MIDDLE EAST. The Middle East is that part of Western Asia extending from the eastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey and Syria, through the desert to Iraq and Arabia, and to the East through Iran to the Caspian, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea. Into Africa, it includes Egypt, and, by some accounts, Arab North Africa. This area comprises mountains, deserts, fertile plains irrigated by grand rivers, and seacoasts. Climatically, the Middle East ranges from the temperate Mediterranean coast, to the extreme heat of the arid desert areas, to snowy mountains. This variety of terrain produces a wide range of food ingredients.
The ecology of these lands fosters different modes of adaptation. Nomadism was a prevalent form of existence for much of the history of the region, and remains so on the margins. Equally, the region saw the earliest agricultural settlements and the first cities in human history. Indeed, the contrast and conflict between nomad and city dweller is an ever-present theme in the culture, lore, and politics of the region from earliest times. Ethnically, it embraces Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and, until recently, Greeks, as well as many pockets of ancient ethnicities and religions. Jewish communities, many of ancient ancestry in the region, partook in this ethnic diversity, most of them now settled in the state of Israel, which also includes many European and African Jews, creating a melting pot of diverse cultures and cuisines.
Islam is the majority religion in the Middle East and enters into the constitution of many of its cultural elements, including food and drink. There are many Christian communities, of diverse denominations, and their religious prescriptions of feasting and fasting have also left their mark on food culture. Ancient religions and sects persist in some quarters, notably the Zoroastrians of Iran, as well as many sects, such as Baha'i, professing syncretistic combinations of old Persian religion with Islam and Christianity.
History and Culture
Successive conquests and rule of different empires have shaped the civilizations and cultures of the region, and led to the common themes in its culture that we find today. The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt were subject to subsequent conquests and incorporation in wider empires, starting with the Persians and the Greeks, then the Romans, including Byzantines, which Hellenized much of the region. The Muslim Arab conquests established a vast political entity, soon fragmented, but retaining common cultural elements. The Islamization of much of Iran and the Byzantine Empire brought these elements of older cultures to shape the emergent civilization, notably its culinary elements. The last empire to rule the region (before European colonial rule) was the Ottoman, which also included much of southeast Europe, creating a wide cultural synthesis of Turkish statecraft, Arab religion, Persian culture, and many elements from the territories under its control. This synthesis included the food cultures. An important epoch in the history of the region, which also affected food culture, was that of Arab Spain, from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. Moorish Spain created its own cultural
Ingredients, Techniques, and Cooking Media
Cereals and breads. Cereals constitute the bases of the Middle Eastern diet, historically and today. Wheat and rice are the major and preferred sources of staple foods. Barley is common in the region and is an ingredient in cheaper bread, and millet and sorghum are used in a few places to make porridge and gruel. Maize became common in some areas, notably the Black Sea coast of Turkey, as well as in parts of Egypt. It is made into a kind of cake and eaten as bread. A wide range of breads are baked, mostly from wheat, but also in combination with barley. Bread is generally leavened. Flat breads are the most common. Naan in Iran, pide in Turkey, khubz or 'aysh (more of a generic term for bread) are all similar forms of flat bread made from leavened and risen dough in an oven. In Iran and many Arab lands as well as in Anatolia, a tannour or tandir is the most common oven: an earthenware pot built into a wall or freestanding, is fired with wood or charcoal, and disks of dough are stuck to its sides until baked, usually soft with crisp edges and a bubbly surface. Modern, industrial ovens are becoming more common for large-scale commercial production, which include both flat breads and European style loaves. Another kind of flat bread, called lavash in Iran and Turkey, or khubz saj in Arabic (also saj ekmegi in Turkish), is cooked over a concave iron pot, a saj, much like Indian chapati. Bread is a universal staple in the region, eaten, in one form or another, by all classes and groups, practically at every meal.
Another common use of wheat is in the forms of bulgur (Turkish; in Arabic, burghul) and couscous. Burghul is cracked wheat, made by partially cooking the wheat grains in water, drying it in an oven or in the sun, then breaking it into pieces, in different grades of size. It is used as a staple in a wide area covering Anatolia, Syria, and northern Iraq. Typically, it is cooked in water, with flavorings, much like rice. It is also used in making meat pies, kibbe/kubba (see below), and as an ingredient in salads, notably in tabbouleh, with chopped parsley, tomato, lemon, and oil. Couscous, almost exclusive to North Africa, where it is a staple, is made from rolling semolina grains (mostly durum wheat, but it can be barley) in flour, to make a kind of cross between grain and pasta. This is typically steamed and served as a base to meat and vegetable sauces. Another wheat product is firik or frik, cracked green wheat, sometimes from burned fields, to give a smoky flavor. It is used much like burghul, but considered finer.
Rice is produced in particular parts of the region with suitable climate, soil, and water. Notable rice-producing areas include the Caspian provinces of Iran, the delta of Egypt, and the marsh area of southern Iraq (before its recent drainage). In the areas where it is produced, rice can be a staple, to the extent of making bread from its flour in southern Iraq. Elsewhere in the region, rice was considered a luxury item to be eaten on special and festive occasions. Burghul/bulgur in wheat-producing areas was considered a cheaper substitute for rice, such as the bulgur pilavi of Anatolia (pilav originally referred to rice).
There are many types of rice produced and consumed in the region. Varieties that cook into separate grains (ruz mufalfel) are the most valued, and aromatic varieties are also prized. Traditional varieties in Egypt and Turkey were mostly round or boat-shaped grains, much like Italian rice, while in Iran and Iraq, mostly slender, long grains were grown. In recent years, however, much of the rice consumed in the region is imported from North America or the Far East. Basmati rice from India-Pakistan is highly valued: it is aromatic and produces the desired separate grains. Cheaper long-grain varieties are common.
There are a number of different cooking procedures for rice. Iran boasts the most elaborate and refined rice cookery. The standard procedure there is for the rice to be washed in several changes of water, ostensibly to remove the starch (it is not clear that this operation is necessary with modern rice varieties), then it is soaked in water for at least one hour, but preferably for much longer. It is then drained and thrown into boiling salted water for a few minutes, until grains are just cooked, at which point it is drained (much like cooking pasta), then returned to the pot over some fat, oil, or melted butter; the pot then is covered with a cloth and a lid, and left over a low flame for at least half an hour. Known in Iran as chelow, this plain rice is served under grilled meats (chelow kebab) or with meat/vegetable stews (khoresht). More complex rice dishes are called polow (pilaf , used in Turkish for all rice dishes). When the rice is drained after boiling, it is then layered in the pot with meats and/or vegetables and/or sauces, as well as nuts, currants, or other dried fruit in some dishes, and always with some fat or oil, then covered and steamed as with chelow. These methods of cooking are also followed in some communities in Iraq and in Anatolia. More typical methods of cooking in Turkey and the Arab world involve covering the raw rice (sometimes after washing and soaking) with just enough water to cook it, adding salt, and perhaps aromatics, as well as oil, then boiling until the water is absorbed, at which point it is covered and allowed to steam. More complex rice dishes are prepared by first frying the raw rice in oil or butter, sometimes with onions or other aromatics, then adding water or stock, sometimes with meat or vegetables, and allowing it to cook in the same way.
Oils and Fats
Butter and clarified butter (called ghee in India) are, traditionally, the preferred medium of cooking for those who can afford them. Olive oil is prevalent in the Mediterranean coastal areas. It has many nonculinary uses, such as in making soap and as a lighting oil (which is how it is mentioned in the Qur'an). It was used for cooking predominantly by Christians and Jews. Christians use it during Lent, when meat and dairy products are excluded, and Jews use it in place of animal fats such as butter to avoid mixing meat and dairy products. In regions where olive oil was not prevalent, as in Iraq, Iran, and most of Egypt, Christians and Jews used other oils, mainly sesame.
In Turkish cookery a whole class of vegetable dishes is labeled zeytinyagli, a reference to olive oil. These are usually eaten cold. In the refined cookery of the urban upper classes, butter was used for cooking meat, poultry and rice, while oil would be used for cooking or dressing vegetables or salads.
Another cooking medium is rendered meat fat, especially that derived from the fat tail of a local breed of sheep. Traditionally much appreciated and featured in historical recipe books and manuals of the princes and the upper strata, it is now largely avoided on account of its strong odor and the health worries of consumers. In recent times, modern industrially produced vegetable oils predominate in the region, and seem to have replaced butter and olive oil in cooking. Cheapness and convenience, as well as perceived health benefits, are involved. The use of olive oil persists in particular regions, such as coastal Tunisia and parts of Aegean Turkey, where there are strong traditions of its consumption, although even there, cost diminishes its accessibility to the poorer sectors.
Spices and Herbs
Most regions in the Middle East use spices. Typically, a stew will include a small amount of a spice mixture called baharat, which includes cinnamon, clove, cumin, and coriander. Black pepper is common, and chili peppers are used occasionally, especially as a separate sauce, or as a pickle. Some dishes require specific spices, such as kamouniya, a meat stew with cumin, or the Egyptian molokhiya (see below), with coriander. Iranian cookery features a more extensive use of spices, including the pungent fenugreek leaves and whole dried limes.
Parsley is commonly used in cooking and in salads, and so is mint. Varieties of thyme are common in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, and a mixture of dried thyme and sumac, crushed sour berries, is a common breakfast item with oil and bread. Sumac is also sprinkled over grilled meat. Garlic is common to many dishes and salads.
Meat, Poultry, and Fish
Lamb and mutton have always been the favored meats of the region, with veal as a subsidiary choice in some instances, and, in other places, goat. Pork, prohibited in the religions of Islamhough there are accounts of wild boar being hunted and eaten by some Bedouinsnd Judaism, was also largely avoided by the Christians of the region. Beef was generally considered to be an inferior meat, consumed, if at all, by the poorer classes. This may reflect the quality of the beef it was possible to produce on the sparse pastures of the region. Beef, however, was considered suitable for certain dishes, such as harissa, a porridge of pounded grain and meat. Camel meat was consumed in some parts, but is not so commonly now.
Prominent among the meat preparations were the grilled meats, kebabs, which distinguish the region. There is a wide variety of these grills, with many regional specialties and styles. The most common are the cubed cuts on skewers, known as shish kebab in most places, but tikka in Iraq (and India). Chicken may also be grilled in the same fashion. Another common variety is kofta kebab (kebab kobedeh in Iran, or just kebab in Iraq), made from ground meat, sometimes with onions and spices, shaped around the skewer like a long sausage and grilled. A popular kebab of recent origin is the doner kebab, also known as shawarma in much of the Arab world (gass in Iraq). It is either layers of meat and fat or a shaped ground meat loaf, placed on a large skewer that rotates vertically next to a strong heat source that cooks the outside crisp. The cooked outside pieces are then sliced off and served with bread and salad. There are many other types of kebab: ribs, thin slices of meat wrapped around a skewer; small cubes of liver, kidney, and sweetbreads, sometimes alternating on a skewer with cubes of fat (kofte or liver); wrapped in caul fat, like a sausage, and many others.
Kebab is typically a street or restaurant food, served with bread (rice in Iran), salad, and pickles. It is not usually prepared in domestic kitchens. In recent years, kebab, and especially the doner/shawarma variety, have become regular features of fast-food joints in European and American cities.
Meat and vegetable stews, served with rice, bulgur, or bread, are the other genre of typical meat preparation in the region. A typical domestic meal for those who can afford meat would be a stew of lamb in butter or oil, with onion, tomato (usually as paste), and spices with one vegetable, such as okra, beans, or aubergine (eggplant). Often poorer families would use little meat, usually on a large bone, to flavor the stew. There are many variations on this theme, including the distinguished Iranian stew of korma sabzi, of lamb in butter and a mixture of green herbs minced fine, as well as whole dried limes, often with the addition of red kidney beans or split peas.
Offal, tripe, heads, and feet are much appreciated in many quarters. A typical broth found in practically all parts of the region is kelle pacha, made with sheep heads and feet. This is typically found at a street or specialized restaurant, which is often open all night or very early in the morning, catering to early-rising workers for breakfast, and to revelers after a night of partying and drinking.
Kibbe (Syria) or kubba (Iraq) is a genre of pie or dumpling made with meat and cereal. The most common are made with ground meat (typically lamb) and burghul, worked together like a dough, then stuffed with minced meat that has been fried with onion, aromatics, and, sometimes, pine nuts or almonds and raisins. This can either be in the form of individual small dumplings (usually shaped like a torpedo), or in slices like a cake, baked on an oven tray with the stuffing placed between two layers of the dough. In the form of small dumplings, this can also be cooked in a sauce with vegetables. One striking variation is a kibbe niyye, raw kibbe, made by pounding lean meat and burghul together with seasoning, which is then served as small dumplings, sometimes with dips of lemon juice and chili sauce. In Anatolia this genre is known as kofte, in common with other ground meat rissoles: the stuffed version is called icli kofte, and the raw one is cig kofte. In Iraq and Iran, there are versions of this dumpling made with rice instead of burghul.
Poultry. Chicken is ubiquitous in the region. Squab pigeon is eaten in some parts, notably Egypt and Morocco. Wild fowl, especially duck, quail, and pheasant, are appreciated by some, especially in the Caspian region of Iran, but also in many other parts where there is a tradition of hunting.
In the past, before the introduction of industrial production of chicken, these birds were tough, and were generally boiled and stewed, often in sauces and vegetables, just like meat. If they were to be fried, they would be boiled first (in pieces), then finished in a frying pan in oil or butter. A banquet dish would be chicken stuffed with rice or some other grain with meats, nuts, and aromatics, then stewed or baked in butter and further aromatics. Modern battery hens are tender and do not require boiling or long cooking. But old habits persist, especially in domestic kitchens, though many cooks are now roasting and frying their chickens.
In Egypt, pigeon is served grilled (after being spatchcocked, or opened flat) or stuffed, typically with rice or firik, and baked or stewed.
Wild fowl are cooked in a similar fashion as chicken. One unique dish of wild duck comes from Caspian Iran and is called faisanjoun. The pieces of duck are stewed in a sauce of pomegranate syrup and walnuts. This dish has now become popular all over Iran and in parts of Iraq, but chicken is substituted for the duck. Iranians regard it as one of their foremost national dishes.
Fish cookery and consumption tend to follow specific local tastes and styles, depending on local varieties, forms of fishery, and, sometimes, religious beliefs. Even the names given to the same fish vary widely, and in Mediterranean regions, often follow Greek or Italian derivations. Fried or grilled fish are the most common, as indeed elsewhere in the world. However, local styles are important even for simple grilling. In Baghdad, for instance, Tigris fisherman developed a method of grilling the local carp and barble (called shabbout, and highly valued, now almost extinct), by opening the fish flat, like a kipper, and skewering it on robust sticks, which are then erected around an open wood fire on the ground. This is called masgouf, and Iraqis came to consider it as a national dish.
Istanbul and the Aegean region of Turkey have a rich and varied fish culture, as does the Black Sea region. There are numerous fish restaurants and bars (known as meyhane) along the shores of the Bosphorous, serving varieties from the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. A notable fish from the latter is kalkan, a kind of turbot that is much appreciated. They also feature sea bass, different types of bream, a kind of bonito, and mackerel. These are fried or grilled, or sealed in paper, foil, or a salt crust and baked. A typical Turkish dish is buglama, a kind of fish broth. Any of these fish or hamsi, the small anchovy-like fish from the Black Sea, are boiled in a broth of vegetables and aromatics, with oil or butter, and served in the pot. Fish stews are common elsewhere, such as the salona of Iraq, in which fillets are stewed in onions, tomato, tamarind, and other spices.
In many regions, fish is cooked or served with rice. In Iran, fried fillet of fish is served over sabzi polow, "green" rice, cooked with a herb mixture. Sayyadiya, "fisherman's dish," is typical of the Syrian coast, in which pieces of fish are fried with onions and spices, then cooked with rice. In the Black Sea region of Turkey they have hamsi pilavi, combining rice with the fried small fish. Similar dishes are found all over the region.
Seafood, in the sense of crustaceans and mollusks, such as shrimp, crab, squid, and mussels, are available in the coastal region, but not always consumed. There is a widespread religious taboo against this genre, similar to the Jewish prohibitions. It is not, however, common to all Muslims, but confined to particular interpretations of religious law. These foods are widely appreciated in Istanbul, the Aegean, Alexandria, and parts of Syria and Iraq. A typical street and bar food in Istanbul is mussels stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and raisins.
Vegetables and Pulses
Vegetables and pulses are the predominant everyday food of the great majority of the people of the Middle East. They are boiled, stewed, grilled, stuffed, and cooked with meat and with rice. Among the green leaf vegetables, many varieties of cabbage, spinach, and chard are widely used. Root and bulb vegetables, such as onion and garlic, as well as carrot, turnip, and beet are equally common. Fruit vegetables include marrow or squash, tomato, and eggplant. Bamia (okra or gumbo) is a distinctive element in the cookery of the region, appreciated for the peculiar consistency of the stews made in combination with meat, tomato, and spices, often with a sour flavoring. A similar consistency is achieved with molokhiya (mallow), a green leaf, used fresh or dried, chopped up fine and cooked in a broth with chicken or meat. This is most common in Egypt, where, traditionally, it was cooked with rabbit. Aubergine or eggplant is perhaps the most distinctive vegetable of the region, cooked and served in diverse fashions. It is fried in slices and dressed in yogurt and garlic; or roasted over an open fire, then pulped and dressed with tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and cumin, a dish known as mutabbal or baba ghannoush; stuffed with various ingredients and roasted in the oven, as in the famous Turkish dish of imam bayeldi ("the imam fainted!"); pulped into a sauce for meat in the Turkish hunkar begendi ("the king liked it"); or combined with meat in various stews. Tomato, a relatively recent import from the New World (it arrived in most places in the nineteenth century), is now the most ubiquitous ingredient in Middle Eastern cookery. It is used fresh in a variety of salads, cooked, either from fresh tomatoes or as a preserved paste, in almost every stew and broth, and grilled with kebab.
Beans and pulses are crucial to the diet of the region, second only to cereals. The fava bean (broad bean in England) is original, indeed ancient, to the region. Known as foul in Egypt and Syria, and baqilla'/baqelli/bakla, in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, they are eaten green and dried. Dried, they are boiled in one of the most popular Egyptian foods of foul medames, a domestic and street food, eaten for breakfast or any other meal, mashed and dressed in oil, lemon, and chili. Similar dishes are found in all other parts of the region. The famous ta'miyya or falafel, now popular in Europe and America, was originally made from dried fava, crushed and formed into a rissole with herbs and spices, then fried. It is also made from chickpeas, or a mixture of the two. Green fava are cooked like other green beans, boiled and dressed in oil, or stewed with meat. A famous Iranian dish is baghelli polow, green fava with rice and dill, often with meat; versions of this combination are found elsewhere. The haricot bean (fasoulya) is used fresh or dried, boiled and dressed, sometimes as an accompaniment to grilled meats, or stewed with meat. Black-eyed beans (various names, mostly loubia) are typically used dried, boiled, often with green leaves, and dressed in oil and lemon.
Lentils, split peas, and chickpeas are widely used in soups, with rice, in salads, or with meat. Homous bi-tahina, made from chickpeas and sesame paste, is now common throughout the world, but originated in Syria/Lebanon. Lentils are cooked with rice in various dishes, notably mujadarra, found in many parts of the Arab world, as well as in adaptations of the Indian kichri. This latter, in the form of kushari, is the most popular street food in Egypt. Macaroni is added to the rice and lentils to extend its bulk with a cheaper ingredient, and the taste is enhanced with fried onions and a chili sauce.
Stuffed vegetables are a dish most associated with the Middle East in the popular mind. They are commonly called dolma, the Turkish word meaning "stuffed," but also the Arabic mahshi. Yaprak, "leaves" in Turkish, often vine leaves, but also chard and cabbage, are stuffed with rice, ground meat, pine nuts, and spices, then stewed in oil and tomato, and, less commonly, with a small amount of rich meat such as sheep's feet or breast. There is a version without meat, cooked in oil and served cold, known as yalinci dolma, or "false dolma." Many vegetables are similarly stuffed and stewed or baked, such as squash, onion, tomato, eggplant, peppers, and even carrots. There are many regional and local variations of ingredients and flavorings, such as the use or not of tomato or lemon, or the addition of sugar.
Milk, fresh or soured, was commonly consumed by Arabs, with camel milk predominating in Bedouin regions. Yogurt, a Turkish contribution, is commonly consumed plain, used in cooking, used in salad dressing, or diluted as a drink (Turkish, aryan). Butter, as we have seen, was the favored cooking medium. White cheese, like the Greek feta, is the most common in the region, the best made from sheep or goat milk, as is the much valued halim or haloumi. There are many local and little known cheeses, especially in the mountainous regions of Anatolia, Kurdistan, and Lebanon, which offer rich pastures.
Patterns of consumption depend, of course, on class, region, and communal affiliation. Desert nomads, for instance, consumed milk, fresh or soured, butter, if affordable, and dates with bread at most meals. Meat was a luxury eaten on festive occasions when a camel or a sheep was slaughtered, boiled in great cauldrons, and served on rice with copious quantities of butter, a rare delight. Rural inhabitants had similarly limited diets. Egyptian peasants, as well as the urban poor, eat a great quantity of bread (often at subsidized prices) combined with a little salted cheese and onion. Anatolian and Syrian peasants eat much cooked burghul/bulgur, sometimes with yogurt, in season with tomato. Many urban workers purchase many meals in the street from vendors of kushari (rice, lentils, and macaroni) in Egypt, foul/baqella', in that country and Iraq, boiled turnips and beets, roasted corn, kebab, and bread with everything, in many parts of the region depending on income and season.
Historically, meal patterns varied greatly, and the one feature that seems to be common to all regions and classes was a large midday meal. Most people also ate something in the evening, usually a lighter meal. Now the daily three-meal pattern is common among the urban classes, especially the more prosperous.
Breakfast, if eaten, was not usually a distinctive set of foods, but items and leftovers from other meals. Balls of boiled rice washed down with tea in Caspian Iran, for instance, or the ubiquitous foul or kushari in Egypt. Prosperous households would serve grilled meats or stews for breakfast. Over the course of the twentieth century, many of the urban prosperous and middle classes have come to regard breakfast as a specific meal, influenced by Western models. Breads or pancakes of various kinds with butter, yogurt, and preserves are often served, as well as eggs in various forms.
Lunch and supper are not distinct from one another. Which one is more substantial depends on work patterns and lifestyle, mostly now tending to the Western pattern of emphasis on an evening meal after work, at least for the upper and middle classes. Except, that is, on weekends, holidays, and festivals, when larger lunches are eaten. A typical Middle Eastern meal would consist of a stew of meat (or chicken) with a vegetable, such as beans or bamia, served with rice and bread, and perhaps a salad. Soup, fried fish, roast chicken, or grilled meat are possible additions or variations. The meal finishes with fruit, and sometimes other sweets or pastries. Historically, however, pastries and sweets were not eaten at the end of the meal, but as a separate snack or as a meal in itself. To this day, poorer people lunch on pastries as a special treat.
Restaurants are not traditional to the region, but have developed over the course of the twentieth century. Vendors of cooked food, however, are traditional, and continue to do good business in Middle Eastern cities. The central market areas of cities are redolent with the smells of grilling meat and onion from the kebab stalls, of kibbe or falafel frying, displays of pastries, sweet and savory. Tales of the Thousand and One Nights feature many of these cook shops and their wares. You see people standing, sitting on stools, or crouching around these stalls, sampling their wares. Historically, many urban people did not have domestic kitchens and sent out for their cooked food, as did market people in their shops and workshops, and many still do. The vendors also cater to the customers of surrounding teahouses, taking food to their tables where they are drinking tea, smoking, and playing games. Now, of course, pizza and hamburgers are added to the repertoire of street food.
The Tavern and the Meze
A type of food specifically related to drink is the meze. Drinking alcohol and drink cultures are widespread, especially in the Mediterranean regions. Historically, wine was the most common alcoholic drink, but during the twentieth century, distilled liquor (typically arak or raki) became common, and more recently beer. Historically, most "respectable" people who drank did so at home, with friends. Taverns were rough and low-class. The making, distribution and serving of alcohol were carried out predominantly by Christiansn Turkey mostly by Greeks and Armeniansnd they were usually the tavern keepers. This picture changed over the course of the twentieth century. An increasingly cosmopolitan, modern, and educated middle class patronized public places of entertainment and association, including cafes, bars, and restaurants that served alcohol. That is where the distinctive meze developed into a kind of convivial meal around the drink table. It consists of a number of small dishes (mezze is a Persian word meaning "taste"), picked at leisure: cheese, melon, nuts, various salads and dips, such as tabboule (chopped parsley, tomato, and a few grains of
Feasting and Fasting
Festivals and fasts, mostly religious, are celebrated with particular foods, which vary by community and region.
Ramadan, the fasting month for Muslims, is the most important occasion in this respect. Paradoxically, it is the month during which food consumption increases dramatically throughout Muslim communities. Fasting is prescribed for the daylight hours, to be broken at sunset of each day, then people can eat and drink through the night, until daybreak. Breaking the fast becomes a banquet, with exchanges of invitation between kin and friends, and public banquets held by charities and associations. The cafes and pastry shops are open at night, and a carnival atmosphere prevails in the streets. Many Muslims, following the reported example of the Prophet, break their fast with a date, followed by a variety of dishes. A common Ramadan dish in many regions is harisa (Arabic), keshke (Turkish), or halim (Persian), a porridge of meat (often beef) and wheat, boiled then pounded to a paste, spiced with cinnamon and sometimes sugar, or fried onions and strong spices. Lentil and other substantial soups of meat broth and pulses are common items. Otherwise, the Ramadan table consists of a selection of the popular local foods, of rice dishes, fava beans, salads, and dips, and so on. Sweet pastries and puddings are ubiquitous on Ramadan nights everywhere, and the large-scale consumption of dates is common. A common drink for breaking the fast is that made from qamareddin, dried apricots pulped and dried in sheets, like paper, which is found throughout the Arab world.
The end of Ramadan is marked by a festival, Id 'al-Fitr, a feast that breaks the fast, during which a great quantity and variety of sweets and pastries are consumed. The other major Muslim feast is that of 'Id al-Adha , feast of the sacrifice, which occurs during the pilgrimage month, and at which an animal, usually a sheep or a goat, is slaughtered in every household that can afford it, and great banquets are prepared, with an obligation to give food to the poor.
Lent, the Christian fasting period before Easter, is distinguished by its own foods, dishes that avoid meat and dairy products. This generates a great many dishes made with vegetables, pulses, and oil, many of them described above.
Jewish Saturday meals. Every Jewish community has its typical Saturday dish, one that is prepared on Friday (Cholent) and cooks overnight for Saturday, preferably with the means to keep it hot, but with an extinguished fire. Iraqi Jews, for instance, prepared a dish of stuffed chicken with rice called tebit, "overnight." The chicken is stuffed with rice and aromatics, boiled in a broth with tomato paste and spices, then more rice is added to the broth; the whole ensemble, in a large pot, is then put over a wood fire, covered with old blankets and cushions (to keep the heat), and allowed to cook slowly overnight. At Saturday lunch, the fire will have been extinguished, allowing the handling of the food without fear of breaking the Saturday rules. Eggs were placed over the rim of the pot to cook slowly, and these were eaten for breakfast.
Ancient festivals, pre-Islamic and unrelated to the existing religions, are also celebrated with food. Nowrouz is the Persian New Year and spring festival, falling at the spring equinox in March. It is celebrated in Iran, Kurdistan, and some parts of Anatolia and Iraq. The haft-I sin (seven S's) is a tray on which seven symbolic items, all of whose names begin with the letter "S," are displayed in every household: these include apple, garlic, and vinegar. Part of the ritual of this feast is eating in the open air, which engenders many picnics in parks, gardens, and in the countryside. Another spring festival is the Egyptian Shamm al-Nasim, "the breathing of the breeze," which also requires eating outdoors and having picnics. Fasikh, the traditional dish for this festival, is best eaten outdoors, as it consists of rotted fish (usually mullet) eaten with raw onions.
Global commerce, travel, tourism, and the new media have affected Middle Eastern food patterns in diverse ways. Most commentators note the spread of Western fast foods, such as hamburgers, pizzas, and fried chickenn what has been dubbed "McDonaldization." But this is only one part of the story. Another is the region's development of standard restaurant repertoires, based largely on Lebanese styles, and the spread of these styles to Europe and America: McDonald's in Cairo and shawarma in New York. Another element has been the "invention of tradition": placed on the global stage through tourism and communications, caterers and cooks responding creatively to the demand for "authentic" national and local cuisines. Many hotels and restaurants in Istanbul are reviving a so-called Ottoman cuisine, and grand hotels in Cairo are serving foul and ta'miya, as well as obscure village dishes, to tourists. Globalization, then, does not necessarily lead to uniformity in cuisine, but to diversity, and hopefully, to creativity.
See also Africa: North Africa; Fasting and Abstinence; India: Moghul India; Iran; Islam; Judaism; Passover; Ramadan.
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