Breakfast is usually the most relaxed—and often the best—meal of the day. People are still in pajamas and hair curlers, half dressed, or fresh from a morning shower. They eat what is well-known and familiar, avoiding the unexpected or pretentious. Here is what generations of Arabs have eaten, and are still eating, to help them face the day.
The basic, everyday breakfast is sharply tasty, nourishing, and the same in most Arab countries. On hotel menus it is listed along with Continental and American, under the misleading title, Oriental. But visions of sticky rice and raw fish are dispelled when the waiter arrives bearing the classic favorites of the Arab world. Fragrant stacks of freshly baked fiat bread assail the nostrils when the napkin is lifted. Surrounding the loaves are small bowls of salty, white goat cheese, glistening black and green olives, and labnah, a thick cream cheese made by draining yogurt through cheesecloth, and then drizzled with olive oil. The eater attacks the bowls with pieces of bread ripped from the hot loaves and eats the tangy mixture between sips of Turkish coffee or sweet tea.
Egypt has its own national breakfast, the famous ful madamis—although city sophisticates will assure you that nowadays, except for an Eastertime celebration, it is eaten only by the fallahin. Yet all over Cairo the lowly Java beans simmer throughout the night in huge copper pots over low charcoal fires. By dawn thousands of ful madamis bean pots have been delivered to small kiosks and restaurants—including the Hilton and the Sheraton Hotels. The cooked beans are ladled into millions of small pots and plates, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, or less frequently, with melted butter and pine nuts. Lentils are often cooked with the beans, giving them a dark reddish color.
In Central Arabia, a winter morning favorite of the Najdis is a sort of porridge called hunayua, a hearty dish of ground dates mixed with butter and semolina, flavoured with cardamom and simmered over a low-fire till nearly stiff.
In Syria and Lebanon breakfast is likely to consist of arous labnah, rolled sandwiches of flat Arab bread filled with labnah, along with whatever the eater chooses of olives, tomato and mint. Or pieces can be torn off the bread and dipped in za'tar, a mixture of thyme, salt, sumac and sesame seeds. If there is a bakery nearby, manoushah can be delivered, hot and oily, with za'tar, already baked on top of the bread. At the same time, from the bakery, it is a temptation to buy laham bi 'ajin, a sort of pizza made with minced meat, tomatoes, and onions sprinkled with spices, parsley, and pine nuts. Meanwhile, chunks of raw liver sprinkled with chopped onion, mint, and mutton fat have appeared on the table—considered a great delicacy.
It is said that festive breakfasts in the mountain villages of Lebanon begin in the early morning and continue on through the afternoon. Mutton pieces, fried in the autumn and preserved in large crocks for winter use will be served up with fried eggs. Druze villagers dip their bread in kishk— dried laban mixed with water—a distinctive salty, sour mixture quite unlike fresh laban. Jams made from the bountiful harvest of the countryside— quince, apricot, orange petal, or dried figs cooked with cinnamon, walnuts, and sesame seeds—still grace the mountain table.
And then there are the sweets common to most of the Arab world. Kanafih bi jabn is a sticky delight so rich that the most intrepid eater can manage it for breakfast. It is made of finely shredded wheat cooked in ghee over a slow fire. When the fat is absorbed, half the mixture is pressed into a huge flat pan and covered with white unsalted goat cheese and sesame seeds, and topped with another layer of shredded wheat. After it has bubbled in the oven until crusty it is cut into squares and served at once, before the cheese turns to rubber. A jug of hot thick sugar syrup stands ready on the table for each participant of the feast to drizzle as much over the confection as his or her conscience will allow.
And, so it seems, there are few faint-hearted breakfasters in the Middle East. But one must stop somewhere. After all, lunch will invariably follow and, if it is cooked in the Arab way, it will require a hearty appetite.