle East, Iraqi cuisine has a long history going back thousands of years. However, it was in the medieval era when Baghdad was the capital of the large Abbasid Empire that the Iraqi kitchen reached its zenith. The tables of the caliphs and nobility were filled with a plethora of unique dishes using ingredients from the lands of the Empire. Cookbooks from this period include recipes prepared by or for certain caliphs and the elite. Ma’muuniya, it is said was so enjoyed by the Caliph al-Ma’ mun that the pudding was named after him. History records that Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi, half-brother to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid prepared an extravagant dish of fish tongues for the ruler that was so expensive that he was reprimanded for the needless expense.
Despite the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the decline of its cuisine, it was revived in the last few centuries thanks to commercial and cultural interaction with the countries of the Mediterranean area and the world beyond.
Today, the foods of Iraq reflect this rich legacy as well as strong influences from the culinary traditions of Turkey and Iran and the Greater Syria area. Because of all these traditions and complex influences, Iraqi cuisine is enormously rich and varied.
Moving south to Yemen, the region known to the Greeks and Romans as “Fortunate Arabia” or Arabia Felix, we find an indigenous cuisine almost as ancient as the country itself.
The origin of Yemeni cuisine goes back to the ancient civilizations of South Arabia. Controlling the rich trade in frankincense, myrrh and the spices brought from India and beyond, then sold to the kingdoms of the North, these south Arabian countries prospered. Through the years, a number of the priceless condiments in which these South Arabians traded entered their culinary art and they developed a tasty cuisine.
Yemenis love hot spicy foods prepared with many seasonings, garlic and a good number of herbs, especially fresh coriander and mint leaves. Fenugreek is the most commonly used of the spices, forming the basis of an everyday paste-sauce called hulba that accompanies all meals and is added to almost every non-sweet dish.
The cuisine of the Arab Gulf countries, however, represents a collection of all of the cuisines of West Asia that have been adapted into the Gulf’s cuisine. These countries which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with a truly cosmopolitan population, have created a rich modern Arab Gulf kitchen. Their cuisine includes, besides the foods of Iraq, Iran, and the Indian sub-continent, the foods of the Greater Syria region. Granted there are many popular indigenous dishes, such as kabsa, mansaf, and kharoof mahshee, the Gulf countries have also taken on new tastes and foodstuffs that have become part and parcel of the region.
In the main, the traditional food of the Arab Gulf countries has evolved to fit into the modern age. On a smaller scale, the foods of the North African countries from Egypt to Morocco and those of the Western and Far East countries have crept into the kitchens of these Arabian lands. The dishes of all these nations have been taken on either as is, or modified to suit the tastes of the local people.
Oil wealth has made it possible to purchase the best ingredients in the world and from every country in the world. As well, the millions of people who came as tourists or to work in this region, bringing their foods with them, have been instrumental in the great innovations in the kitchens of these countries.
Many dishes, especially those of the Greater Syria region, are now truly incorporated into the cuisines of the Gulf States. It is a little surprise then that many of the new generation likely have no idea that when they enjoy their hummus bi tahini, tabbouleh and muhammara, that these dishes did not exist in their countries during the past ages. On the plus side, many of these dishes are now served enhanced with tidbits borrowed from other lands, making them much more appetizing than when they came from their former homelands.
My travels through these Arab Gulf countries are what had inspired me to write my cookbook, The Arabian Nights Cookbook, which shows the evolvement of Arab food and its status as a world-class cuisine – on the same level as the dishes of Baghdad were in the medieval ages.
As for today, Arab cuisine has made its mark.
From the Arabian Gulf to Morocco, many of these rich historic and modern Arab foods inherited, then developed by the Arabs, and also created by these peoples are still, to some extent, culinary secrets hidden behind an eastern veil.
However, since the world is becoming more and more cosmopolitan and internet-friendly, the future of these foods is bright indeed.
Always tasty, enticing, healthy and nourishing, they will not remain tucked away for very long. Today, in many of the large Canadian, American and European cities, Arab loaves of bread, couscous, falafel, hummus, both meat and vegetable pies, and tabbouleh are everywhere in cafes and restaurants, paving the way for more.
The nutritious qualities of Arab foods are gradually being recognized by those seeking a healthier lifestyle. Bulgar, chickpeas, lentils, tahini, freekeh and yogurt, as well as other foods eaten by the peoples of the Middle East since the dawn of history, are today found in many western health-food stores.
As what took place in the Latin-speaking world, Arab foods are continuing to influence the kitchens of nations around the world. Most large urban centers throughout the world today have Arab restaurants and markets.
As the Arabs were the great contributors to the development of civilization in the ancient and medieval ages, so they have come into their own as one of the tremendous influences in the international gastronomic world.
Food is culture and culture is civilization. Enjoy as much of it as you can to understand the creativity of history.