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Flavors of the Arab East

Zaytinya in Washington, D.C., offers an Eastern Mediterranean-inspired dessert of muscat-soaked apricots, vanilla yogurt cream, apricot sorbet and pistachio powder. Photo courtesy of Greg Powers & Audrey Crewe Healthful ingredients with intriguing tastes define cuisines of desert oases and Mediterranean shores

By Melissa Coury

For most Americans, Arab food means falafel, hummus or skewered meat from a street vendor’s cart. While these are tasty indeed, they do not begin to hint at the full range of flavors produced in traditional Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese kitchens.

Arab cuisine is one of the oldest in the world. As early as the 8th century, recipes and manuals on the dietary and medicinal properties of foods were written, and by the late Middle Ages elaborate manuscripts discussed everything from spice mixtures and cooking times to presentation and table manners.

Many American chefs shy away from Arab food because they think it is too complicated (some festive dishes do require hours of preparation) or too spicy (this region utilizes many ingredients not common in the West, but Arab cuisine certainly isn’t spicy in the sense of “heat”). Just look at a map and you’ll see that much of the eastern and all of the southern Mediterranean is Arab, and the cooking of this region emphasizes the same flavorful, healthful and economical ingredients found on the northern coast — the “Mediter­ranean” cuisine most Americans know. Fresh produce, seafood, wheat, beans, pulses, olive oil, garlic, lemon and fresh herbs abound. And many of the more-familiar Mediterranean dishes have Arab ancestors.

In a 1226 cookbook, al-Baghdadi wrote that pleasures were of six types and that food was the noblest and most consequential (drink, clothes, sex, scent, and music were the other five). Arabs love to eat, and they are happy to share their passion with visitors. Travellers mentioning a destination in the Middle East to a local will invariably receive a culinary recommendation. Going to Batroun to see the Phoenician sea wall? Make sure you try the lemonade, for which it’s famous. Damascus? Don’t fail to sample the ice cream in the Souq al-Hamidiyya!

Here, we’ll look at some of the adaptable flavors and ingredients from six cities of the Arab East — how they are used in their native regions and how they can inspire menu development for flavor-seeking American consumers.

At San Francisco’s Zaré at Fly Trap, chef/owner Hoss Zaré sources locally and then gives a Middle Eastern spin to dishes like Sumac Couscous Salad with Dungeness crab and avocado. Photo courtesy of california avocado commission
The city of Zahle, on the eastern slopes of Mt. Sannine at the edge of the fertile Bekaa Valley,  is home to Lebanon’s Ksara, Musar and Kefraya  wineries as well as the El Massaya distillery, one of many that produce arak, the region’s distinctive, anise-flavored liquor.

The Bekaa Valley region offers melons, apples, apricots and grapes along with beans, cabbage, eggplant, squash and most of the country’s dairy products. Its halloumi and akawi cheeses are prized throughout the area, as is shanklish, a tart, dry goat’s cheese covered in herbs and spices.

In Zahle, cafes serving drinks and mazza (the Arab equivalent of tapas) line both sides of the Bardouni River. Waiters carry large trays from table to table, letting guests make selections, and at the end of the evening the bill is reckoned by the number of empty dishes and glasses.

  • Arak is a potent alcoholic drink made from white grapes fermented with anise seeds. When water is added, it turns cloudy, hence the nickname “lion’s milk.” Arak is typically served with mazza, although its refreshing anise flavor makes it a natural ingredient in a range of dishes. It complements fish stews and mussel bowls, can be mixed with brown sugar and olive oil as a salad dressing, and imparts a delicate licorice flavor to baked goods or a simple dessert of ice cream or fresh pineapple.

Tripoli, located on the Mediterranean coast in the north of Lebanon, is renowned for its bakeries. In the city’s modern district and its venerable covered marketplace, shoppers are drawn to the stacks of freshly baked breads and tempting nut-filled pastries. Baklava, kanafa, and mamoul are not served as dessert after meals (as they usually are in Middle Eastern restaurants in America) but rather as late-morning or afternoon snacks with coffee and tea. The pastries owe much of their distinctive flavor to the addition of flower waters, especially orange blossom and rose petal.

  • A drizzle of rose or orange-blossom water mixed with ricotta cheese, sugar or honey and chopped pistachios or almonds produces a quick and easy dessert that is both light and adventurous. Cheesecake, ice cream, and rice pudding can also be given an Arabian Nights flavor with the simple addition of rose water, but such essences are not limited to the dessert list.  Floral water can be added to savory stews with fruit or splashed on an orange-and-black-olive salad. Another simple and refreshing way to bring these flavors to the table is to add a splash to ice water served before or with meals.

Dried fruits were important in the Middle East where refrigeration was not always available. Arabs put by large quantities of dried apricots, grapes, plums, apples and pears, but dates are most popular. The Syrian Desert city of Tadmor (ancient Palmyra) supplies most of the dates found in Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut. All kinds of fruits are also candied so that they can be preserved and served as special treats in winter months. Damascus is famous for the large wooden trays of candied fruits sold in shops around Marjah Square.

For most Americans, dates appear only around the holidays and mostly in dense sticky puddings, but since medieval times, Arab cooks have been adding dates and other dried fruits to meatballs, stews and roast chicken, and using them in stuffing for baked fish. In Lebanon, a side of raw, grated parsnips mixed with yogurt and chopped dates is served as an accompaniment to grilled meats, and rice and wheat pilafs flavored with minced dates, raisins, and nuts are served at festive occasions. Chopped dates also enhance a salad of arugula, radicchio and feta.

Creamy hummus (foreground); labneh, a traditional Lebanese dish of strained yogurt; and tabbouleh are starters on the Middle Eastern menu at Mazza in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of mazza. AMMAN: BEDOUIN FLAVORS
Amman’s cuisine owes much to the Bedouin traditions of the Jordanian desert. Large platters of grilled meat or chicken are served on layers of flatbread, and diners partake from a shared plate. One of the signature flavors in these meaty dishes is sumac, a red powder derived from the bobs of mountain bushes. This Middle Eastern plant is a benign, lemon-flavored cousin of the itchy American version. Sumac is sprinkled liberally on everything from grilled chicken to hummus bi tahini and baba ghanoush, and is a key ingredient in fattoush, a popular raw vegetable salad served with toasted pieces of pita bread.

  • Sumac is featured in Jordanian za’atar, a spicy mixture spread on pita before baking or sprinkled on eggs. Za’atar is the name for wild mountain thyme, the major ingredient in its namesake seasoning. Sesame seeds must also always be included, but each region — and perhaps each spice shop — has its own formula. In Lebanon, sumac is omitted and coriander and cumin prevail. For a simple snack, za’atar is mounded on a plate and served with fresh bread and a small bowl of olive oil.

Damascus lays claim to hummus bi tahini, arguably the best known Arab dish in America. Hummus blended with tahini is eaten at breakfast, lunch and dinner, by rich and poor alike.

Hummus is the Arabic word for “chickpeas.” In America, the broad appeal of hummus has many restaurants menuing varieties like “black bean hummus” or “cannellini hummus,” when what they are actually offering is beans with tahini. Technically, if there are no chickpeas, it is not hummus.

  • Tahini (sesame paste) is a very versatile ingredient. In the coastal cities of Saida, Jbeil and Tartus, it is thinned with vinegar, sprinkled with chopped walnuts and served over fish as taratur (tartar) sauce. In a tuna salad, tahini mixed with thickened yogurt replaces mayonnaise. Blended with date syrup or honey, it is spread on bread for a sweet snack, and bakers in Amman use it to grease their pans when making basbousa (semolina cake), because it is nutritious and adds a delicate texture.

The city of Aleppo (also known as Halab), in northern Syria, is noted especially for red pepper, pistachios and spicy ground meat kebabs. Outdoor cafés in the new city draw families and friends at sundown for plates of kibbee nayee (raw lamb mixed with red pepper and topped with walnuts), tabbouleh and grilled meats, followed by chunks of red melon or rice pudding.

  • Aleppo pepper is slightly sweet and not too hot. Along with pomegranate molasses and chopped walnuts, it forms the base for muhammara, and, mixed with yogurt, it is a natural marinade for chicken. Halabi kebabs are flavored with grated onion and lots of freshly minced parsley, then bathed in a tomato sauce liberally spiked with Aleppo pepper.



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