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   MIDDLE EASTERN CUISINE  A GASTRONOMIC CROSSROADS
 
 
 
2011 - Volume 2 Issue 2
Comidas Sabrosas
World Cuisine
 
Article: Jasmine Evaristo
 
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The Middle East has been a crossroads – a cultural, as well as geographical, midpoint of the Euro-Asia-African world, and thus a hub of culinary exchange. As travelers and merchants crossed paths, they exchanged the foods and ingredients of their homelands and returned home with newly acquired food concepts.

    History and geography have long illustrated the Middle East as a land of profound polarities – deserts and Edens, poverty and plenty, prophets of peace and tribal warlords. Though the region is an area of strife and conflict today, Middle Easterners can still find common ground in breaking bread, where palates find peaceful co-existence.
It is important to view the fare of the Middle East as it evolved within the entire region, ignoring the present-day political boundaries. Remember, this area is known as the cradle of civilization, the Fertile Crescent, flanked by the Nile River to the west, and the Tigris and Euphrates to the east. Disregard the images of barren, dry land, and imagine the former richness of soil; the lush vegetation and sites, like the Garden of Eden, which is believed to have existed in this region. In the heart of the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and other nations of predominantly Arab peoples. To the north, and curling west, are Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, and Crete; and to the south, Egypt and Sudan.

The simplicity of Middle Eastern cooking allows for a diet meant to sustain life through harsh conditions. In this region, some 12,000 years ago, hunters became farmers. Wheat was first cultivated, followed by barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates and other regional staples. Fermentation was discovered and used not only to make beer, but to also leaven bread.

Beginning around 700 AD, tribal wars brought portable foods of Arab warriors – figs, dates and nuts – to conquered lands. When the Persians, who occupied the land of modern-day Iran, developed their own cuisine using fresh fruits, rice and poultry, the foundation had been laid for the Middle Eastern cuisine that is so familiar and indicative today – a synthesis of influences and the exotic spices Arab traders were garnishing from the Orient.

As time passed, more influences fell upon the region, introduced by Turkey's Ottoman Empire. They brought the sweet pastries of paper-thin filo dough and the dense, sweet coffee that is now imbibed throughout the Middle East.

While these are the core contributors to Middle Eastern cuisine, other countries and peoples have left their mark. Yogurt from the Russians; dumplings from Mongol invaders; tumeric, cumin, garlic and other spices from India; cloves, peppercorns and allspice from the Spice Islands; okra from Africa; and tomatoes from the New World, via the Moors of Spain.

A traditional Middle Eastern meal will commence with the appetizer, known as Mezze. A plethora of tiny dishes with exotic tidbits are placed on the table simultaneously. Typical Middle Eastern mezzes include Baba Ghanouj, an eggplant dip; hummus, a garlic, chickpea spread; Borek, feta-stuffed filo pastries; and Dolmas, stuffed grape leaves.

Within the Middle East, each country has its own variations on entrees. The main course may include Falafels, deep-fried chickpea balls; Kebabs of skewered grilled lamb or chicken; Khoresh, lamb stew in a sweet-sour sauce; or variety of rice dishes mixed with meats, fruit and nuts. (Note: a distinctive method of food handling applied to Middle Eastern tradition is called, Halal – a similar dietary code to the kosher practice.)

Salads, vegetables and bread will accompany any meal. Tabbouleh, a tart parsley, bulgur and tomato salad, sautéed eggplant and tomatoes with yogurt, and spinach are popular side dishes.

For dessert, expect a small cup of sweet, thick coffee – unless you are in Iran, where tea is preferred – coupled with nut-filled desserts ranging from Baklava, the honey-sweet pastries, to almond crusted cookies for a favorable cap on the meal. Unlike the United States, where licking one's fingers is frowned upon, the accepted sign that a guest has enjoyed the meal is the licking of one's fingers.

One final detail: the word "gourmet" did not originate in France, but actually comes from the Farsi word for stew: "Ghormeh." ///
 
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