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Middle Eastern Cooking and Flavors and Recipies

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.

Turkey 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.

The Flavors of Arabia
The Arabian Peninsula has been closely linked with spices throughout its history. Spices were appreciated everywhere in the Middle East for their fragrances and their medicinal properties, as well as for their enhancement of flavor in food. Herodotus, "the father of history," wrote in the fifth century BC of the spices of Arabia that "the whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odor marvelously sweet." For centuries the Roman Empire, with its insatiable demand for Eastern spices, kept caravans crisscrossing the Peninsula, bringing such important spices as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, spikenard, nutmeg and cloves to the West. Muhammad himself, as a young man before the Koran was revealed to him, accompanied caravans across the Peninsula to Syria, carrying goods which very likely included spices. After Islam was established believers came to Makkah from all over the world to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, and enriched the Peninsula with an enormously varied culinary acquaintance. Arabian cooks developed a mastery of flavoring, using a multitude of spices in each dish to create a taste which is rich and subtle, never overpowering but magnificently enhancing the food.

In many other regions of the world where the climate is hot, the food is, too. In southern India, Mexico, and parts of Africa, for example, many dishes are served that will literally scorch your tongue if you're not used to them, and make beads of perspiration stand out on your forehead. Perspiration has a cooling effect on the body, of course, and it is generally accepted that this is the purpose of such spicing. In contrast, spicing in Arabian cuisine is not extremely pungent. Although there are, as everywhere, individuals who enjoy a good hot red pepper, or a large dose of ginger, mustard or onion, the flavoring in Arabia is tasty enough to awaken an appetite in the heat, but not so hot as to induce a loss of the moisture so essential to life in an arid or desert land.

Certainly, in most cities of the Peninsula there are sophisticated supermarkets where you can find spices sold in rows of uniform bottles containing colored powders. But it is more common - and more fun - to buy the spices whole in some tiny, fragrant shop or stall in a suq. These whole spices are interesting in that they reveal, to a certain extent, which part of the plant has yielded the spice, whether bark or berry, seed or sap. More importantly for flavor, they will be stronger and more aromatic since the volatile essential oils are lost much more rapidly after the spices have been ground. The spice seller will often grind your spices for you on the spot, if you prefer, or he may offer to sell you a pre-ground mixture which he will assure you is excellent for specific dishes, such as a rice pilaf or a vegetable stew, but whose ingredients remain his secret.

Dates have always been an important food in the Peninsula, where several varieties are cultivated in ancient groves in the large oases; dates are a common condiment at any meal and with coffee. Various nuts - almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts and pine nuts - all of which grow in regions of the Middle East, lend texture as well as flavor to Arabian foods. Familiar spices and herbs like cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, hot red and green peppers (Capsicum spp.) and allspice, ginger, mint, parsley, bay leaves, basil, dill, rosemary, garlic and onions all are used frequently. A few others which are becoming more commonly known in the West are popular as well, such as cumin, caraway and coriander - both the tan, spherical seeds of the coriander plant and its parsley-like fringed green leaves, known in the West as cilantro. But beyond those there are still other spices and condiments important to the flavor of Arabia that are relatively unknown in the West today.
Sesame seeds, the pale, small seeds of a tall herb grown in many parts of the Middle East, are extremely important to the cuisine of the region. The seeds are pressed to extract a high-quality oil; lightly toasted, they add their nutty flavor to a large number of breads and pastries, or provide a tasty coating for sweet Medina dates stuffed with almonds. Tahinah, a paste made from sesame, is mixed with mashed chick-peas, garlic and lemon juice to make the beloved dip hummus. Sesame seeds mixed with honey are a nutritious, sweet snack. Perhaps Ali Baba commanded the cave to "Open, sesame!" because the seed pods of this plant (except for modern commercial varieties) burst open suddenly and forcefully when the seeds are ripe, scattering them widely.
Cardamom is an essential ingredient in that ubiquitous symbol of Arab hospitality, coffee. In the Arabian Peninsula, coffee is usually a straw-colored brew, made from lightly roasted beans, lavishly perfumed and flavored with crushed, large green cardamom pods, and served unsweetened in miniature handleless cups in a stream of generosity that ends only when the guest's thirst is unquestionably satisfied. As it is one of the world's most expensive spices, cardamom's generous use is intended as an honor. In addition, coffee brewed from dark-roasted beans, and usually prepared with sugar, is drunk occasionally. That brew is sometimes spiced with a little ground cardamom seed as well. Cardamom is by no means limited to coffee; its pleasant, camphor-like flavor combines well with any food or beverage, hot or cold. (I challenge you to find an exception.) The seed pods, slightly crushed, are a standard spice in the traditional Arabian dish kabsah, a lamb-and-rice stew, and it is a common ingredient in fruit desserts.
Dried limes lend a bright tang to stews, some varieties of kabsah, and fish dishes The limes may be used whole and fished out of the dish before serving, or pounded to a fine powder. To make your own dried limes, boil the small round variety of lime vigorously for a few minutes, then dry them in a sunny or otherwise dry and warm place for several weeks until they turn brown and feel hollow.
Mahlab, the aromatic kernel of a kind of cherry with a black fruit, that gives that distinctive flavor and scent to the sweet braided yeast bread popular all over the Middle East. The droplet-shaped kernels are ground into a powder and used in this and other breads and pastries. In addition to providing "the bread spice," this versatile tree has several other uses: Its fragrant oil is used in making perfumes, its hard, heavy wood is valued in turnery, and the tree itself provides grafting stock for cherry growers in southern Europe and western Asia.
Mastic, the resin exuded from the bark of a small evergreen shrub closely related" to the pistachio tree, is best known in the West today for its use in such products as varnish and paint, but cooks in Arabia continue their centuries-old custom of enjoying its unique fresh, resinous aroma and flavor in meat soups and stews and in puddings. Mastic melts into the food rather than dissolving, so it is best to pulverize the translucent light-yellow lumps before adding them. Mastic is one of the many ingredients used in the popular shawurma, that elaborate construction of marinated meat, fat and flavors which rotates on a vertical spit placed close to a fire.
Nutmeg is the seed of a large evergreen; tree native to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) of what is now Indonesia. The fleshy yellow, peach-like fruit of this tree splits open when ripe, revealing the nutmeg encased in a dark-brown shell, which is in turn wrapped in a bright red net, or aril; this aril is the spice mace. Nutmeg has long been in popular use in the Middle East, as in the rest of the world, both as a flavoring and a medicine; however, its medicinal properties have caused it to be classified officially as a drug and it is therefore banned in Saudi Arabia today. Very large quantities of nutmeg can produce hallucinations followed by ferocious headaches, and an overdose can be lethal.
Rosewater and orange-blossom water lend their sweet perfumes to a wide variety of foods, notably puddings and pastries but also to some fruit drinks and salads. They may be used separately or together, depending on the dish and the taste of the cook. The essences are distilled from the petals of the flowers with water, a process developed by the Arabs; the flower waters on sale today are usually a dilution of this product. Rosewater is one of the earliest distilled products ever made, and its manufacture has been an important industry in the Middle East for about 1,200 years. Rosewater and orange-blossom water are added to food simply for the pleasure their fragrance gives, rather than for flavor.
Shaybah, also known as "old man's beard," is a tree lichen found in the Arabian Peninsula whose complex bitter, metallic flavor is popular in meat and vegetable stews. A small piece of curly black-and-silver lichen will flavor a large potful.
Saffron is commonly used in the more elegant rice dishes, both savory and sweet, as much for its beautiful yellow color as for its unmistakable earthy taste. Chicken and fish are also often flavored with saffron. This spice, the world's most expensive, is made up of the stigmas of an autumn-flowering crocus native to the Middle East. The stigmas and parts of their styles are dried to brittle red threads which, when ground, yield a yellow powder. Each flower has only three tiny stigmas, and something like 80,000 flowers are needed to produce a pound of spice. Most of the saffron in trade today comes from Spain, where it was introduced by the Arabs in the eighth or ninth century.
Sumac Powdered dark-red sumac berries provide a pleasant lemony spice which tastes especially good on meats such as shish kebabs. Although it is produced by a small Mediterranean/Persian tree related to the poisonous sumac of North America, and it is sometimes used in tanning leather, the agreeable acid of these berries is in no way harmful. Sumac was mentioned nearly 2,000 years ago in the writing of Dioscorides, a Greek physician serving in the Roman army, as having healthful properties; Dioscorides says it was "sprinkled among sauces" and mixed with meat. Modern-day eaters find it excellent on pizza. Sumac is also generally considered an essential ingredient in the spice mixture za'tar,
Tamarind it is a small tropical tree similar in appearance to an acacia. Its name is derived from the Arabic for "Indian date." The pulp of its long brown seed pods yields an extremely viscous syrup with a distinctive sour flavor that is excellent in vegetables, meat and fish dishes. Tamarind syrup makes a delicious and refreshing cold drink, prepared like lemonade with water and sugar. This spice is not so exotic in the West as it may seem at first: Tamarind is an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.
Baba ghannuj - A dip made of mashed cooked eggplant mixed with lemon juice, garlic and tahinah.
Baklava - A pastry made of many paper-thin sheets of dough (filo) brushed with butter, layered with nuts, and coated with sugar - or honey syrup.
Burghul - Cracked wheat. Made by first boiling, then drying and grinding whole wheat; available either fine - or coarse-ground.
Halal - Prepared according to the requirements of Islam. In the case of meat, the procedure includes invoking the name of God and bleeding the animal.
Hummus - Literally, chickpeas, but usually refers to hummus bi tahinah, a dip made from mashed cooked chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic and tahinah, and eaten with bread and olive oil.
Kabsah - A lamb, chicken or (less commonly) fish stew with rice, tomato and spices.
Kubbah - A mixture of ground lamb, fine burghul and grated onion pounded to a paste and served raw or cooked in a number of ways.
Kunafah - A sweet pastry made with strands of butter-coated dough that look like shredded wheat, filled with ricotta-like cheese or nuts.
Kuskus - Couscous, a steamed semolina dish served with a meat-and-vegetable stew.
Labnah - "Yogurt cheese," or yogurt that has been drained of its whey. Usually eaten with olive oil.
Lahm m'ajun - "Arab pizza," pita bread topped with a thin layer of finely ground meat, onions, tomatoes and seasonings.
Mahshi kusah – Zucchini (courgettes) hollowed out, stuffed with a mixture of fried ground meat, spices and pine nuts, and baked served with tomato sauce.
Manqush - Bread baked with a topping of za'tar mixture and oil. Also called simply za'tar.
Mezzah - Hors d'oeuvre such as stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ghannuj, pickled turnips, olives and raw kubbah.
Mulukhiyyah - A dark green leafy plant with a sour, viscous juice, used to make a chicken dish or a soup much loved by most Arabs. The plant is a member of the mallow family.Substitute with spinach and okra
Sambusak - Deep-fried pastry triangles stuffed with spiced ground meat. Familiar throughout the Islamic world under many names and in many variations.
Shish kebab - Cubes of meat grilled on skewers, often separated by bay leaves or pieces of vegetable.
Schwarma - Layers of marinated and ground meat of different kinds, interleaved with fat and flavoring, roasted on a vertical spit.
Tahinah - A paste of crushed sesame seeds, used as the base for sauces and halvah, and as an ingredient of many other dishes.
Water-buffalo milk - This extremely rich and creamy milk is widely used from southern Asia to southern Italy. Diluted with cow's milk, it is used to make butter and ice cream; the heavy cream is used on some pastries.
Za'tar is the Arabic name for the herb thyme, but it also denotes a delicious mixture of two parts thyme, one part sumac, one part sesame seeds and a little salt. (Proportions may vary, and other spices may be added according to each family's taste.) Served with a high-quality olive oil and flat Arab bread, it is a popular breakfast throughout the Middle East. Eaten with labnah or olive oil and bread. See manqush, above.
Zaytun - Olives.
Arabian Recipies from all Arabic countries

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