Arabic cuisine, though it spans across the borders of 22 countries, from Morocco and Egypt, across the Red Sea to the near eastern lands of the Levant and Mesopotamia, and extending into Iran and Asia, all of it has a few essential qualities in common. For one, Arabic food is wholesome, hearty, and fresh. For another, it is always exquisitely rich in color, spice, and taste. The food is also traditionally prepared and served with the utmost loving care, as hospitality and ritual are still held sacred in the Arab world, something which has been all but lost in much of the West. And finally, just like Arabic calligraphy, cooking is an art form.
The Foods of Egypt
Egypt is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and some of its tradition around food dates back 5,000 years. From archaeological evidence, we know the ancient Egyptians knew how to brew beer, but the sacred craft was dropped upon the entry of Islam.
A typical Egyptian table is often colorfully decorated with no less than 20 different plates. The main spices used in Egyptian food are cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and baharat. Baharat is a combination of cinnamon, black and white peppercorns, cardamom seeds, cloves, cumin seeds, nutmeg, and dried red chili peppers or paprika. Though Egyptian food relies heavily on beans and other legumes, meat and fish are also a part of the diet. Guests, upon entering an Egyptian household, will receive roasted nuts – almonds, pistachios, hazel nuts, and peanuts – as a welcome gift.
Karkade tea, known for the medicinal quality of lowering blood pressure, is made from the petals of the hibiscus flower, boiled with sugar, and can be drank either hot or cold.
Ful Medames literally translates into “fava bean buried.” The beans were once buried and baked underground for 8-10 hours. Fava beans are a staple in Egyptian food and are served at every meal. As part of breakfast, one of the most important meals in Egypt, fava beans and red lentils are boiled down to a paste with cumin, salt, pepper, and lemon juice and served on bread with fresh salad, tahini, and pickles.
Split fava beans are used to make Egyptian falafel, a Middle Eastern fritter the West has come to love. These tasty treats are mixed with parsley and other spices and served on traditional breads with tahini sauce.
Other Egyptian Breakfast Foods
Hard boiled eggs are peeled and fried in ghee (clarified butter) and either mixed into ful or simply eaten straight up. Eggs and bacon, Egyptian style, are made using Bastirma, an air-dried beef, which is salt cured and hung to dry for months. Once ready it is sliced thin and served with eggs. Carob molasses mixed with tahini is served with fateer meshaltet, a thin, pastry-like bread.
Sometimes referred to as the National Dish of Egypt, Molokheyyah, is a broth made from the leaves of the Jute plant, finely chopped with garlic and coriander and typically served with a meat, such as chicken, beef, or lamb, and rice.
Dukkah is an Egyptian side dish made from a mix of nuts, seeds, and spices, which are crushed and pureed. Dukkah is an essential element in salads, falafel garnish, and soups. It is also used as a dip for bread and vegetables.
The Foods of Morocco
Mealtime for Moroccans is a leisurely experience – a time to hang out and chat with friends and family. Moroccan food is sweet and savory and a little spicier than Middle Eastern cuisine. It relies on golden saffron, cinnamon, cumin, and sweet paprika for its taste.
Couscous, considered a gift from Allah, is the main ingredient of the Moroccan kitchen. Its name comes from the Berber language. Traditional Moroccan couscous takes hours to prepare. It comes from the grain, semolina. The semolina is spread out over a tray and rolled by hand with olive oil and water. It is then steamed three times in a special steamer called a Couscoussier, which looks something like a double boiler. Meat or veggies are cooked in the bottom part of the cooker and the couscous is placed in a steamer above the pot, where it absorbs the flavorful steam of the food cooking below it. Once prepared, couscous is often rolled into balls and eaten with the hands. It is served with pumpkin, carrots and chickpeas – and sometimes – even sheep’s head.
Moroccan preserved lemons, L’hamd marakad (literally “sleeping lemons”), are lemons which have been pickled in salt, water, and their own juices. The lemons are cut in quarters, heavily doused in salt, stuffed in glass jars, and soaked in water and lemon juice for 40 days and 40 nights. The preserved lemon is what gives Moroccan food its signature tangy flavor.
The Moroccan Tagine is a type of ceramic cookware, with a shallow circular bottom and a cone-like top. Tagine is also the food which is cooked and served in the dish. Traditionally, a tagine a slow, stew-like dish with meat, chicken, or fish and vegetables. One famous Moroccan tagine is chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives, a succulent dish spiced with fresh cilantro and parsley, turmeric, saffron, garlic, onions, and ginger.
Harissa is a chili paste served with most meals. It is made from fresh chilies, preserved lemons, garlic, coriander, cumin, salt and olive oil. This condiment is usually served with any tagine dish.
Carrot and Orange Salad
This brightly colored, severely sweet, fresh salad is made from fresh carrots and oranges, rose water, olive oil, cumin, and sugar, and spiced up with just a touch of cinnamon.
This popular dish is made from split baby fava beans, spiced with cumin, garlic, and olive oil. The beans are boiled until they start to disintegrate, then pureed into a creamy dip topped with olive oil and hot spices. It is served with hot bread.
The meat is cut into strips and seasoned with cumin, paprika, salt, garlic, pepper, fresh coriander, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil. It’s typically grilled and served with a mint yogurt topping.
Moroccan Mint Tea
Maghrebi-style mint tea is ritually served and drunk throughout the day and at mealtime. Green tea leaves are boiled with sugar and it is served to guests as a gesture of hospitality. The tea is never stirred, but rather it is mixed by pouring it into tea cups and then back into the pot. Even the act of pouring the tea is a special ritual – the higher the pour, the better.
The food of Lebanon is made with fields of fresh parsley and mountains of garlic. Lebanon is called the Land of Hospitality, where food is served to every honored guest, who is expected to eat until he can eat no more. Lebanese food is now very popular in the Western world with many Lebanese families having set up restaurants all over English-speaking countries. If you really want to impress a Lebanese restaurateur, try learning a little bit of Arabic and placing your order in the Mother tongue of the Lebanese.
Essentials of the Lebanese Kitchen
In addition to parsley and garlic, you will find sour lemon, coriander, cumin, burghul (cracked wheat), chickpeas, and tahini (sesame paste). Lebanon also has their version of Baharat, the same spice mix we saw in Egypt. It is made with black pepper corns, chili flakes, coriander, cinnamon, cumin seeds, cloves, nutmeg, dried ginger, and cardamom.
Zaatar is a dip made with sumac, thyme, roasted sesame seeds, and olive oil; and, it is used as a dip for bread.
Mezza is a Lebanese version of a sampler platter. It is a truly captivating plate of small dishes with an array of colors, textures, and aromas. Mezze may be as simple as pickled or raw vegetables, hummus, baba ghanouj and bread, or it may become an entire meal consisting of grilled, marinated seafood, skewered meats, sausages, a variety of cooked and raw salads, and an arrangement of desserts. In case you do not already know, baba ghanouj is roasted eggplant, tahini, lemon, salt, and garlic pureed into a creamy paste. It is served with bread as a dip.
Though technically Persia is now modern-day Iran, its cuisine extends from Afghanistan to Central Asia. Persian food has been influenced by Mesopotamian Caucasian, Indian, and Central Asian cuisine. Persian spices include saffron, turmeric, parsley, berberis (a tangy red berry) and dried lime, something which gives Persian food a characteristic tang.
Essentials of Persian Food
Typical Persian dishes are centered on the Chelo, which is a very specially prepared, long grain rice. The rice is first soaked in salt water, drained, and then returned to its pot for steaming. The result is an exquisitely fluffy rice that literally separates grain by grain. The berberis berry is then sautéed with a little bit of sugar and added to the rice along with ghee (clarified butter) and saffron, producing a gorgeous rice accented, with bright red and yellow colors. At the bottom of the rice pot, called the Tah-deeg, is a golden crispy rice crust, which is served either plain or with a thin bread called lavash or slices of potato.
The tradition of cooking on a skewer is said to have originated with soldiers, who used their swords to grill meat over fires. One famous kebab in Iran is called Koobideh, which is a smashed meat, sectioned by hand into bite-sized pieces, and then grilled to perfection. It is served with pita bread.
The best way to prepare authentic Arabic food is to learn how grow your own garden of fresh ingredients – that way, you’ll have as many of the required spices and herbs always on hand.