Advertisement Close

The Healthy Foods of the Arabs are Inching into the World's Health Stores

posted on: Aug 12, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum, Arab America Contributing Writer

Hummus, kishk, labaniyya, mujaddara, tabouli, broad beans, couscous, burghal, dates, chickpeas, figs, lentils, and yogurt – all nutritious – most of these were in my mother’s repertoire of daily foods in western Canada during the Depression years.  Even the Arab condiments and sauces she used with these foods are healthy, nourishing, and tasty.  Garlic, lemon juice, olives, olive oil, onions, and tahini (a type of crushed sesame seed paste) that she used when available, daily for cooking, are some of the healthiest food enhancers known in the culinary world.

The appreciation of these foods and their embellishments sneered at by our school chums a few decades ago are now sold in almost all the health stores in North America.  Society has come a long way from when, as children, we munched our Arab food in school, hidden away from our peers, fearful they would see us eat our sandwiches of stuffed-pickled eggplants and kubbeh (burghal and meat patties), packed in Arab bread (pita).

Burghal, a cooked wheat cereal, which was the basic food of our family in western Canada, is the same fare eaten by the masses of peoples in the Middle East since the dawn of civilization.  A very healthy cereal, it is today a much sought after food by vegetarian and other health-conscious people in North America.

The cooking of the wheat preserves most of its nutrients that include calcium, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin B and protein.  Unsurpassed as a nourishing eatable, burghal is an inexpensive, natural, wholesome and hearty versatile product of wheat – a great replacement for rice.

Rivaling burghal in its nourishing value are lentils – now grown extensively in western Canada.  An easy to grow pulse, it is low-fat, containing about 116 calories in half a cup of cooked lentils.  Highly nutritious, lentils are chock-full of minerals, like folacin, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and rich in calcium, carbohydrates, vitamins B6, and especially protein.  They have one of the highest protein contents of any vegetable, containing more protein than an equal amount of meat.

To get the full punch of this protein content and to create a complete and tasty vegetarian meal, lentils should be combined with a grain like rice or burghal.  The epitome of this combination is the dish mujaddara – a tasty simple fare of lentils and rice or burghal, considered to be one of the healthiest foods in the world.

Chickpea dishes often graced our table during my youthful years.  Even though delicious when eaten green, chickpeas are usually used in cooking when dry.  Like beans, burghal, lentils, and rice, they make an excellent ingredient in all types of soups, stews, and stuffing.

For many centuries in the Arab lands, chickpeas have been employed as a replacement for meat in numerous foods.  For a vegetarian, these chickpea dishes are without equal.  In availability, price, food value, flexibility in cooking, and taste, chickpeas stand near the top, compared to their sister garden treats.  Hummus, a divine chickpea-tahini appetizer, is today found on many North American gourmet restaurants’ menus.

Better known than chickpeas in the western world are broad or fava beans.  Their pods are delicious if picked green and tender.  Dry, they are utilized like dry lentils, chickpeas and peas in soups, stew or to make the ancient tasty dish, falafel, now a common North American food.

For our family, during the Depression years, yogurt overshadowed all the garden legumes in food value and versatility.  Like the Arabs have for centuries, we ate it as a main course or a side dish, often with almost every meal of the day.  A marvelously versatile and adaptable food, it added richness, flavor, and an appetizing aroma to a myriad of our dishes.

The two yogurt dishes that I remember most and which I still often prepare is labaniyya, a hearty yogurt soup, and labna, a very healthy type of yogurt-cream cheese.   Kishk, another food mother often prepared, is still common only among the peasants in the Greater Syria area.  Made from burghal and yogurt, it is one of the healthiest foods known to humankind, but virtually unknown in the North American health food world.

Yet, even more than its culinary attributes, yogurt has a great number of health qualities.  Modern nutritionists have established that this versatile dairy product relieves stomach ulcers, dysentery, and promotes excellent digestion.  Much more easily digestible than milk, it is ideal for the aged, pregnant women, children, and the sick.  In addition, it is believed that regular eaters of this fermented milk tend to have clear skin and find no problem in enjoying a good night’s sleep.

However, only recently has yogurt gained universal popularity and become a staple in the diet of many North Americans.  Today, its image as a health food par-excellence has taken hold.  Some label it ‘the miracle milk product’; others ‘a mystery food’; while the romantics call it ‘the elixir of life’.

From burghal to yogurt, Arab foods are made succulent by garlic, lemon juice, olives and olive oil, onions, tahini, and fresh vegetables – they are all now considered, in North America, health foods.  There is no doubt that these condiments give the famous Middle Eastern parsley-burghal salad, tabouli its renowned appeal as a tasty health food par excellence.

The North African couscous, now a common dish in Europe and many parts of North America, is a healthy, economical and tasty food.  The consumption of this burghal-like product of wheat is today spreading throughout most of the Western World.

In the Arabian Peninsula, the myriad of date dishes add immensely to the repertoire of hale and hearty Arab foods.  For centuries the Bedouins, on only dates and milk, lived a relatively healthy life.  Today, dates, for thousands of years the staff of life for the desert Arabs, are slowly creeping in the kitchens of the western world

Perhaps, more than any of the other foods of the world, the Arabs have, through the centuries, refined their edibles into a tasty-healthy fare.  It is no wonder then that these foods, with a history going back to early Egyptian and Mesopotamia civilizations, are today weaving their way into   the health menus of Europe and North America.

Below are samples of recipes from the repertoire of Arab foods that have become or are becoming well known in western lands.

Hummus bi-Tahini – Chickpea Purée

Makes 2 cups

This now world-famous Arab dish is to be found ready-to-serve in many western supermarkets.

2 cups cooked chickpeas

1/4 cup water

4 tablespoons tahini

4 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cumin

pinch of cayenne

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Place chickpeas, water, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt, cumin, cayenne and 2 teaspoons of the oil in a blender; then blend into a thick paste. (If a thinner consistency is desired, add more water).    Spread onto a shallow platter and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.  Just before serving, decorate with parsley; then sprinkle with remaining oil.

Shawrbat ‘Adas Ma’a Ruzz – Lentil and Rice Soup

Serves 8

If preferred, after this soup is cooked, it can be puréed in a blender then the coriander and lemon juice added and the soup served warm.

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup split lentils

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

pinch of saffron

8 cups boiling water

4 tablespoons rice, rinsed

2 tablespoons very finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat oil in a saucepan then sauté onions over medium heat for 8 minutes.  Add garlic and stir-fry for further 3 minutes then add the remaining ingredients, except coriander leaves and lemon juice.   Bring to boil then cover and cook over medium heat for 40 minutes or until lentils are tender adding more water if necessary.  Remove from heat then stir in coriander leaves and lemon juice and serve.

Taboulat Snober – Pine Nut Taboula

Serves about 8

This is my version of tabouli, now a favored salad almost all around the world. The standard version includes parsley and burghul but I have upgraded this salad with rich-tasting toasted pine nuts.  The crunch of the nuts with the smooth tasting burghul and cold parsley enhances the regular version of tabouli.

1 cup lightly toasted pine nuts

1 small bunch fresh coriander (cilantro), thoroughly washed, stemmed then finely chopped

1 large bunch of parsley, thoroughly washed, stemmed then finely chopped

1/2 cup finely chopped green onions

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons lemon juice

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place pine nuts, coriander, parsley and green onions in a salad bowl then thoroughly combine.

Mix remaining ingredients, then stir into the ingredients in the salad bowl and serve.

Salatat ‘Adas Lentil Salad 

Serves from 8 to 10 

In the Middle East lentils is the mainstay of many peasants and farmers – dishes made with them are hearty and robust, and filling; it’s an inexpensive way to enjoy a nourishing meal.

1 cup lentils, cleaned and washed

6 cups of water

5 tablespoons olive oil

5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 bunch green onions, finely chopped

2 large tomatoes, diced into small pieces

1 cup of cooked chickpeas (canned, drained chickpeas can be used)

1 cup finely chopped parsley

1 large sweet red pepper, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place lentils and water in a saucepan, then bring to boil.  Cook over medium heat until tender but firm (about 20 minutes), but still intact and slightly firm, then drain and allow to cool, saving water for soup if desired.  Combine thoroughly, in a salad bowl, with remaining ingredients and serve immediately.

Batata Mutabbal- Potato Salad 

Serves about 6

This Arabic version of potato salad, which mother often prepared, makes a refreshing change from the usual mayonnaise type of salad and is perfect for picnics and barbecues.

4 large potatoes, boiled, peeled, then diced into 1/2 inch cubes

2 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and chopped

4 tablespoons finely chopped green onions

4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

4 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Place all ingredients, except oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper, in a salad bowl.

Combine the remaining ingredients then carefully stir into ingredients in the salad bowl.  Toss gently, making sure potatoes and eggs do not crumble too much, then serve chilled.

Burghul Mufalfal – Basic Burghul

Serves 4

This dish can be served alone as an entrée or as a side dish for stews and other types of food.

4 tablespoons butter

1 cup coarse burghul, rinsed

2 1/4 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

In a frying pan, melt the butter then sauté burghul over medium heat for 2 minutes.

Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, then cover and cook over medium/low heat for 15 minutes, stirring a number of times then re-covering to make sure burghul does not stick to the bottom of frying pan, adding a little more butter if needed.  Shut off heat and stir then re-cover and allow to cook in own steam for a further 30 minutes.

Falafel – Chickpea Falafel

Makes about 4 dozen small patties

There are numerous ways and various ingredients that can be used to make falafel.  This is one of my favorite types.

2 cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 cups finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)

2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

1 cup finely chopped green onions

1 egg

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)

oil for frying

Place chickpeas in the food processor and process for about a minute.  Add remaining ingredients, except oil, and process until the chickpeas are very finely ground and a dough-like paste is formed.

Make into small patties, then deep-fry.  Drain on paper towels and serve warm.

Note: Falafel is best eaten as sandwiches by placing patties in a bed of eggplant purée and tomato salad in pita bread that has been cut in half into two half pouches.

Tahini-Coriander Delight

This dish is excellent when served as an appetizer or as a dip.  It is also a terrific sauce with falafel sandwiches and as a side dish with fish dishes.

1/2 cup tahini

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup water

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

pinch cayenne

1 1/2 cups finely chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)

Place all ingredients, except coriander, in a food processor, then process for a minute.  Transfer to a serving bowl then stir in coriander and serve.

Hilwat Tamr – Date and Nut Pie

Serves 6 to 8

The date is considered to be one of the most nourishing fruits or vegetables found in the larder of humankind.

1/2 cup blanched almonds

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

1 cup half-and-half cream

1 pound dates, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon rose water

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

Combine almonds, walnuts, and sugar; then set aside.

Preheat oven to 3000F.

Melt butter in a frying pan; then stir in cream, dates, cinnamon, and rose water. Cook over low heat until dates become soft, stirring once in a while to make sure the dates do not stick. Add a little more cream if necessary. Stir in nut mixture; then sauté for further 3 minutes.

Spread evenly in a pie pan; then bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven; then sprinkle with sesame seeds. Allow to cool; then cut into small wedges and serve.

Couscous Sweet

Serves about 8

Besides being a fine entrée, couscous is often served as a dessert or a breakfast cereal.

2 cups couscous

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup sugar

hot milk

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Soak couscous in warm water for a few seconds, then quickly drain and place in the top part of the couscousiére or double boiler with a perforated top.   Thoroughly break up the lumps in the couscous and set aside.

Fill the bottom part of the couscousiére or double boiler with water then bring to boil.  Fit the top part with couscous to the bottom part with water then cook for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring couscous every few minutes to make sure kernels do not stick together, then remove from heat.

Place couscous in a serving bowl then stir butter and sugar into couscous.  Add milk and stir until the consistency of a soft porridge is reached.  Sprinkle with cinnamon, then serve immediately while warm.