"L et us describe it as a book on the cultural history of food, with recipes," instructs Peter Heine. The acclaimed German academic and author has studied the Middle East for more than 50 years, with a focus on customs and behaviour in relation to food and hospitality. The title of his latest book, The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine, offers an indication of its scale and ambition, and goes some way towards explaining his disinclination for it to be pigeonholed as either a historical tome or zeitgeisty cookbook.
Middle Eastern food has become hot property on the West’s culinary circuit in recent years. Celebrity chefs, television shows, restaurants and supermarkets have embraced ingredients and dishes from the region, and the likes of hummus, falafel, shakshuka and muhammara have become familiar entities on trendy restaurant menus, and are even mainstays in home kitchens.
Despite this, Heine feels that in scholarly circles and beyond, there is still a lack of knowledge and understanding of how the cuisine came to be, the influences that shaped it and its development over time. Crucially for him, this not only encompasses the macro – the effect of religion, war, politics, economics and travel – but the micro, too; a spice added to a time-honoured dish in a Mughal court by chance changes the way it is made thereafter, for example.
When asked why he felt the book was an important and necessary one to write, Heine says: “The basic facts of eating and food are more or less the same among all mankind: all human beings need to eat. Not only that, food can be part of regional and national identity, as well as an agent for social difference. What is special in Arab food culture is the important role of hospitality compared to the societies in northern Europe.
“Another point is the role of Islam in this context,” he continues. “The Quran describes food, and especially delicious food, as proof of the perfection of God’s creation. There is one more motive for me besides my interest in Middle Eastern cultural history and the fact that I am an addicted eater (but unfortunately a bad cook): that is the problem of Islamophobia in many European societies. I would like to make clear by this book that Muslim culture has a long and rich tradition, [and] that it is worthwhile to become acquainted with.”
The Culinary Crescent begins by offering an overview of the significance of food in the Islamic faith, covering rules and rituals, the role of specific dishes and ingredients during religious occasions and celebrations, and its function as a means for showing respect, reverence and abstinence. Through this culinary telescope, Heine progresses to offer a relatively comprehensive exploration of the establishment and evolution of the region's cuisine, from early beginnings to modern day.
Despite Heine's reticence for it to be identified as a cookbook and the fact that The Culinary Crescent stands as an excellent reference on the subject of Middle Eastern cooking at large, the 100-or-so recipes play a pivotal role. They provide a tangible sense of context and make the book all the more accessible to the average reader. Some of these recipes are firmly entrenched in the past, featuring unfamiliar ingredients and instructions that feel somewhat sparse (a 13th-century recipe for a dish called fatudhaj begins: "Take as much good-quality white [clover] honey as you like…"), while others have been updated and adapted to become a contemporary interpretation of an age-old dish. For anyone who enjoys cooking, has a keen interest in Middle Eastern food and relishes a little culinary experimentation, the dishes offer a delicious window into the past.
The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine will be published by Gingko next month. UAE customers will be able to order their copy from Kinokuniya, Jarir or online
Spinach with chickpeas
Spinach with chickpeas
As noted in The Culinary Crescent: "The 'queen of vegetables', as the Andalusian agricultural teacher Ibn al-'Awwam called spinach, was unknown in Europe's classical antiquity [era]. It is first documented in pre-Islamic Iran, from where it was also taken to Nepal. Around 647, first mention is made of it in China. Its spread to Europe occurred along Arab trade routes. The first Arabic texts in which it is identified by name are those of the Persian physician Muhammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi (864–925) and the Iraqi agriculturalist Ibn Wahshiyya."
Slice 1 large onion thinly and fry in olive oil until browned and caramelised. Sweat three coarsely chopped garlic cloves in olive oil and add 250g spinach. Fresh, thoroughly washed spinach takes just a few minutes to cook, but if you are using frozen spinach instead, follow the instructions for cooking on the packet. Season with salt and pepper, and the skin of one preserved lemon cut into very small pieces. Drain a 400ml can of chickpeas. Add this and the caramelised onions and the spinach mix. Warm through before serving lukewarm or cold.
Pomegranate and orange sorbet
In a heavy-based pan, slowly heat 250ml of cold water mixed with 250g of icing sugar until it has completely dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for a minute. Remove the pan from heat and allow to cool slightly. Pour 250ml of freshly squeezed orange juice and 150ml of pomegranate juice into the warm sugar syrup and mix thoroughly. Crush a few threads of saffron, soak them in warm water and add to the syrup and juice. Also add a few freshly ground cardamom seeds. Allow the mix to completely cool in the fridge. Finally, churn in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. The finished sorbet can be kept for up to three days in a plastic tub with a lid in a freezer before eating.
This recipe has been taken from Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth-Century Baghdadi Cookbook. Select slim aubergines and, after pricking them all over with a knife, cut off both ends and immerse in salted water. Leave for half an hour, dry them and fry in a small pan in a mixture of olive and sesame oil until they are cooked through. Sprinkle some murri [a strong, salty medieval Arabian condiment made of fermented barley; soy sauce is a good modern alternative], a twist or two of black pepper and some whole cumin seeds. Snip up a few leaves of rue as a garnish and serve, inshallah. In an expanded version of this recipe from the same cookbook, walnuts, rue and coriander leaves are added to the aubergine: Spread the mix on a plate. While the dish is still warm, lay 20 fresh shelled and halved walnuts on top. Cover the plate with a clean cloth to allow the nuts to release their oil into the aubergines. To finish, slice some leek (white part only) along with some leaves of fresh rue and coriander, and flash-fry in a little olive oil before adding these to the dish.
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