Yikes! It’s been over 4 years since my last blog entry! To put it concisely, I’ve been on a much needed sabbatical that prioritised soul-searching and personal healing alongside focusing on finishing my second cookbook, The Jewelled Table, published by Hardie Grant and which came out this fall. I feel rather ready to embrace the world of blogging again and moving forward will endeavour to share recipes and other updates more frequently here, though on my own un-regimented pace.
I’ve been writing about Middle Eastern food for 12 years now. I launched this blog, then titled Dirty Kitchen Secrets, in 2008, a time when talking about labneh and za’atar was like talking about Martian ingredients. The culinary scene has changed over the last decade and as conflict raged in the Middle East, our cuisine has become all the rage on western tables. In fact, it even often comes across rather Martian in its appearance to us natives. For example, chocolate hummus?! Anyway, with the cusine’s rise in popularity and add to this a distorted, media-driven narrative, our sacredly-held cuisine is facing an identity crisis.
So, when I returned to the writing board to pen my second cookbook, The Jewelled Table, I was overcome by an urge to dispel a growingly-popular narrative on Middle Eastern food; namely that it is all about ‘mezze’ and that its offerings are distinguished enough to be independently claimed or branded by any particular nation. I spent a lot of time and perhaps my own sanity, trying to trace dishes, ingredients and techniques. What I already knew but nevertheless was reiterated to me through said research and which I touch on in the book, is that food and heritage ‘its assimilation, appropriation, diffusion, fusion and cross-fusion’ has occurred since time immemorial…
But it remained rather difficult not to season my second cookbook with a controversial and perhaps to some an unecessary dose of politics. Even though blatant rewrites of history happen before our eyes on a daily basis, I believe it is our responsibility to share different stories and neglected narratives where we can. Because to me and almost all Arabs which includes Christian, Muslims and Jews the narrative of Middle Eastern cuisine in international media, more often than not, tastes of an unmistakable erasure of identity and ethnic cleansing of Arab and in particular Palestinian identity. It is also a divisive narrative that puts Arab up agains Jew, more on that below. But on a more personal note, it also reeks of national bias.
Middle Eastern cuisine is a rooted cuisine that points to a unified history where dishes were and are still shared between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Notice, I don’t reduce the narrative to Arabs and Jews. This is because it’s a faulty rhetoric since Jews have been part of the landscape for thousands of years, well before 1948 and the installation of Israel. Hence to do so, then I’d need to also differentiate between the Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs too. But this is unnecessary because the food heritage of the Middle East has been shared by Middle Eastern Jews, Middle Eastern Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims for millennia. Yes, there are some micro-distinctions and nuances that exist such as well known dishes that belong to a historic landscape but generally speaking the cuisine is a shared cuisine. Yet, the predominant division is to make it either Arab (which is often assumed by association to be muslim) or Jewish.
I once read a recipe entitled ‘Jewish Stuffed Courgettes’ aka Koussa Mehshi and was left confused. I could not pinpoint any defining ingredients or techniques (say preparation according to Sabbath guidelines) that made it Jewish, rather than Christian or Muslim, for example. We don’t hear of Muslim Stuffed Courgettes or Christian Stuffed Courgettes, for example in the Arabic culinary rhetoric, anyway. It is simply Kousa Mehshi and is naturally understood to be enjoyed by Muslims, Christians and Jews. This for me is important to point out because it is unnecessary and divisive branding that is propelled by media laden with an undercurrent of zionism.
There are foods that are enjoyed during Lent, a Christian tradition, but that does not make them strictly Christian dishes… In the culinary rhetoric, we never use the word ‘Christian’ to attribute sautéed greens in olive oil (hendbeh b zeit, for example). It is naturally understood that they are foods enjoyed by the multitude of sects that pepper the region and popular during the Christian 40 days of lent.
As for national bias, I’ll be lazy and use hummus as an example and the desperate claims to brand it Lebanese vs Israeli or Syrian or Palestinian? For me, our culinary melting pot is first Levantine (to discuss only one part of it) belonging to Jews, Christians and Muslims of this land, before it is Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian and certainly before it is Israeli (more on that in The Israeli Front).
Lastly I will add, Middle Eastern food can not candidly be branded as Israeli food since this is a fusion cuisine (read The Israeli Front) and to voice this opinion is not to partake in anti-semitism. I knew that my inclusion of this argument in the book was going to put-off some people and automatically have me labeled as anti-semite. And this signals the divisive rhetoric the media has successfully conditioned globally. If you’ve been in a conversation with me about this particular topic, you’ll definitely have heard me complain about the bias semite argument. Muslim, Christian and Jewish ‘Arabs’ are all semites unified by a common root language that is Aramaic. Any of the above mentioned semites could however be anti-zionist, anti-wahabism or anti-evangelical zionism…
Alas, I’ll stop there and leave you with an excerpt from the The Jewelled Table’s introduction that elaborates further on these viewpoints, alongside a recipe all the way from Medieval Baghdad, that I think you and your guests will enjoy over the Christmas festivities and perhaps bring forth a new conversation that looks at the similarities and commonalities amongst us all no matter our religion or nationality!
“Cultural assimilation, appropriation, diffusion, fusion and cross-fusion of cuisine (and culture!) has been constant since the dawn of civilisation. History tells us that cuisine has always been adaptive and adoptive by virtue of trade but also kneaded, shaped and slow-baked by empires – their expansion, invasions as well as migration and diasporas.
While it may appear like the food of the Middle East has remained relatively unchanged since the dawn of time due to the tendency of strict observation of tradition in the Middle East, it is in fact a cuisine that has been privy to a fair share of change. A brief example is the adoption of non-native ingredients, such as the aubergine (see Lady Buran, page 145 of The Jewelled Table) and the tomato into Middle Eastern cuisine (see Maftoul-stuffed turnips, page 210 of The Jewelled Table). We know the ancient Greeks refined their cooking by learning from the ancient Persians, in turn offering up inspiration to the ancient Romans with plenty of cross- fusion as well. The Mongols fused Persian and Chinese culinary culture and, later, cooks of Medieval Europe were greatly influenced by the food of the Arab world.
SO WHAT IS THE FOOD OF THE ARAB WORLD?
Many of the dishes we may arbitrarily call Lebanese, Palestinian or Syrian are dishes that are, in fact, shared across the national boundaries of what has been historically referred to as the Levant or Mashriq or bilad el sham or ‘countries of the North’, which encompassed modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, Jordan and southern parts of Turkey.
That’s because today’s geographical boundaries are century-old borders drawn by the colonial powers of the era. For most of the aforementioned nations, there is no distinct national cuisine perse; instead, micro-distinctions and nuances exist, which may be influenced by rural life, terroir and micro-localised ingredients or traditions. Lines of culinary tradition can therefore resemble a sauce- smeared plate, though there does exist distinguishing national dishes that may or may not be shared, and that come to the forefront in specific countries. Examples of this are the Musakkhan of Palestine, a dish celebrating the olive oil harvest and the desert rice, meat and dry yoghurt dish (see Jameed, page 100 of The Jewelled Table), known as Mansaf and particular to Jordan, though the theme is ubiquitous across the Arabian Gulf.
For the most part though, these countries’ cuisine reflects their shared ancestry, tradition (though not necessarily religion), language, and the empires that passed through their kitchens. Therefore, it’s not a novelty to see a dozen adaptations and namesakes for the same dish. Of course, there are lesser known traditions and distinct dishes to each country which have not made their way into the proliferation of today’s cookbooks, whether Arabic or foreign language. The food of most of the population – that is of poor or rural people – was snubbed and rarely chewed by the noblemen and so would remain relatively obscure, never staining a manuscript. This is again because empires, not city-states, have influenced and forged cuisines.
Yet even with so many obvious similarities, the cuisine of the greater region does not remain so uniform with further idiosyncrasies and nuances but also more striking divisions. This is true with the food of the Persian or Arabian Gulf and North Africa. To more accurately examine (though not absolutely) Middle Eastern food is to then slice the cake in three; Levantine cuisine, Persian or Arabian gulf cuisine and North African cuisine. At its root is the oldest cuisine in the world, the dusty Mesopotamian kitchen of modern-day Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey. Finally, one must then also mingle with the empires that have permeated the banquets of the region; the Ottomans, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mogols and the Persian Empire to really savour the full-bodied history and uniqueness of Middle Eastern food.
THE ISRAELI FRONT
Today, Israeli food is the front-runner of Middle Eastern cuisine – much like Greek food was in the 90’s and 2000’s – an example is how the West associated hummus with the Greeks, even though the dish isn’t part of the Greek culinary repertoire. Ask for hummus in Greece a decade ago and you’d have been met with puzzled looks. Yet, in the West hummus was heavily marketed as Greek!
Today we see the same thing happen, humorously one of the casualties is hummus again, though ‘Israeli’ is the darling marketing word. Hummus, while the habibi of the whole levant, is in fact believed (to date) to be of Egyptian origin. What I wish to say though, is Israeli food should by no means be a benchmark or a footprint of Levantine or Middle Eastern cuisine as a whole – a cuisine historically shared by Muslims, Christians and Jews inhabiting the region –as the trend likes to serve up. A recently established country and largely made up by colonialists, the food of Israel is a melting-pot of the adopted Levantine and Arab cuisine (as they also refer to it within Israel) as well as the cultures of the near and far countries the colonisers came from during the last century. Which is why, the food and culture of Israel is in no way an authentic reflection of Middle Eastern or Levantine cuisine but rather a fusion of Jewish diaspora cuisine and indigenous cuisine.
To save the debate of cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation for another platform, as politics cannot but spill hot oil in the kitchen, I will finish by saying Israel is of course allowed its own national cuisine as it is also allowed to decide what will be its national dish, even if that dish is one adopted from the Arabic kitchen. After all, as history has shown us about the influences highlighted in much of this book, our kitchen is very much the drumming result of banging pots and pans and the cross-fusion between our kitchens and those of the empires that have conquered us. Cuisine cannot be confined and cuisine should not be confined! Rather than break dishes, we need to be breaking bread. However, we must be as translucent as a perfectly sweated onion, Israeli cuisine is not Levantine or Middle Eastern cuisine, it’s a fusion-cuisine and much inspired by the indigenous food of the terroir it has colonised. One need only allow the Arabic, Turkish or Persian (generally speaking) etymology of the dishes speak for themselves.”
A Salmon’s Feast- Samkat al Baghdadi
A fish in three parts is a conversation starter – and requires far less effort than it sounds. First, go for a wild fish, if you can. I love salmon for its fatty meat but I treat myself to it only occasionally because of the unsustainability of farming practices.
The head is the best part. It’s the sweetest, most succulent, most nutritious meat, especially the rapture-rousing flesh on the cheek and the collar bone. While not exactly made as Al Baghdadi had suggested, the recipe is in fact inspired by one in his 13th-century Book of Dishes that called for a fish; ‘Whose head is roasted, whose middle is baked and whose tail is fried’. In my version, the Persian curry ghalieh (which is also a hit at my supperclubs) supplies adventurous eaters
a more enticing dining experience. I’ve accounted for extra sauce as it can be enjoyed across the different thematic parts of this fish, should you wish.
A 2 kg (4 lb 6 oz) whole salmon should feed 6–8 people, alongside other side dishes. Ask your fishmonger to prepare the salmon into the following parts: head reserved, tail reserved (skin on), and two fillets, skins reserved. See picture overleaf.
- for the sh head ghalieh with tamarind and fenugreek:
- 250 g (9 oz) pre-packaged
- tamarind pulp
- 1 salmon1 head
- 80 ml (2 ?2 oz/1?3 cup)
- rapeseed oil
- 1 large onion, nely chopped 1 teaspoon ground turmeric 1 small hot red chilli,
- deseeded and nely
- 1 tablespoon fenugreek
- 2 handfuls coriander
- (cilantro) leaves, nely
- 1–2 handfuls parsley leaves,
- nely chopped
- 1 garlic head, peeled and
- nely chopped
- Tahdeeg rice (page 213 and
- pages 217–218), to serve
- for the skin-wrapped salmon milieu with vegetables:
- 2 skins of the salmon 600–800 kg (1 lb 5 oz–
- 1 lb 12 oz) whole side of salmon, skin removed and reserved
- 21?2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to grease
- 3–4 radishes, thinly sliced 3–4 small purple potatoes,
- very thinly sliced
- 1 carrot, peeled and thinly
- 1?2 leek, thinly sliced
- 1?2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
- 5 cherry tomatoes, sliced
- for the salmon tail with date molasses and toasted sesame seeds:
- 1 salmon tail, skin-on, pat dry
- using paper towels 45–60 ml (11?2–2 oz)
- rapeseed oil
- 1 tablespoon Bezar spice mix
- (page 28)
- 1–2 tablespoons date
- 2 tablespoons sesame
- seeds, toasted
- aky sea salt and freshly
- ground black pepper
- Put the tamarind pulp in a large heatproof bowl, pour over 480 ml
- (16 oz) just-boiled water and leave to soak for about 10 minutes. With
- a fork, mash the tamarind until it dissolves in the water, leaving you with a thick, sauce-like paste. Strain through a ne sieve, discarding the seeds and tough bres. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4. Line a baking sheet with baking (parchment) paper and lightly grease with oil.
- Heat the remaining oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and fry for 3 minutes until translucent and lightly brown. Add the turmeric, chilli and fenugreek, and cook for a further
- –4 minutes, until aromatic. Add the coriander, parsley and garlic and cook for 2–3 minutes, until the herbs wilt and darken in colour, stirring often. Add the tamarind paste and reduce the heat to low. Partially cover with the lid and simmer for 30 minutes.
- For the skin-wrapped salmon milieu, lay the salmon skins vertically on the prepared baking sheet. Place the salmon on top, so it is horizontal on skin, and season with salt and pepper and half the oil. Arrange the vegetables around the salmon, brush with the remaining oil and season with salt and pepper. Fold the edges of the salmon skins onto the salmon. The skin should partially cover the salmon, like in the picture on the following page.
- Next, generously brush the salmon head with the rapeseed oil and place on a separate baking tray. Roast both the salmon and head for 25–30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender, the salmon cooked through and the skin crisp.
- During the nal 5 minutes of the roast salmon, prepare the salmon tail with date molasses. Place a non-stick frying pan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of rapeseed oil. Season the salmon tail with salt, pepper and the bazaar spices, and brush the skin with more oil. Place the tail, skin-side down, into the pan and sear on each side for about
- minutes, until the skin has crisped up and the esh is almost cooked through. Repeat for the other side, searing for another 3 minutes until the esh has cooked through.
- Transfer the salmon tail to a serving plate, drizzle with the date molasses and toasted sesame seeds. Stand the salmon head on a serving plate and spoon the sauce around it. Slice portions of the skin-wrapped salmon into individual portions. Serve everything with Tahdeeg rice (page 213) or
- a vegetarian Beetroot maqluba (page 224).