For millennia, the Middle East lay at the intersection of cultures and trade routes. Ruled by many empires, its regions and their culinary traditions are at the root of more modern-day dishes than you’d think. Come along with us on gastronomic voyage through history. By Anoothi Vishal
Sitting at the corniche in Alexandria, the clear blue of the Mediterranean Sea sprawled in front and the entire hinterland of Nile Valley at your back, the vagaries of history and geography become at once clear. Here is this land that has connected the East and the West since the most ancient of times. Named by Alexander the Great, its famous library destroyed by Caesar, frequented by tradesmen, peopled by Egyptians, Arabs, French, English and many more, this may as well be the centre of the universe—crisscrossed by currents of trade, politics, wars, love affairs, decadence and more. In fact, Alexandria is not just a city, it is a metaphor—for the entire Middle East, of which it is a part.
Some of the best cuisines of the world come about when peoples, cultures, and trades mix, which is why the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region of today offers some unparalleled culinary traditions of the world. Historically, the Middle East has been not just the crucible of civilisation but also the controller of trade and travel between the two hemispheres. Its special position led to the development of diverse cuisines too.
From the ancient stews of the Nabateans, the maritime people who built Petra as well as AlUla, to the simple but flavourful food of the Arab tribes of the desert, from the food of the Emiratis and the people of the Gulf, who controlled trade with India and south-east Asia, to the influential Persian Empire’s offerings, and the sophisticated modern gastronomy of the Ottomans, whose power extended well into the 20th century, every region of the Middle East—often talked about like a single bloc—is unique and deserves rediscovery. Today, of course, metropolises like Dubai boast the best of global cuisines and restaurants. Tourists fly in specially to sample luxe offerings. But take a voyage through history and you will find a rewarding experience in the form of traditional flavours and forgotten dishes.
Egypt and the Levantine
In Alexandria, for instance, there are nuanced flavours at every step—from the delicate crab and clam broths of swish restaurants to street food. The Alexandrian falafel, for one, is regarded as the best in the world. A bite at legendary institutions such as Mohamed Ahmed tells you why. The falafel is a common item of the pan-Arabic mezze, but here it is made with fava beans, a type of broad beans thought to have been a favourite of the ancient Greeks till Pythagoras, the philosopher, decreed that they contained the souls of the dead. Thereafter, they were banned in ancient Greece, but not in ancient Egypt. It is this bean that is soaked, boiled, mashed into a creamy paste, and fashioned into dumplings that are perfectly crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. You could try the falafel anywhere in the world, but you’d mostly find it made of chickpeas, which is not quite the same.
Fava beans go into another ancient dish—the ful medames, a stew flavoured with olive oil, cumin, parsely, and lemon that originated in Gizah but is to be found in most of the Levantine region of the Arab world. The fertile Levant (eastern Mediterranean region comprising countries such as Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, parts of Iraq, and southern Turkey) is, in fact, synonymous with many other gems of recipes, where you can detect Western Mediterranean influences too, as both the regions interacted through the millennia.
The knafeh is a delicious cheesecake from this region (you now find it in other parts of the Arab world too). It uses the nabulsi cheese common to the Levant. This is layered between pastry called kataifi, soaked with syrup, and served with clotted cream. Then, there is the Levantine mezze. While many of its elements remain common with the larger Arabic mezze, one distinctive dish is the fattoush—a delicious bread salad, where toasted pita crisps are mixed with greens. Was this the inspiration for the Caesar salad of 20th-century America? We will never know. The kibbeh is another popular and specifically Levantine dish—a croquet made with pounded bulgur wheat, meat, pine nuts, and spices. However, as the kibbeh travelled to the rest of the Arab world, it acquired regional improvisations. Thus, some Iraqi kibbeh uses rice, and elsewhere, semolina may be used too.
The Arabian Peninsula
If we look at broader regional cuisines within the Middle East, we find that these change as we go from the sea to the desert. If Levantine cuisine is dominated by the Mediterranean citrus, olive oil, and bulgur wheat combinations, the people and tribes of the Arabian Peninsula traditionally made use of much sparser ingredients to great effect. In Jordan, in the deep quiet of the Wadi Rum, a Bedouin guide may take you for a dune safari, offer many hundred camels in exchange for your hand in marriage, but failing that, point to the mansaf for a hearty meal. An intimidating dish at first sight—where large hunks of lamb are dressed up in yoghurt sauce and decorated with slivers of dried fruit and nuts—this is Jordan’s national dish and a must-try if you visit the country.
Another centuries-old Arab dish familiar to Indians is the harees. Originally from Saudi Arabia, this porridge of wheat, water, butter, and meat left to cook overnight is a hearty and nutritious dish for pilgrims. At some point in history, it seems to have made its way into India—into the cuisine of the Mughals, perhaps post the long journeys (lasting years or even decades) of influential Mughal women for Haj to the Holy Land.
The Indian hareesa, which is clearly an improvisation of the Saudi dish, is a recipe mentioned in the Nuskha-e Shahjahani (recipes dating from the 17th century—Mughal emperor Shahjahan’s time). Even today, this is a Ramadan staple for communities such as Mumbai’s Bohras. Similarly, the kabsa, another Arab dish from both Saudi Arabia and Oman, may remind you of pulao. Meat is cooked in water, and this broth is then used to cook rice.
Eastern Gulf States and Emirati Cuisine
Emirati cuisine, or food of the eastern Gulf region, can also be fairly distinctive even though it shares many similarities with other Arab cuisines. An interesting breakfast dish in UAE is the balaleet—a sweet and savoury vermicelli recipe, where the noodles are sweetened with cardamom, rose, and saffron but served with an omelette! How did this dish come about? We can only speculate, since it has so many similarities not just with the Italian tradition of pasta-making but the Indian and Sri Lankan traditions of idiyappam (string hoppers) and seviyan. Historically, it is believed that noodles travelled from the Mongol Empire in modern-day China to Italy after Marco Polo made the journey from Venice to Xanadu in the 13th century. Other accounts suggest a role played by Arab traders of the Indian Ocean, who controlled trade between the powerful Venetian empire and southern India, as well as south-east Asia. The noodle may well have travelled this route and remains with us in several vermicelli dishes of the Indian Ocean territory.
Persian and Ottoman traditions
The medieval Persian Empire and its successor, the Ottoman Empire, had close India connections. These play out in the culinary world with the pulaos and kebabs having made their way to the subcontinent from Iran and Turkish dominions.
The kofteh kebab, made of minced meat, is all pervasive in Turkish cuisine and immediately recognisable to us in India. Another Ottoman dish that found its way into the subcontinent in a very unfamiliar form is the dolma. The dolma is a genre of stuffed dishes, where typically mince, rice, nuts, and spices are stuffed into vine leaves, which are rolled. It is a dish that is common to both Greek and Turkish cuisines. In India, this genre of stuffed, or bharwan, dishes can be seen in the form of stuffed bitter gourd or karela, a later-day Mughal invention! The famous baklava, too, goes back to the Ottoman fashion of wrapping sweet nothings inside phyllo sheets—India has its equivalent in the gujiya: flour encasing sweet and nuts.
Finally, to end the meal, there is coffee. Traditionally, Arabic coffee was seen as the epitome of hospitality, when the host ground the beans himself in front of the guest and brewed the thick coffee, often scented with cardamom and sweetened, offering it to an honoured guest from a dallah (traditional kettle). The qahwakhanas of Ghalib’s Delhi—cafes where young men discussed poetry and politics over such coffee—go back to this tradition of qahwah Arrabiyya (Arabic coffee). There is also tea to savour. In Iran, tea is the national beverage, and there are rules for its drinking: tea is black tea. It must be dam kardan (steaming). It is served without milk, but with sugar and sweets or dates. And most importantly, it must be drunk from transparent glasses (not cups or mugs) called estekan. And the best estekan is the gold-rimmed, kamar-barik (slim waist), with a curve in the middle! Who knew drinking tea could be this delicate and aesthetic?
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