Many still think of it simply in terms of hummus, shawerma, pita and doner kebabs, or Friday night takeaways, but the immense variety and widespread geographical distribution of Middle Eastern cuisine can’t be overemphasised.
Over decades, it has found its way into the world’s top restaurants; inspired fusion recipes; and been a favourite among celebrity chefs. In short, the popularity of the cuisine is no secret. A lesser known story, however, is its origin.
What were the influences that first shaped the cuisine? What role did religion, politics, empires and immigration play? What are some of the recipes of the past?
For answers, Food by Gulf News turned to famed German historian and academic Peter Heine, who has studied the Middle East for more than half a century and written a definitive book on it called The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine. Heine says the names of a whole range of foodstuffs and beverages betray their Middle Eastern origins, among them are apricots, coffee, marzipan, and saffron to name a few.
From Mesopotamia to the world…
“There are also some recipes that travelled the same way from the Middle East, like the Spanish ‘escabeche’ [marinated fish or meat cooked in an acidic sauce] from the Arabic ‘Sikbadj’,” he said. But, more on that later.
Middle Eastern cuisine has its foundations on the old oriental cuisines of Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. “In old times, over the centuries, there has been a permanent political, economic, cultural and culinary exchange all over the region,” he said.
This not only concerned the ways of preparing ingredients - like mills and tannur [mud oven] - but the ingredients themselves. “They range from spices to grains and beans. In Sumerian Mesopotamia one could find coriander, cumin, fennel and others,” Heine said.
“Grains and the way to treat them were not so different all over the Middle Eastern region. Wheat, barley and millet was planted. Beans and legumes, lentils, mung beans, chickpeas or peas were grown. Oil from sesame was produced. There were also different types of onions, garlic, cucumbers, lettuce, water cress, leeks everywhere, plus cooks had milk and meat from animals at their disposal.”
Crusaders and traders
Over time, merchants and crusaders took these culinary ideas and practices back with them to northern Europe.
Heine said: “The Iberian Peninsula and the Balkans, for example, witnessed a lively exchange of plants, fruit and knowledge about how to cultivate and prepare them. The dietary textbooks by authors writing in Arabic, which were translated into Latin, especially in Italy, played a key role. They helped acquaint people with various spices, fruits and types of vegetable that were unknown in Europe hitherto.”
Or some methods of preparing poultry. “In 1596, the British chef Thomas Dawson prepared chicken with grapes, while the French chef Pierre de Lune, whose cookbook was published four years later, reproduced a recipe that hinted at its Arab antecedents - Arabian duck soup.
“Among the recipes that are unquestionably identified as originating in Arab cuisine is ‘blancmange‘,” Heine added.
In the Middle East the version is known as Muhallabia, a dish that’s a sweet, milk-based pudding, just like in present-day France and the UK. Meanwhile in the Middle Ages the name ‘blancmange’ was applied indiscriminately to any pale-coloured confection, and in the earliest recipes was the name for a very plain dish comprising chicken or meat, sugar, rice and almond milk.
The story of a princess and an aubergine recipe
Heine gives the accolade of one of the most famous dishes in various Middle Eastern countries to the Buraniya. “It was presented for the first time at the wedding of Caliph Ma`mun [Abu Al Abbas Abdullah ibn Haroun Al Rashid], the seventh Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate, with the daughter of Hasan B. Sahl in 825. In view of the great significance of the event, the aubergine dish that was served was something quite special. The name of the bride was Buran. And the historians inform us that the dish was invented by her. So it was called Buraniya.”
The recipe involves soaking aubergine in salted water and then frying in a mixture of olive and sesame oil till cooked through, followed by with a sprinkling of black pepper, whole cumin seeds and murri, a sour-tasting condiment thought to have been made from brine and fermented barley.
Heine says the Buraniya’s fame continues even today in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Spain, and the Balkan region, and in Georgia and Azerbaijan. There has been an evolution of recipes with this name. He attributes the widespread acceptance of the dish because it harked back to times of Arab splendour, and the tale of a princess. “Plus, the recipe isn’t very complicated.”
What the royals used to eat
The royal connection with food continues… with their huge kitchen staff and big cooking premises, they had glorious feasts and food traditions that displayed their social standing. One interesting ingredient used was asparagus, which was brought to Baghdad from Syria within two days during the season. Another was truffle: “Not so expensive because they could be found in the desert,” Heine said. “Also important was the use of expensive spices.”
The elites of the Abbasid Caliphate could afford certain products that were beyond the reach of not only the common people but also the middle classes. In addition to top-quality meat and fish, it was above all the many expensive spices that constituted this class distinction.
The historian recounts the story about a special recipe connected to the Caliph Al Amin (who ruled from 809 – 813), another son of the famous Abbasid Caliph Haroun Al Rashid, had heard about a Byzantine cook. Her name was Bid’a.
“Her name means ‘excels at all things’. She was known far and wide as a talented chef.”
Al Amin requested her to prepare for him a dish of ‘sikbadj’, such as she had cooked for him and his father before.
“He had told her that he had never tasted anything as good. Bid‘a naturally complied to his wish. The name of the dish comes from Iran and roughly means ‘a kind of vinegar’.”
It essentially contained lamb, onions, eggplants, cinnamon, coriander, almonds, raisins, figs, saffron, oil, rosewater and vinegar, painstakingly cooked in layers.
Heine says what made the preparation of this dish so special was that Bid’a began by smoking the meat in expensive incense like ambergris. “She served the sikbadj with various different sausages and flatbreads filled with finely chopped meat and pickled vegetables, as well as little pastries and an assortment of vegetables and herbs arranged in a way that they resembled a flower bed.”
The Caliph was so ecstatic, he composed a poem on the spot beginning with the lines: “’Here comes Bid‘a, carrying a spring garden of a dish/It looks like it’s dressed in robes of light.’ She also received a neck-chain worth 300,000 silver dirhams as a reward for her art.”
While this elaborate dish seems to have faded from Middle Eastern cuisine, it continues to thrive in Spain even today and is known as escabeche. It arrived during the Arab conquest of Al Andalus in 711 and the subsequent establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate.
The recipe of sikbadj as escabeche is still true to its original creation as a meat dish cooked in vinegar with elements of sweetness.
The elaborate Ibrahimiya
Ibrahim Ibn Al Mahdi, a prince of the Abbasid family, was not only a poet and a gifted musician but also an outstanding gourmet. His name has gone down in history due to its association with a very special dish in which minced meat is combined with whole pieces of meat that he is believed to have invented. It is called ‘Ibrahimiya’.
Heine recounted: “Al Katib Al Baghdadi who wrote Kitab Al-Tabikh in 13th century gives the recipe: ‘Cut some lamb into medium-sized pieces, place it in a tajine and cover with water, adding salt to taste. Make up a small bouquet garni consisting of ground coriander and black pepper, finely chopped ginger, a couple of short cinnamon sticks and a piece of gum mastic; place all these in a small piece of muslin and tie the neck firmly. Add to the meat, along with some fine chopped onions.
“While this is cooking, form little meat balls from the minced lamb meat, add this to the other ingredients and continue cooking till everything is tender. Remove the bouquet garni at this point. Mix grape juice with finely ground almonds and water to make a thick paste. Taste it. And if it is too bitter, sweeten with a little sugar. Tip this in the tajine as a thickening agent and let the dish simmer at least for another hour on a slow heat. At the end of the cooking time, carefully wipe down the sides of the tajine with a clean, damp cloth, sprinkle some rosewater over the dish and … serve immediately.”
A version is still consumed today in Egypt as Kabab Halla, a dish wherein pieces of veal are slow-cooked in a pot with a lot of onions, spices and butter to create a richly caramelised meat dish. It is particularly popular during Ramadan.
Islam and the legend of Arab hospitality
A huge facet that underpins the spread of much of Middle Eastern cuisine is the art of hospitality, something that people from the region pride themselves on. And just like now, in the past there were unwritten rules of hospitality.
“Hosts had to treat their guests according to these rules. That is to see, that they got enough food and drink. And of course, there was a certain way of reciprocity so that the guests had to act according to the way they were treated … according to the [customs] of the region.”
“I would like to reference the famous 11th century Muslim scholar Abu Hamid Al Ghazzali, who has written about the ways Muslims should behave as guests as well as hosts. Of course, the deed of Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] is taken as an ideal. According to the ways the Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] acted, hospitality is one of the acts that Muslims should do as often as possible. There is an often quoted word of the Prophet [PBUH]: Tut´imu ta´aman wa taqra´u salaman ´ala man ta´rif wa ´ala man la ta´rif (Give food and greet whom you know and whom you don’t know). From the Prophet [PBUH] there are many rules on how to behave while eating, such as taking food with the right hand only, not to take food from the middle of a plate and so on….
“There is a saying that the visit of any guest is like the visit by the Prophet Mohammad [PBUH]. So hospitality has a strong religious aspect.
“In addition there are is a code of behaviour that has to be followed. For example, if one is invited and offered a drink or a snack, one has to refuse a first and a second time. Only after the third offer one can accept. Of course, the host has to offer something three times.”
A feast of 100 camels
Heine said that particlarly famous are tales of a Somali prince and poet Hatim Al Ta’i from the Ta’i tribe of Somalia, who is referenced as an example even today. “According to tradition, even when he was still a youth, he invited an entire tribe of Bedouins passing by to come and dine with him. To cater for them, he ordered his father’s 100 camels to be slaughtered to provide a great banquet.
“When his father rebuked him sternly for what he had done, he defended hinself saying: ‘But father, my deeds will ensure us lasting fame among all Arab tribes.’
“And he was right; even nowadays the phrase‚ ‘He is more generous than Hatim Al Ta’i is common place among Arabs as a way of acknowledging and showing one’s gratitude for a host’s hospitality. Moreover, the 1990 Bollywood film, Haatim Tai, directed by Babubhai Mistry, further boosted the reputation of the legendary host.”
But Heine says there is also another aspect of hospitality that is stressed with the Syrian proverb ‘Good cooking is half of hospitality only’. “That means the host should also take his or her time for an interesting conversation, some jokes, even gossiping. The social aspects of the rules of hospitality are more important than the culinary ones.”
The slow disappearance of an ancient cuisine… a way of life
Today, that landscape of food is very different from what it once was. Of course, the most important changes being the rise of modern methods and gadgets used for cooking.
Heine said: "There is a difference if you cook on a charcoal fire or on a gas flame. There is a difference if you smash a cooked aubergine with knife or a fork or with a modern technical device. And the modern techniques of cooling ingredients via an ice box or deep freezing make a difference to drying.”
More recently, besides the availability of ingredients from all over the world at all times, the Middle East saw one more slow change - the danger that traditional cooking was going to be forgotten in some parts of the region. “The reason for that is since the 1960s, families started preferring going to modern Western restaurants of Italian, Indian or Chinese styles. At home there was staff from countries such as India, Pakistan, and Philippines and so on. So they prepared their traditional food for the families of their employers.
“In metropolitan cities like Baghdad there were cooking schools where young upper class women could get to know French cuisine, and a cookbook from Lebanon had among the Mezze recipes ‘Afukatu bi-l-mayonees’ [a dish of avocado in mayonnaise].”
This saw new influences, faster cooking methods and as people embraced modernity, traditional recipes lay gathering dust in attics. But, all is not lost, the 1990s saw a revival of interest in older dishes.
“See for example Min al-fann al-tabkh al-sa´udi with recipes collected from old Saudi housewives,” observed Heine.
Another layer in this shift has also been the colonial legacy of France and the UK along with immigration. “Since the beginning of the 20th century, in British and French cookbooks, one could find recipes with chapters titled, Dishes from the Arabian Nights.
“Then with the immigration of people from the Middle East, especially since the 1960s across the world, in many cities of Western Europe now one can find restaurants of different categories offering Middle Eastern cuisine. And Europe is nothing but richer for it. Beirut started restaurants that offered high-end Lebanese food in the early 1970s. Restaurants like that were to be found even in London since the first half of the 1970s.”
Below are five delicious recipes from Peter Heine's book, opening a fascinating window into the past
Because it adds liquid to the meal, this type of soup is a traditional start of the iftar meal during the ending of fast in Ramadan, says Heine. "Some of the easy-to-make vegetarian Arab soups are served as single dish meals. All that is needed to complete the meal are Arabic bread, labneh (hung yoghurt) and perhaps a salad."
½ cup olive oil
4 small carrots, peeled and dices
4 small potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
½ cup of parsley leaves
4 cups water
1 can stewed tomatoes (540gm)
¼ tsp Ras El Hanout (A mixture of spices including cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, paprika, fenugreek, and turmeric.)
1 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper, as required
1. Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the carrots, potatoes, onion, garlic and parsley. Sauté on medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring constantly, then add the other ingredients and bring to boil.
2. Lower the heat, cover and simmer, until the vegetables are tender.
Chicken with Almonds
"This recipe is typical now for at least city cuisine, and used to signify palace cuisine," says Heine. Almonds were expensive for a long time, and had to be imported into many regions of the Middle East. "Now of course they can be found, even in crushed form, easily."
1 chicken cut into serving pieces
5 tsp butter
5 onions, diced
5 small cloves garlic, diced
Salt and pepper, as required
5 tbsp of ground almonds
1. Fry the chicken in a saucepan in butter until it gets colour, add onions and garlic and fry until the onions get soft. Add water, salt and pepper and let simmer for 45 minutes; add water if necessary.
2. Chicken should be well cooked. In a small bowl mix almonds with cold water to make a soft paste. Add the paste slowly to the chicken, stirring constantly. Let simmer for a few minutes. Then serve.
Date and meat potage
The combination of dates and meat has a long tradition in the Arab world. "Of course, it was and still is a recipe for special occasions, mainly in the eastern part," says Heine. "It was reinvented since historic and traditional recipes were rediscovered during the last 20 years."
5 tsp butter
4 medium onions
5 cloves garlic diced
1 cup of chopped parsley
2 lbs (900gms) lamb, in two centimetre square cubes
Cinnamon, pepper, Ras El Hanout (The mixture usually comprises over a dozen spices, including cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, paprika, fenugreek, and turmeric)
10 dates, pitted and cut into strips
1 cup rice, rinsed
1. Melt butter in a saucepan and sauté the meat until it starts to get colour. Stir the onions, garlic and parsley in, continue to sauté until the onions get brown.
2. Add the remaining ingredients except dates and rice. Cover the pan with water up to half of the ingredients, cook by medium heat.
3. Stir in the dates and rice, add water if necessary, lower the heat, cook until the rice is tender.
Zucchini and Yogurt Dip
For thousands of years peasants in the Middle East have been nourished by more or less meatless food, says Heine. Meat was only consumed on occasion of feasts or at marriages and other private or social festivities. This age-old recipe is still part of the typical recipes of the region today.
1 lb (450gms) zucchini
1 cup yogurt
1 spoon of crushed garlic
½ cup of tahina
Juice of two lemons
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp of finely chopped coriander leaves
1. Bake/grill the zucchini in the oven until it becomes soft, then peel and mash.
2. In a bowl, add the zucchini and other ingredients, exept the coriander leaves, and mix until like a cream. Chill for at least one hour.
3. Add the coriander leaves before serving.
Heine says this modern recipe might be a bit strange for lovers of traditional eating, but it plays with the structure and quality of aubergines. You can use it as an hors d’oeuvre as well as a dessert.
12 very small aubergines, washed and stemmed
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
1 small tsp whole cloves
2 tsp orange blossom water
Juice of 2 lemons
1. Put aubergines in a pot and cover with water. Bring to boil and cook for 5 minutes on medium heat; remove and drain in a strainer.
2. Place sugar, water and cloves in a pot, boiling over medium heat while stirring constantly until the sugar melts. Add aubergines, cook for 20 minutes on low heat. Stir in orange blossom water and lemon juice, cook for another 5 minutes and cool down. Serve with some syrup (for 900gm aubergines, make the syrup out of 900gm sugar and 600ml water. Put sugar, some cloves and water in a pan and bring to boil continously until the sugar melts).
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