With jellies soother than the creamy curd
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferred
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarkand to cedared Lehanon.
Keats: "The Eve of St. Agnes"
There's a subtle fragrance of cooking over that great and ancient arc that hugs the Mediterranean across northern Africa, over into Saudi Arabia, northward into Turkey and east and south through Iran and Iraq on the Persian Gulf. From the workman's lunch of crisp or chewy flat bread and white goat's-milk cheese to a festive stuffed roasted whole lamb ... from a simple milk-and-rice pudding to the nutty succulent sweetness of baklava....
Middle Eastern people thrive on food of infinite variety and rewarding substance. It's as exotic as rose-water jelly; as refreshing as soft summer drinks made from "lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon"; as filling as an Algerian couscous of chicken, lamb, chick-peas, and a dozen other ingredients. The flavor may be as delicate as the flavor of rose leaves dipped in icy water—or as emphatic and multi-toned as a blend of prime mutton, onions, garlic, herbs, and spices can make it.
Here the preparation of food is a cherished art; the eating of it an exciting adventure—no matter how simple or inexpensive the things that go into the pot.
Middle Eastern dishes, however exotic they may be to the Western palate, begin with staples most of which can be found in any American supermarket. The difference is a matter of accent—and of the traditional patience, thriftiness and ingenuity of Middle Eastern cooks.
The accent is embedded in history and geography. There's regional cooking aplenty in the West, but none that covers anything like the area of the Middle East. There a traveler finds a meld of tastes and cultures going back to Arab conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries, and to succeeding incursions by the Turks. Both empires were Muslim; both mingled seeds of custom among many lands and peoples.
Result: though they eat in at least three different languages—Arabic, Persian, and Turkish—they all handle their pots and their bake-ovens in much the same way.
The sharper contrasts are those of climate and fertility; but they, too, have yielded to a regional culinary character. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is mostly desert; its nomads have lived largely on their flocks of sheep and goats. But Iraq and some of southeastern Turkey are in that ancient Mesopotamian land where agriculture first began, and much of the Middle East produces a rich variety of fruits and vegetables. Wheat and barley flourish; so does the olive tree. Rice is grown in lower Egypt, Iran, southern Iraq, and the valleys of southern Turkey.
Centuries ago southern Arabia was a center of two-way spice trade between Far East and Middle East, and the taste for spices has never died in the Mediterranean and near-Mediterranean world. These people like flavors—mixed, like their own cultures.
Lamb and mutton, olive oil, onions, and garlic are fundamental in the Middle Eastern kitchen. So are vegetables: almost every one a person could think of, and a few that are seldom encountered by Americans. So is rice, except where it's thought of as a luxury.
Fluffy cooked rice, every grain separate from its neighbors, is known as pilaf; but pilaf is also the name for an infinite variety of culinary wonders based on it—happy weddings of rice with meat and vegetables and flavorings.
Cracked wheat is a stand-in for rice in pilaf dishes. It is also indispensable in a basic food of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan: kibbe—a mix of ground lamb, cracked wheat, and onions. Kibbe is eaten raw, boiled, broiled, baked, fried, cooked with yogurt. It's made into meat balls and meat patties and meat loaf. And it's always given more body and more zest with whatever the cook likes—including more ground lamb.
Butter is mostly for baking. It may be a rendered butter that will keep for weeks in a crock on the pantry shelf. But olive oil often replaces it in pastries, and olive oil is universally used in frying and other cooking. Vegetable shortening is an alternate, and in Saudi Arabia some cooks use ghee, a fat usually made from goat's or sheep's milk.
Milk—cow's, goat's, or sheep's—doesn't have overmuch to do in the Mid-Eastern kitchen. Its greatest and most esteemed function is to turn itself into yogurt, the food Keats surely had in mind when he wrote "soother than the creamy curd." Like most other staples in these venerable lands, yogurt has a versatility beyond all Western culinary experience. It can be eaten as a dessert, as a side dish, as a snack. But its unique, quietly sweet-sour flavor also can be detected in stews and sauces, soups and salads, pies and pancakes and pilaf, and in yogurt cheese. In summer it's a drink, thinned down with water and salted.
To these culinary basics the resourceful Middle Eastern cook adds the special treasures of her own land and of the Far East: olives, dates, figs, nuts, spices, seeds, and herbs. She orchestrates her food, creating rich harmonies of meat and vegetables cooked together, blending in the bright notes of basil and bay leaf, mint and marjoram, parsley and thyme and oregano and dill, ripe peppers and paprika, allspice, ginger, cinnamon. As grace notes she adds the seeds of anise and sesame, of caraway, cardamon, coriander and cumin.
Many-flavored, many-textured surprises emerge continually from her kitchen. She stuffs grape leaves, cabbage leaves, chard leaves, fish, potatoes, artichokes, squash, eggplant, dates, pancakes, and pastries—just about anything that can hold something else. An American, confronted here by even such familiar standbys as stuffed chicken and stuffed peppers, would find his taste-buds newly touched. Chopped meat, cheese, yogurt, pine nuts, tomatoes, rice, chick peas, spices, herbs—the combinations in stuffings are almost endless.
Exciting variety comes naturally in such cuisine: variety among regions as well as recipes—and cooks. Among the innumerable sauces poured over rice, a Persian specialty is khoresh—a stew in which fruit is cooked with meat and vegetables. Obviously khoresh can be—and is—made in many combinations.
Throughout North Africa the monarch of dishes is couscous, a formidable melange of vegetables, peppers, spices, and lamb or chicken—occasionally beef. Here again the recipe varies with the cook—and, perhaps, with what's best in the market on any particular day. But the foundation is always the same: couscous—steamed granules from wheat, used as rice is used in a pilaf. The Turks say they have forty ways to prepare eggplant. One of the favorites begins with cooking the vegetable whole in charcoal ashes—or directly over an open gas burner on the stove. Incidentally, it must be peeled while hot, and the cook manages that by dipping her fingers in cold water from time to time as she peels.
Middle Eastern cooks are not only artists, devising multitudes of variations on native themes; they are hard workers and good managers as well. The Muslim tradition of hospitality is inviolate and compelling: a housewife provides the best she has for anybody who honors the household by entering it—friend, relative, or wayfaring stranger.
So she must have plenty of good food, and have it ready; and it must be stretchable, in the event of unexpected but welcome guests.
Thus she masters the art of cooking things together in a pot that can be fattened at any time—and the flavor is greater than the sum of its parts. She cuts meat in cubes—for shish kebab, for stews and soups, for combination dishes; she grinds it—for stuffings, meat balls, patties; she strips the lamb bones and has them cracked to line the pot for stuffed leaves. Even the excess fat can be used in preserving meat for staple kitchen use. Almost nothing edible is wasted.
Finally—the artist again—she sees to it that eating is a rounded esthetic experience. To persuasive aroma and memorable taste she adds the enticement of color and arrangement. Thus white rice mixed with browned Italian semolina—or topped with browned noodles. Or rice all pink, from cooking in a mix of water and fresh tomato juice; or yellow, from saffron. Cool summer salads: green cucumbers and fresh mint speckling the pure white of yogurt. Whole baked fish garnished with mayonnaise, parsley, sliced olives, bits of pimento, and green pickles cut in fan shapes.
There are salads galore: imaginative combinations of greens and vegetables—sometimes with meat, with fish, with cheese, with yogurt. Tabbouleh is a mixture of cracked wheat with chopped mint, parsley, onions, and tomatoes. Fattoush, sparked up with little pieces of crisp Arabian bread, is faintly reminiscent of the Caesar salad esteemed in the western United States, which offers the crunchiness of Frenchfried croutons. In salad dressings the olive oil is often cut with lemon juice instead of vinegar.
Dessert is often fruit or melon. Rice puddings gain flavor, body, and zest from orange blossom essence, rose water, spices and seeds and chopped nuts. And on special occasions, the Middle Eastern cook goes all out with sweet desserts such as halva, nut-stuffed cakes, and baklava.
It all adds up to a long day in the Middle Eastern kitchen, but the busy American housewife can try the cuisine without sweat or tears. Modern food choppers and blenders, electric refrigeration, and frozen foods make it possible, and there are shortcuts and substitutions that may challenge the cook's ingenuity but will save her time and much effort.
It's worth trying.
Shish kebab (Turkish shish, skewer; Arabic kabab, meat) is known to patio barbecue chefs all over America; but who has given a thought to shishfish. (swordfish, for example), or have you ever shished a liver? Eggs are—well, eggs—until they're tried in a casserole with chopped walnuts and half a dozen chopped vegetables. And anyone who thinks he knows all there is to know about lamb stew has probably never made it with kidney beans, flavored with bay leaf, oregano, cinnamon, and lemon juice.
A number of good English-language Middle-East cook books have appeared in recent years. Each of them includes highly readable material on the food traditions in the area covered. For most Americans, the reading will be open sesame to a new world of cooking—yet a world as old as the Arabian Nights.