FOOD AND THE STRANGER IN THE MIDDLE EAST : A Different Look at a Misunderstood Culture

C. Bertelsen)
Bedouin Life Shaped Arab Culture (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


Warriors universally used to lay down their swords or knives at the doorway of their enemy when they broke bread together. Eating together, praying together, speaking together were possible only when no one felt vulnerable. Only in that way could “the Other” become human.

Like their Bedouin neighbors, and ancestors, Arabs today offer their guests – even strangers – the best they have, often denying themselves of basic comfort and food in order to please guests. By killing and roasting a prized sheep or offering freshly brewed coffee, a host practices a generous and selfless hospitality, both sheep and coffee being symbols of abundance. Joyous occasions demand other symbols, such as more sugar for the coffee or kibbeh (kefta). Sorrowful occasions require other symbolic foods. Such is the duty of a host.

Camels Figure Strongly in Arab and Bedouin Culure (Used with permission.)
Camels Figure Strongly in Arab and Bedouin Culure (Used with permission.)

Richness of life for an Arab is more than about money and power. Parables and stories about hosts and guests tell us many things about truth, and the following story is no exception:

A story is told of an old man who came stumbling one night into a Bedouin camp, threadbare and exhausted. The people of the camp obviously knew him and greeted him warmly. A visitor to the camp wonders aloud why such a tattered old creature would be treated with such respect and affection. A Bedouin leader explains, “‘He is of the Bait Imani and famous.’ I asked, ‘What for?’ He responded, ‘His generosity.’ I said, ‘I should not have thought he owned anything to be generous with,’ and bin Kabina said, ‘He hasn’t now. He hasn’t got a single camel. He hasn’t even got a wife. His son, a fine boy, was killed two years ago by the Dahm. Once he was one of the richest men in the tribe, now he has nothing except a few goats.’ I asked, ‘What happened to his camels? Did the raiders take them, or did they die of disease?’ Bin Kabina answered, ‘No, generosity ruined him. No one ever came to his tent, but he killed a camel to feed them. By God, he is generous!’ I could hear the envy in his voice.” (Thesiger, p.71).

But guests also perform duties as well. In other words, Al akl ‘ala kadd el mahabeh (“the food equals the affection”), a proverb meaning that the measure of a guest’s regard for his host is found the amount of food which he eats. To refuse to eat is impolite and insulting, doing much to ruin relationships. And guests must be prepared to return the hospitality that they have been given.

Food of Hospitality (Used with permission.)
Food of Hospitality (Used with permission.)

Traditionally in Arab cultures, people eat by hand, taking bites with their right hands from large platters heaped with food. Left hands are reserved for toilet use, and people never, ever, eat from the communal plate with their left hands. So important is this practice to a sense of community that a most severe punishment of cutting off the right hand, makes it impossible for such a person to eat at the communal bowl with other human beings ever again. Akin to the excommunication of transgressors found in St. Benedict’s Rule, this type of excommunication is a part of Islamic Law.

Cookbook author Claudia Roden details the impact of Islam on the cooking of Medieval Europe:

At that time Christian Europe looked on the Infidels with fear and horror as pillaging and ravaging barbarians and cruel despots, but the same time it was impressed by their wealth and power. Chroniclers wrote of the magnificent courts and of the loves and excesses of the Caliphs. Travellers and merchants told of the extraordinary and exquisite foods they were served while they sat on a rug near a fountain in a fruit garden. While worrying about the odious enemy, Europe fantasized about its fabulous riches, of harems and serails, bazaars and minarets, about fierce warriors who chopped off heads and passionate lovers. The Crusades created an even more avid interest, a mixture of hatred for the enemy and fascination for its exotic culture. … The cooking, too, was a stimulus and an inspiration which brought new ways of looking at food. (p. 21, Roden, A New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

Bread (Used with permission.)
Bread (Used with permission.)

Tidbits and morsels about Arab cuisine, generalized, true, but in a nutshell:

    • Bread, yogurt, olive oil, dates, grilled meat: desert foods of the Bedouin nomads. The Fertile Crescent IS present day Iraq …
    • Hospitality included the assurance of three days and nights of safe hospitality under Bedouin etiquette, even if a person was/is a member of a hostile tribe or group; today hosts offer guests food and drink automatically once the guest crosses the threshold into the house. Lavish spreads follow invitations, and it is customary for guests to politely refuse, but then reluctantly relent and eat copious amounts. “The food equals the affection.” The guest also shows esteem for the host by eating eagerly. “The house is small but the heart is big.” Guests’ responsibilities toward host. “The right of salt.” (Food in the stomach of guests extends host’s protection.)
    • Muslim holidays especially big on food and hospitality. (See my post on Moroccan Ramadan.)
    • Haram or polluting foods (blood); halal or ritually clean foods, as in animals being slaughtered a certain way to drain the blood out. Prohibitions against wine and pork. Pork prohibition likely to stem from the association of their sacrifice to the moon goddess among certain pagan cults of the time, not likely due to trichinosis fear.
    • Men and women tend to eat separately, especially if there are male guests
    • People eat with their hands; the left hand is never used in eating and the punishment of cutting off the right hand is meant to isolate the person from communal eating.

  • The Middle East is a huge melting pot, due to Abbassid period (9th-12th centuries), when Baghdad was the hub of the Arab world, with development of a court cuisine, followed by the Ottoman Empire (14th-20th centuries)
  • Spice Road and caravans led to the incorporation of spices into the cuisine; very predominant in Moroccan cooking.
  • Four basic styles of cuisine in the Middle East: Arab, Iranian, North African, Turkish
  • Arab cuisine heavily influenced the cooking of Spain and Sicily.
  • All Middle eastern cuisines share elements in common: wheat (and a reverence for bread), rice, stuffed vegetables, filo-like dough wrapped pies, meatballs, omelettes, oil-marinated vegetables, syrup-soaked pastries. Raisins, nuts – pistachios, walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, legumes cooked with spinach, etc.
  • Flatbreads – often baked on flat stones and later on flat metal sheets. In some areas, the breads double as serving dishes, with grains and meats heaped on them in the center of a group of people eating.
  • Bread is sacred: if a piece of bread lands on the ground, someone will pick it up, utter the name of God, and put the bread in a safe place, like a window sill, so that no one will step on it.
  • Ancient and medieval Arab cookbooks, a very concise listing: First Arabic language cookbook thought to be by Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi. Greatly influenced early European cooking; many names of early dishes originated with Persian and Arabic names. Al-Baghdadi, Kitab al-Tabikh (1226) (A Baghdad Cookery Book, translated and available from Prospect Books in the UK), 160 recipes, Persian recipe names, in the Persian tradition. Kitab al-Tabikh of al-Warraq was another cookbook, the earliest surviving one. Kitab al Wusla […], 10 handwritten copies in various libraries around the world, including the British Library (shelfmark Or. 6388). Charles Perry, translation. Uncertain date, probably 1261, Ayyoubid period, Syria. Court influence apparent. Also Spanish Arabic cookbooks, Kitab Fadalat al-Khiwan fi Tayyibat […], translated by Fernando de la Granja, 1960, as La Cocina Arabigoandaluza segun un Manuscrito Inedito. Another translation, published by Madrid-based publisher Huici Miranda, 1966, is Traduccion Espanola de un Manuscrito Anomimo del Siglo XIII sobre la Cocina Hispano-Magribi. Crusaders responsible in part for Arab recipes entering European culinary traditions.

Ornately carved metal platters, loaded with pale-green succulent honeydew melons, deep dark purple grapes, flaky fragrant lamb-filled sambusaks, and shiny olives bathing slowly in vats of herb-scented olive oil – these are the images and the symbols we must retain to remind ourselves of humankind’s gift for hospitality and acceptance.

Donkets, the Workhorses of the Middle East
Donkets, the Workhorses of the Middle East

And so our minds create snapshots of the faces of people trudging along dusty streets. Small children pulling on their mothers’ hands, old wrinkle-faced women clutching tattered shawls to themselves with their dry hands, young smooth-faced soldiers nervously shifting heavy automatic rifles strapped across their backs, old men in long white robes pushing wheelbarrows filled with the stories of their lives. A scene re-enacted again and again, centuries old.




Makes 3 free-form loaves, up to 16 5-inch flatbreads

1 T. dry yeast

1 T. sugar

2 c. warm water

8-9 cups bread flour

1 T. salt

1/3 -1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil (I put more in when I am making pizza dough from this recipe)

Up to 2 cups (or more) additional water

Proof the yeast in the water and sugar until bubbly.

Put flour and salt in large mixing bowl or Kitchen Aid mixer bowl or food processor; use dough hook.

Pour in yeast and extra water, and start mixing. When gluten strands (string-like) appear, add oil. Mix, add more water if necessary until dough is only slightly sticky. Knead 2-3 minutes in machine or until smooth. By hand this might take 10 minutes or so on a lightly floured board.

I usually give the dough a few kneads on the board even if I do the major part of the kneading in the machine.

Place dough in a large greased mixing bowl, flip over so greased side is up, and cover with a clean and very damp towel that has been wrung out. Let dough rise until doubled.

Shape the dough into whatever form you want. Let bread loaves rise, but pizza , focaccia, and Arab flatbreads don’t need a second rise.

For free-form loaves, heat oven to 375 F and bake 30 minutes or so. Rolls, heat oven to 425 and bake 15-20 minutes. Pizza and focaccia, heat oven to 500 and let heat (with baking stone on bottom shelf) for 1/2 hour. Bake pizza and focaccia about 10-15 minutes or until golden on edges, etc.

Flatbreads also bake for10-15 minutes. Roll out dough to about 5 inches in diameter and about 1/4 inch thick. Spread a couple of tablespoons of the following fillings on the dough and bake.

(Notes: For focaccia, I “paint” the rolled-out dough with olive oil and then sprinkle with chopped fresh rosemary or other herbs, coarsely ground black pepper, and coarse sea salt.

I have rolled the dough out for pizza, covered with sauce and meat and frozen it. Works pretty well, though not as well as freshly made unfrozen dough.)


Flatbreads (Used with permission.)
Flatbreads (Used with permission.)

Flatbread Toppings:

Zaatar Spice Blend

Makes about 2 cups

1 cup dried oregano leaves

¾ cup dried thyme leaves

2 T. ground sumac (red color, not harmful, from Rhus coriaria, imparts lemony taste)

2 T. Kosher salt

½ t. ground allspice

1/3 cup sesame seeds, toasted

Grind spices together, then add sesame seeds. Store in an airtight jar in the refrigerator. Keeps for one year.

(Some people use Bible hyssop or Syrian oregano [Origanum maru].)

Zaatar Flatbread Topping

Covers up to 16 5-inch flatbreads

2 cups Zaatar Spice Blend

1 ½ cups extra virgin olive oil

Mix ingredients together in a bowl. Unused portion can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.

Tomato/Onion Flatbread Topping

Covers up to 16 5-inch flatbreads

1 cup Zaatar Spice Blend

1 ½ cups extra virgin olive oil

4 large tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped

1 large white onion, finely chopped

1 t. red pepper flakes, or to taste

Chopped flatleaf parsley, for garnish

Mix all ingredients except the parsley. Keeps 1 day in the refrigerator.

Cheese Topping

Covers up to 16 5-inch flatbreads

2 pounds halloumi cheese + 1 pound mozzarella, or use a mixture of feta and mozzarella,           cut into ½-inch cubes

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 T. nigella or sesame seeds

Grindings of black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Store for up to 5 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Bring cheese to room temperature before covering flatbreads.

Arabic Coffee

Makes 4 cups

8 tbsp. finely ground Arabic coffee (decaffeinated OK)

4 cups water

2 T. sugar

1-2 cardamom seeds (or 1 per cup, if desired)

Place coffee and sugar in medium, open-mouth pot. Add water and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Bring to second boil, let it settle, then bring to a third and final boil-watch closely as it rises up quickly. Add the cardamom seeds and stir. Pour into demitasse cups or small glasses, topping with foam.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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