"Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are." To no one does the dictum of Brillat-Savarin apply more appropriately than to the Arabs. For Arab cooking is as various as the Arabs themselves. What else would you expect from a people who fish in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean? Who farm the slopes of the Atlas, the banks of the Nile, the terraces of Mount Lebanon, below sea-level at Jericho, on the wide plains of Syria and Iraq and in the hothouse oases of Arabia? Who have traded since time immemorial with China, India, the Spice Islands, Zanzibar, Samarkand and the West? Who once ruled over Persia, parts of the Byzantine Empire, Sicily, Spain, the Berbers, Nubians and Kurds, and who were themselves partially conquered by Mongols, Normans, Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Portuguese, Italians, French and English?
Of course there is a certain unity in the diversity, just as in a good curry each ingredient tastes of the sauce as well as of itself. The ubiquity of rice, imported from beyond the area but so nearly universal that it is called 'aish, "life," in some places, is one of the ties that bind. Another is the tomato-onion-garlic-olive oil culture of the Mediterranean. Then the kindness of the climate produces the same fruits—oranges, lemons, grapes, apricots, dates, figs—almost everywhere, or at least close by; while the harshness of the terrain forces a reliance on the hardy sheep and goat for meat and milk. A surprising unity in the arts of good living, including cooking, was bequeathed by 500 years of Ottoman rule. And even a negative unity is imposed by religion, which removes pork from the menu and wine from the cooking pot.
But in food diversity is the spice of life. The change of one ingredient—olive oil for butter, cracked wheat for rice, coriander for parsley—can transform a dish. The many ways of treating chicken—with pickled lemons in Morocco, with onions and sumac in Jordan, with walnuts in the widespread Middle Eastern dish known as Circassian chicken or, most surprisingly, turned into a sweet dessert in Istanbul—show what variations can be played on a single theme.
In North Africa the culinary tradition is Arabo-Berber with a Turkish overlay. The distinctive dish is couscous—steamed grains of semolina—used as a base for a wide range of dishes from fish and meat stews to spicy fruit-and-nut desserts. Further east, the Egyptians still enjoy simple dishes of the beans, onions, garlic and cabbage that were shown on wall paintings in pharaonic tombs 4,000 years ago, and make a national dish of mulukhiyah—a thick, dark-green sauce flavoring chicken, lamb or rabbit.
Moving northward up the Mediterranean shore, we come to that great network of rivers—the Euphrates, Tigris, Orontes and Jordan—that water the valleys and plains of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Sometimes called the Fertile Crescent, this region is a vegetarian's paradise, with a seasonal procession of fruits and vegetables, cereals, golden olive oil and fragrant herbs growing wild on the hillsides or cultivated in flower pots and gardens.
Complementary to the fertile river valleys, the neighboring deserts have produced a cuisine of necessity, as tasty as a camp-fire cook-out to a hungry Boy Scout. Chunks of meat threaded on skewers and roasted over hot coals, a bird sheathed in clay and left among the ashes, lamb seethed in ewe's milk, succulent desert truffles, a handful of dried dates, and coffee—short, sharp and astringent with the flavor of cardamom. And on the eastern fringes of the Arabian Peninsula, the curried spices of India assail the tongue, brought by the monsoon winds aboard fishing smacks and trading dhows.
And Turkey, brooding over all, has injected its textures, colors and harmonies of taste wherever the Osmanlis penetrated. The Ottoman Empire was cosmopolitan by definition, Constantinople a synonym for sophistication. The French considered that only they themselves, the Chinese and the Turks evolved a truly haute cuisine. No wonder the Turks left a legacy of dishes, some of a Byzantine subtlety, in Arab cities as far apart as Tunis and Jiddah. Yet they also brought the cleanest taste of all—yogurt, in Arabic laban—from their simple Mongol past.
But most important, the Arabs and the Turks still show an old-world respect for food—for the ingredients, the preparation, the act of eating, and for the eater himself. They search out the best raw materials, each cook having his favorite and often secret source of olive oil, goat cheese, apples or kanafi. The menu is seasonal, the strawberries or zucchini being all the sweeter for the short time there is to enjoy them. The cook is still willing to take infinite pains and usually follows her/his mother's/ grandmother's recipe.
Then there is the ceremony of eating. Hospitality is one of the Arab's keenest pleasures, whether offered in a Bedouin tent or at a luxury hotel. The host at a table of mezeh—that vast spread of mixed hors d'oeuvres often numbering fifty or more—insists on his guests trying a little of each, divides a tomato into equal segments to the exact number of guests, or if the dish is indivisible—a boiled egg, for example—distinguishes the guest of honor with the lion's share.
With such a cornucopia of delights to choose from, it is impossible to single out every accomplishment of Middle Eastern cookery. This issue of Aramco World is like the array of many different dishes spread out in a mezeh. And, like the Arab or Turkish host, we hope that you will savor, at least in imagination, a little of every one.