It has witnessed the ebb and flow of cultures, the founding of three religions that trace their roots to a single ancestor—and, before anything else, the birth of agriculture. The Fertile Crescent received its name based on the pattern it forms on a map, with rich farmland sweeping in a giant arc across the area where Africa and Asia meet. This location at one of the world’s great crossroads has given the region we now call the Middle East a unique place in dietary history. “I think of it as the roots of all our food, at least in the Western world,” says Joan Nathan, Jewish cooking authority and author of The Foods of Israel Today (Knopf). “As people traveled, the food traveled.”
Today, this collection of cuisines appeals to food fans around the globe. “Top American chefs have adopted what they call eastern-Mediterranean cuisines, and couscous, tagines, pilafs and the like appear on the menus of fashionable eclectic restaurants,” notes food writer Claudia Roden, author of The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Knopf).
Whims of culinary fashion aside, the heart of the Middle Eastern diet lies in its earthy, down-home appeal. “If you go to poor areas you see falafel and hummus,” says Nathan. “These are made of chickpeas and sesame paste, which are so basic and so old.” (And, as modern science keeps telling us, so healthy as well.) When Nathan says old, she’s not kidding. References to the foods that form the foundation of Middle Eastern cooking can be found in the Bible—and have origins that go back even earlier.
Food as a Foundation
For thousands of years nomads wandered in small bands, following the migrations of game and gathering whatever plant foods they found along the way. Eventually they learned it was easier to sow seeds of the most useful plants, domesticate the least ornery animals and put down roots, becoming farmers in the process. This stability, along with the stockpiling of food made possible as the acreage under cultivation increased, allowed civilization to develop.
The Middle Eastern Spice Rack
Like other cuisines, the Middle Eastern diet employs its own set of signature spices. “Cinnamon, allspice, anise seeds, nutmeg, sumac (the crushed berries of a shrub that grows throughout the region), cardamom, cloves, cumin, caraway, black pepper, saffron and turmeric are the essence of the Arab table,” says chef May Bsisu. Often these spices are combined into recognized blends. One of the most famous is za’atar, a mixture of thyme, sumac, salt, toasted sesame seeds and other savory ingredients.
While spices and herbs are used to enhance the flavor of food, a growing body of research indicates that many of these plants possess powerful health benefits as well. Cinnamon is becoming famous for its ability to help support healthy blood-sugar levels, while turmeric and its principle ingredient, curcumin, has shown powerful antioxidant and cancer-protective properties. Even black pepper, that most common of condiments, has been found to help liberate nutrients from food, making them more available to the body.
Numerous Middle Eastern spices also have long histories as traditional healing therapies. Thyme is a favorite for calming coughs, especially in children. Caraway, long used as a digestive aid, has been found to be helpful
in easing irritable bowel syndrome when combined with enteric-coated peppermint oil.
And cloves yield an oil that helps reduce toothache.
No civilization could prosper, though, without access to a regular water supply and land rich enough to sustain crop growth, assets the Fertile Crescent supplied in abundance. “If it hadn’t been for the presence of those three rivers—the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt—we would be talking about a very different situation,” says Jean-Pierre Isbouts, PhD, professor of culture and media studies at Fielding Graduate University in California and author of The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas (National Geographic). These civilizations were built on bread: “Emmer wheat, or spelt, became the key source of nutrition in the Middle Eastern diet,” Isbouts says. Early records have helped historians learn what else appeared on the ancient table.
One marriage document required the groom to supply his wife with set amounts of wheat, lentils and oil, all of which continue to play major roles in Middle Eastern cookery.
The oil came from the olive, a vital cog in the ancient world’s economic machinery. “It’s impossible to overestimate the role of olive oil,” Isbouts says, adding that it was used not only at the table but also as fuel for household lamps, a stomach soother and much more. It was a prized trade item; when King Solomon bought cedar from Lebanon to build his temple, he paid for it in olive oil.
Olives and olive oil are only two of the foods that appear in the Bible, which also contains references to barley, beans, figs, flax, goat, grapes, honey (often date honey, known today as dibbis, made by boiling dates down into syrup), lamb, lentils, milk, pomegranates, raisins, rye and wheat. In fact, food lies at the center of many of the Bible’s most powerful stories, from the perpetually full oil and flour jars of the widow visited by the prophet Elijah to the final supper shared by Jesus and his disciples.
Variations on a Theme
As early Fertile Crescent civilizations grew wealthier, trade routes were established between Babylon/Assyria in the north and Egypt in the south, and later with Greece and eventually Rome to the west. As a result eastern Mediterranean foods were distributed over a wider area, a process consolidated by the spread of Islam and the rise of the Persian and Ottoman Empires. This helps explain why modern national cuisines of the region are built on a foundation of basic dishes with local variations.
In addition to being made into bread—generally the pocketed pita—wheat is boiled, dried and cracked to form bulgur. This nutty-tasting grain is used like rice (another Middle Eastern favorite) in side dishes and pilafs. To make kibbeh, bulgur is formed into a shell that is stuffed with chopped meat and spices; for tabbouleh, it is mixed with parsley, tomatoes, onions and other ingredients.
In the biblical period, beans and other legumes provided most of the protein in Middle Eastern cooking, as meat was generally reserved for special occasions. Meat, especially lamb, is more commonly eaten today, but legumes still play a big part in the regional diet. This group includes lentils, which make a memorable biblical appearance in the stew for which Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, and fava beans, which are cooked down into ful, the Egyptian national breakfast. But it is the chickpea that has provided two dishes the Middle East is known for the world over. One is hummus, in which cooked chickpeas are blended with tahini, or sesame seed paste, along with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt. The other famous chickpea creation is falafel, in which chickpeas are soaked with fava beans (the Israeli version uses chickpeas only), dried, ground with other ingredients and formed into patties, which are then fried.
Along with grains and legumes, fresh produce plays a featured role in the Middle Eastern kitchen. Salads are made with not only lettuce but with a wide variety of other edible greens, such as dandelion leaves, arugula and fresh parsley. Eggplant is common to all the Middle Eastern cuisines—“I used to say Israel was the eggplant capital of the world,” jokes Nathan—and is often made into baba ghanoush, in which it is cooked and then mashed with seasonings. Cucumbers, zucchini and okra are also eaten in abundance.
It’s not difficult to see why the basic Middle Eastern diet is a real winner from a health standpoint. The emphasis on leafy greens is one advantage, especially in terms of variety: “You get a lot of what we would consider weeds—they have a lot of phytonutrients,” says Nathan. The use of traditional whole grains and heavy emphasis on legumes is another plus. “The only bad thing in our diet is the dessert, but that’s for big occasions only,” says Middle Eastern food expert May Bsisu, author of The Arab Table (Morrow). “For daily use we don’t have desserts, just fruit.”
Similar to what’s going on globally, though, some traditional Middle Eastern dietary patterns are changing. Take grocery habits, for instance. “In the olden days, in Syria and Lebanon, the vegetable vendors would sell their products on carts,” says Bsisu, who remembers her grandmother shopping that way. “Fruits and vegetables were fresh from the farm to your table.” Today, she says, “the average Arab woman goes to the supermarket.”
Despite the changes brought about by modern life, one constant of the Middle Eastern table is the emphasis on hospitality. Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Isbouts believes this sense of obligation comes from the harshness of the desert surroundings. “When you see visitors coming out of the horizon your first instinct is to offer the exhausted traveler water and sustenance,” he says. “That exchange of kindness is something you see today.” Bsisu agrees, saying, “The more you eat the more you honor your host, and the more she’ll try to feed you.”
Meals often begin with mezze, an assortment of small-dish appetizers similar to the Spanish tapas. Salads and pastries such as meat pies or spinach triangles are then followed by the main course. “In the summer it is all fish, salads and green vegetables,” Bsisu says. “In the winter it is beans, soups and meats.”
Because Israel has many immigrants, that country’s cuisine tends to be quite global in its influences. Visit an Israeli home, and as Nathan puts it, “You could be getting sushi.” But newcomers not only happily adopt such Middle Eastern staples as hummus, baba ghanoush and falafel, they also learn to adapt the recipes of their homelands to their new surroundings. Take schnitzel, a European dish in which veal cutlets are breaded and fried. “In Israel water was always an issue,” Nathan explains, “so you don’t have cattle—there’s no green grass. Israelis use turkey, a lot more than any other country, because raising turkeys requires less land. So they adapted recipes like schnitzel to make turkey schnitzel.”
Routine eating is put on hold for holidays, including Rosh Hashanah in Judaism, Ramadan in Islam and Easter in Christianity. While most non-Muslims know Ramadan as a month of fasting, “the evenings are filled with memorable meals and traditional treats,” Bsisu says. It’s the time to indulge a sweet tooth with dried fruits and qatayef, or dessert pancakes. Rosh Hashanah has its own special treats, such as apples and honey to symbolize a sweet new year. Easter is often celebrated with roast lamb.
In addition to feast observances, Judaism and Islam contain dietary laws, known respectively as kashrut or kosher, and halal. These practices “have a lot to do with essential hygiene—washing your hands, washing your produce,” says Isbouts, who adds that kosher laws helped protect Jews living in Rome from disease outbreaks during the days of the Roman Empire. Both forbid pork and provide rituals for proper butchering; kosher laws also require separation between dairy and meat.
From the ancient Fertile Crescent to the modern Middle East, this land at the crossroads has produced a cuisine prized wherever fine dining—and hospitable company—are appreciated. In the words of Bsisu, “Good food travels without a passport.”