Tales of 1001 nights, Casablanca, endless bazaars, mysterious men wearing fez hats, colourful veils adorning the faces of beautiful women with seductive eyes… just some of the things that spring to mind when I think of all things Arabian.
Saturday night was spent at my cousin’s house cooking for friends whilst the boys watched rugby. I had prepared a feast of assorted Arabian delights, which also prompted me to think a little more deeply about the origins of food we were feasting on. What was on the menu? Raas-el-hanout spiced lamb, a kind of maast-o-khiar with rose petals and pomegranate seeds, battata harra (cumin & paprika spiced potatoes) tabbouleh salad, hummus, warak inab (dolmeh) and merguez sausages with harissa (Spicy paste of chillis & spices) and Khobez bread…. There were so many different explosions of flavours going on in my mouth and every individual experience was truly unique.
We ate the spicy merguez with both harissa and the cucumber & yoghurt mix and it was absolutely amazing. The lamb was perfectly tender and the spice mixture of Raas-el-hanout is truly one of my favourite spice mixes, containing 13 spices including mace, cinnamon and rose petals, it really is very special. I think the meal was enjoyed by all and there wasn’t an empty stomach in the house!
Across the Arab nations, there are many similarities in the use of ingredients, although methods, cooking practices and regionality influence the variations that exist between them. Even in Iran we have things like stuffed vine leaves (dolmeh) but of course we put meat in them and stew them in a sweetened pomegranate syrup mixture and put a plate on them to press them down whilst cooking in the pan. The Greeks also do this but they omit the Pomegranate syrup. Then there is baklava…. We all have it, but we all create and enjoy different versions. There are so many dishes and ingredients we all have in common, whether Chinese, Indian, Arabs, Italian, Greek or us good-old Iranians, we are all connected by our history but also our culinary traditions all interlinked together via the Silk Route.
The Silk Route is the infamous series of ancient trade roads that cover over 8,000 kilometres and can be traced back to the 700 BC. At this period, the Archaemenid Empire (Hakhamaneshi) was responsible for protecting and maintaining the route and its paths. The route was dubbed the “Persian Royal Road” and had postal stations at regular intervals and messengers assigned by the Persian would travel up to 9 days relaying messages and delivering gifts far and wide.
In 330 BC Alexander the Great conquered the Persian army and his own army became the new keepers of the Silk Route. Although it was ruled by Alexander for just 5 years, Greek culture became evident and the floodgates were opened to influences from Greece, India and beyond. Several hundred years later the Eastern side of the route developed and became an important link to a world of wonder and culture that couldn’t be more far removed from the existing stretch of the route.
From Italy to Iran and from Greece to China, the route has always been a lucrative path for both ancient and new discoveries, weird and wonderful treasures, materials, valuables and so many different foods and ingredients that we couldn’t even begin to imagine. Without it, we wouldn’t have a fraction of the things that commonly exists in the world today. Wars have been waged, lives have been lost and cultures have been diluted.
How lucky we are that we get to benefit from all those centuries of exploration, war and discovery without paying the price that our ancestors did? There are very few dishes famous in the modern world that do not include some exotic ingredient that was introduced to us as a result of the Silk Route and its history of import and export.
Nothing gets my juices going more than sitting down to full-on feast of flavours. From the undulating heats and delicate fragrances of spices to the exotic sweetness of unusual fruits and strangely shaped vegetables, it’s an absolute turn on from the first mouthful right to the very last. Food for me isn’t about eating. It’s not even about nourishment. It’s about tastes, textures, heating and cooling, mixing and sharing… It’s an experience from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every time I have a Big Mac meal I get overly amorous, because this isn’t the case.
But I do enjoy mixing unorthodox combinations together and seeing what they result in, because it does excite me and so I find myself somewhat experimental in that sense. To further illustrate my point, I find there is nothing more cooling than yoghurt when you have had something extremely hot and spicy, hence the Indians and Arabs always serving meals with Yoghurt dishes like the Labneh that comes with Arabic food and the Raita that comes with a great Indian meal. If you add a dash of sweetness to the hot and cool combination (perhaps raisins or dates or even mango chutney) you end up taking the dish to another dimension entirely. My own private “Culinary” Idaho, or something very near it.
I enjoy foods with flavour. Herbs, spices, marinades and seasonings. Isn’t it all ever-so-subtly reminiscent of our own Iranian practises? To this day I still think “Iranians do it better” – When it comes to marinating, of course. I think we are the one nation that marinates lamb so well that it removes that unpopular fatty odour from it, so much so that all the lamb-haters in my life will usually eat Chelo-Kebab. This includes my Mom, the “World’s No.1 Hater of all things Lamb” although she will usually eat Chelo kebab and most lamb dishes I prepare, as long as they are well spiced, marinated or contain a truck-load of garlic… Which they very often do. Without all these wonderful and well travelled ingredients, we would be eating bland, flavourless, smelly meat and boring vegetables and we also wouldn’t have so many of natures healing remedies that can be found in these wonderful ingredients.
Anyone who lives in London knows that the best place to get a good Shawarma is at Maroush, preferably the one in Beauchamp Place and even more preferably (or at least commonly) at around 2am on a Saturday morning. We’ve all been there at one time or another and there is nothing better than a delicious wrap of khobez bread encasing salivatingly juicy slivers of spiced barbecued lamb, drizzled with an unctuously rich tahini garlic sauce, further adorned with shards of raw onion, tomato and pickles … and after a night of shaking your money-maker at some uber-hip London club, NOTHING can beat it. From falafels to soujouk and tea with baklava to the fresh exotic juices, it’s a great pit-stop that has become a bee-line for Iranians, Arabs & Farangi’s alike.
The food on the table at an Arab home is very different, a lot more substantial, a lot more flavoursome, laborious and intense than the simple sandwich wrap that is the Shawarma. The list of spices employed is nothing short of infinite. A myriad of dishes including lamb, fish or chicken, multiple vegetable dishes, using garlic and tomatoes as a sauce base, as well as dried cows cheese, grated to make an intense sauce which tastes just like kashk as well as tahini which is made using sesame seeds and can be a powerful and ever present ingredient, often popularly combined with Aubergine in dishes such as Baba Ghanoush.
Although it has to be said that my favourite part of any Arab-influenced meal (after the initial gobbling, of course) is the ending. Along comes a deliciously simple combination of just two ingredients. Fresh mint leaves and piping hot water (sometimes sweetened with honey) when left to infuse, creates a magical elixir that for some reason or another takes away the uncomfortable bloating that can often occur after a rather decadent meal. The mint oils encourage digestion, thus enabling us to indulge in the mysterious and heavenly abundance of post-feast sweet somethings. The Arabs are reputed for having extremely sweet tooths. Sugar and honey drenched mouthfuls are a pretty accurate description of their desserts or basically anything that can be consumed with tea and would act as a worthy substitute for the usual sugar cubes. Their desserts are also highly scented with delicate but intense notes of rose blossom water and orange blossom water, as well as cinnamon and cardamom.
All their dishes are a feast for the senses, they stir emotions, fuel and ignite ravaging hungers and satisfy all appetites with their strange and intoxicating flavours and textures. An Arabic meal, whether Moroccan or Lebanese is always an unusual adventure, even for those of us with more daring palates. So I wait… patiently for my next Arab feast… All invitations welcome… “Yalla Habibi…Yalla!!!” Its midnight at the Oasis!