Everywhere in Arab lands from Jordan to the Saudi-Arabian ports along the Red Sea and the lavish Gulf Emirates, food is very highly spiced — but it is a quite different gamut of spices to those of India — or so it has always seemed to me. In each town, or village souk, the spice booths are fascinating and magnetic — my first port of call. Mysterious powdered substances overflow big sacks and are scooped out by the pound, unlike the midget-stoppered jars of this and that to which we are accustomed. Nor do these great open landslides of spices, dusty brown, violet, yellow, green or orange, seem to lose their potency, thus exposed. In Oman, along the enchanting waterfront of Muscat, the lacy white-fretted balconies of the old houses and all the alleyways swim in heady odours wafted from the nearby spice bazaar. In the blue bay, sheltered by a sharp-cragged coastline, amongst all the turmoil of a modern port there are still some of those curiously formed high-pooped wooden craft such as the baghala or gangha, age-old pride of the Omani shipbuilders at Sohar. Such craft will have returned from Zanzibar — the spice island o f legend — with an entire cargo of cloves. Such is the demand, hereabouts.
Throughout these Arab lands rice is a staple: mutton and goat are roasted and fish is sometimes cooked with sesame oil, crushed mint, or coriander. Surprisingly, dried fruits, fresh gooseberries, or plums also accompany fish. For a feast, mechaoui remains the classic dish. For this, a sheep is roasted whole, and often stuffed with raisins, rice and pistachio nuts, along with such spices as the cook, and tradition, demands.
Pigeon is the chicken of the desert and best cooked en casserole, or in one of those earthen dishes which come to table under a tall dunce-cap cover. In Morocco they are known as tajeen, where they are often made of chased silver — very stylish. A pigeon stew with prunes is one of Morocco’s classic dishes, served in a tajeen; another is lamb, with quince.
In the deserts of the Middle East where one is often on short commons, the Bedouin will at once offer to kill a goat to celebrate your arrival; hospitality demands no less. If you can avoid causing this slaughter, you may be very well fed on some impromptu snack. Perhaps a treacly mass of dates and a bowl of creamy curds, or slices of hard white goat’s cheese fried in oil. Eaten hot, with a handful of black olives, a round of Arab bread added, this is a most satisfying snack.
Meza are the appetizers with which every Arab meal begins, an unhurried prelude, decoratively presented, usually so delicious that one loses interest in what follows. Once, Beirut was celebrated for the best. Two staple ingredients are hummus — chick peas — and taheena, sesame oil. The variety of ways in which they can be used is endless, as sauces, or dips, and varied by the spices involved. But here, a note of caution: if you cannot obtain those particular spices which are the signature of Middle-Eastern food, you must be content to adapt or invent with what is to hand. A few basic spices and herbs which should not be difficult to come by, and should, at any rate, create an Arabian illusion are the following: Cumin, coriander, saffron, turmeric, black pepper, paprika, pimento (the hot kind called capsicum), ginger, cloves and nutmeg. For herbs: parsley, basil, mint and thyme. A mixture of spices, such as equal quantities of nutmeg, ginger and cloves, ground fine, keep well if tightly corked. Another mixture is made from paprika, black pepper and cloves. Glass jars with cork stoppers are better than tins for storage, and wooden jars, (as for fine teas), best of all, for they absorb and retain the heady aroma.
Once upon a happy time, I journeyed about Syria, going from desert to oasis, from Damascus to Ma’loula, a rock village where an ancient language, Aramaic, rather than Arabic, is still spoken and is said to be the language spoken by Jesus. There, climbing dizzily to the fortress-like monastery I ate falafel, a rissole made from dried broad beans, the white kind, spiced with garlic and parsley, and deep-fried. This is enjoyed throughout the Middle East, from Egypt to Jordan, sometimes dipped in taheena, or a mixture of slivered onions steeped in vinegar. On my climb I ate it nature. Syrian food remains to me so memorable that sometimes it overcomes any geographic, geopolitic, historic or cultural recollections of my travels.
At Homs, a small, smiling town, the rushing waters of the Orontes river have turned the huge creaking water wheels for centuries, and there are balconied houses and little cafés hanging over streams. There I ate apples stuffed with small pieces of cooked chicken, rice, sultanas, chopped blanched almonds, honey and cloves; which is a good way to make the remains of a chicken go a long way without seeming apologetic. Another Syrian chicken dish is chicken mish-mishiya (mish-mish being the name for apricots). It is a delicious sweet-and-sour way to vary the ubiquitous fowl. Other dishes I have eaten among my Arab friends such as Kebash-el-Attarin (spit roast leg of lamb with pistachios, honey and apricots) led to struggles for as much culinary instruction as I could disentangle. If you are going to be lily-livered about experimentation, do not embark on the Arab cuisine. Oddly enough, in all the welter of aromas, garlic is not very much in evidence and none at all is found in salads, where European gastronomes consider a trace or more essential.
Nothing I write on the aromas of Araby would be complete without something about Arab coffee, the fragrant brew which rounds off every repast, welcomes the guest, punctuates the day and is surrounded by as much ceremony as wine-tasting in France. It is in the brewing and serving of coffee that Arab hospitality reaches its apogee. The age-old ritual, with its elegant style of presentation is far more telling than any gargantuan spread. Every palace, house or desert encampment has its coffee hearth, and generally a servitor whose sole duty is to prepare the coffee. Such a key post is usually a male prerogative.
The beans are prepared fresh for each brew, and must be ground in a stone mortar and roasted over charcoal. The rhythmic sound of pounding, like the seductive smell of the roasting beans, is an indivisible part of the Arab scene. Unlike the opaque, rich brew known as Turkish coffee, the Arabic kind is lighter-coloured, almost transparent, and very refreshing. Powdered spices are added, cloves and especially cardamom. Ambergris is a legendary touch of luxury. The guest will always be asked if he wishes his coffee sweet, medium sweet, or unsweetened, and since sugar and coffee are heated together, it is generally simplest to ask for mazbout — medium — which should suit everyone. On festive occasions, much sugar is added: in times of sadness, coffee is drunk unsweetened, ‘bitter as grief,’ they tell you, with characteristic poetry.
The cups used are egg-cup-sized china bowls — finjans — often painted with a portrait of the local ruler, or with the crescent moon of Islam, and encased in a chased metal, or silver, holder, the zarf. Small as they are, they are only half-filled, for it is considered more elegant to offer very little at a time, burning hot and replenished three times. In the palace or desert camps of the powerful sheiks, the coffee servers are picturesque personages, usually handsome youths. In long robes, sometimes scarlet, belted in gold, they carry round a chased silver and gold beaked coffee pot, and impart a sumptuous air to the ceremony. The flourish with which they serve seems to increase with the status of their master; but one and all have the same curious way of withdrawing, rather than approaching the pot to the cup — a drawing back of the arm on high, a kind of legerdemain by which a narrow jet of liquid curves out through the piece of palm frond — loufa — used as a filter. It flows direct into the tiny cup, with never a drop spilled. The coffee boy makes the round three times and etiquette demands that on handing back the third cup you will give it a quick, trembling shake. This signifies you will take no more, and will shortly be gone. The third cup is also a polite signal of dismissal. With such refinements does the Arab world, from the Middle East to the furthest Sahara, rich or poor, still embellish daily life. [This piece can be read in full in Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places by Lesley Blanch.]
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On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Virago, 9780349005461, pb illus £10.99, 12 January 2017)
Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Quartet, 9780704374348, hb illus £25, 1 June 2017).
Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch (Eland Publishing 9780907871545 pb £9.60 1 Jun 2001).
The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus by Lesley Blanch (BookBlast ePublishing, 9780993092725 pb illus £11.95 19 Jan 2015).
The Wilder Shores of Love: The Stories of four nineteenth-century women who followed the beckoning Eastern star by Lesley Blanch (BookBlast ePublishing, Kindle edition £4.31 illus 8 Nov 2014).
Round the World in 80 Dishes: The World Through the Kitchen Window by Lesley Blanch (Grub Street Publishing, illus. line drawings by the author £14 200pp 19 October 2011).