Great value is attached to cooking in the Middle East. In that world of strong family ties, large clans and women at home, hospitality gregariousness are deeply entrenched; offering food is the central act in the highly developed art of pleasing.
The cooking is different in every town, every village and indeed in every family: There are rural foods and urban ones, foods which belong to the desert, others which belong to the mountain, the plain or the seacoast, nomadic foods and street foods. Middle Eastern cooking outside the Middle East shows its own variations, too. But there are nonetheless many general characteristics which all these foods, and all the countries, share.
It is a very sensual kind of cooking, using herbs, spices and aromatics generously. Certain methods, like skewer cooking over charcoal or long, slow simmering in unglazed covered pots, are typical of the whole region. All the countries have rice and wheat dishes, stuffed vegetables, pies wrapped in paper-thin pastry, meatballs, thick omelettes, cold vegetables cooked in oil, scented rice puddings, nut-filled pastries, fritters soaked in syrup and many other common elements. You find raisins with pine nuts everywhere, garnishes of chopped pistachios and almonds, and the same food combinations, such as chickpeas with spinach.
It is a shared history, including that of two great world empires, which has brought unity to the kitchens of the Middle East. The spread of Islam and the establishment of an enormous Islamic state stretching across Asia, North Africa and the Mediterranean was the most important factor in the development of a gastronomic tradition comparable to that of France and China.
As the state grew, the Arabs brought to each new region their own tastes as well as those of the countries they had already conquered. Styles of cooking traveled within this vast area with the massive migrations of people; large-scale transport brought into the cities, and even into distant parts of the empire, local produce such as truffles from the desert, olive oil from Syria, dates from Iraq and coffee from Arabia. Crops such as rice, sugar, eggplants (aubergines) and spinach, originally from outside the state, spread throughout it.
The Abassid period, from the ninth to the 12th century, when Islam was the most powerful influence in the world and Baghdad was the political and cultural hub of the state, saw great marriages of cooking styles and great refinements in eating habits. A prosperous cosmopolitan ruling elite had emerged whose members led a life of luxury. Everyone - poet, astronomer physician and prince - took an interest in gastronomy and dietetics. Writings on food were abundant and popular. The taste for spiced foods and sweet things appeared then: Before that, spices had been only merchandise. Aromatics were used in tiny quantities but in great number and in a variety of combinations. Cooking was transformed into an art which reached magnificent heights.
The banquets at the courts of the caliphs of Baghdad were proverbial for their lavishness. A court cuisine had developed which made use of expensive ingredients and elaborate and sophisticated techniques, and in which visual appeal was extremely important. It amalgamated the peasant dishes of the area and the Bedouin foods of the desert with those of Syria Damascus had been the capital of the empire before Baghdad - and, especially of Persia.
The enormous Ottoman Empire, which expanded right into the heart of Europe from the 14th century and into the 20th produced a new court cuisine in its turn. The sultans' courts became notorious for their luxury and their devotion to the pleasures of the table. The imperial kitchens catered for some 4,000 or 5,000 people on the days the Divan (cabinet) met, and for up to 10,000 on special occasions such as the reception of a foreign ambassador. An army of cooks was required and that, in turn, required codification: Strict rules were adopted so that chefs could more, easily train apprentices, and these rules formed the basis of a classic Ottoman cuisine.
In the early days of the Ottomans, all the palace cooks were slaves who had been captured, bought or given as gifts by Venetian traders. A cooking school was established for their children. The position of cook was important, even glorious., and it meant that, by ingratiating themselves with their noble employers or even the sultan, individual cooks could rise to become part of the ruling class. Köprülü Mehmet Paşa, the Ottoman Empire's most powerful vizier, began his career as a cook.
The first Turkish-born cooks employed in Topkapı Palace were recruited as camp cooks in the mountain region of Bolu, in northwestern Anatolia, where the sultans went hunting. It became the tradition that every boy of Bolu left at the age of 13 to work in the palace kitchen or in the houses of the nobles in Istanbul.
The type of cooking that was passed on grew out of an amalgam of traditions borrowed from the empire's conquered territories. The tastes of Byzantium and of the Arabs predominated, and nomadic Turkish foods combined with Chinese and Mongolian ones passed on through Turkestan. The result was the sophisticated cuisine that spread from the Danube to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, from the Balkans to the shores of North Africa and to parts of what is now the USSR - often by means of the battalions of cooks that marched with the Ottoman armies.
The cooking of the Middle East can be broadly divided into four main general styles: Arab, Iranian, North African and Turkish.
Iranian cooking, based on rice, is the most complex and the least known. Arab cooking is highly developed in Syria, where Aleppo is considered the great gastronomic city, and in Lebanon - one of only two Middle Eastern countries to have developed a restaurant tradition. (The other is Turkey.) It is Lebanon, with her emigrant cooks and restaurateurs, which has brought the grilled meats and mazzah of the Arab restaurant menu to the attention of the world. This menu evolved 70 years ago in the region of Zahlah, in the open-air cafés along the cascading river Bardawni. The cafés, which filled the valley, vied to attract customers with an ever varied selection of appetizers, which were in fact the local village foods.
Moroccan food is the richest and most varied of North Africa, and that which has not bean influenced at all by France. It illustrates the kind of kaleidoscopic diversity that exists in the Middle East. The national dish, kuskus (couscous), is of Berber origin. Many other dishes were brought by the Arabs in waves of invasions which started in the seventh century; they have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages. Still other dishes have their origin in Spain and bear witness to the long Muslim domination of that country. The food of Marakesh is Berber with an African element, while the bourgeois cooking of Fez, the dominant cuisine, is more Andalusian, as is that of Tetouan. And on the Atlantic side of the country certain strategic locations reveal the Portuguese incursions of the 15th and 16th centuries. Food in the mountain regions is predominantly Berber, while the desert has the usual food of the nomadic Arab tribesmen, based on dates. There is hardly any Ottoman influence except in Tetouan, where there was an exchange of cooks when the Ottoman army stopped.
There is great regional diversity in Turkey, but the classic cooking we know abroad belongs to Istanbul. Despite the diversity, restaurants all over modern Turkey offer the same menu of meat and appetizers because professional cooks, who still mostly come from the region of Bolu, cook the same dishes in the same way. It is called saray (palace) cooking. The food trade is highly specialized, and its division into guilds is a legacy of the rigid hierarchy and elaborate organization of the imperial Ottoman kitchens, where butchers, grocers, icemen, collectors of herbs, soup-makers, confectioners and bakers were all organized into separate corps with their own quarters and sometimes even their own mosques.
Finally, each of these general kinds of Middle Eastern cooking is cut across by other divisions. The cities of Iraq, for example, each exhibit the effects of different culinary influences - Iranian in one, Turkish in another, Syrian and Indian in a third and fourth. In another example, while the cooking of Istanbul is like that of Cairo and Jerusalem - they were also major Ottoman centers in their day - it is different from that of other Turkish cities whose imperial role was less important.
All these currents and connections have to do with the centers of power and the network of influence of the historical Middle East. Today, picking up a fork is as much a historical act - and as potentially illuminating - as picking up a spade at a Middle Eastern archeological site.
Claudia Roden is the author of A Book of Middle Eastern Food, published by Knopf in the United States and, in a new edition, by Viking in Britain. Her latest book is Mediterranean Cookery, which accompanies the BBC television series of the same name, and is also published by Knopf in the United States.