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Volume 39, Number 2March/April 1988

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The Flavors of Arabia

Written by Alice Arndt
Photographed by Christopher D. Salvo

The Arabian Peninsula has been closely linked with spices throughout its history. Spices were appreciated everywhere in the Middle East for their fragrances and their medicinal properties, as well as for their enhancement of flavor in food. Herodotus, "the father of history," wrote in the fifth century BC of the spices of Arabia that "the whole country is scented with them, and exhales an odor marvelously sweet." For centuries the Roman Empire, with its insatiable demand for Eastern spices, kept caravans crisscrossing the Peninsula, bringing such important spices as pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, spikenard, nutmeg and cloves to the West. Muhammad himself, as a young man before the Koran was revealed to him, accompanied caravans across the Peninsula to Syria, carrying goods which very likely included spices. After Islam was established believers came to Makkah from all over the world to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage, and enriched the Peninsula with an enormously varied culinary acquaintance. Arabian cooks developed a mastery of flavoring, using a multitude of spices in each dish to create a taste which is rich and subtle, never overpowering but magnificently enhancing the food.

In many other regions of the world where the climate is hot, the food is, too. In southern India, Mexico, and parts of Africa, for example, many dishes are served that will literally scorch your tongue if you're not used to them, and make beads of perspiration stand out on your forehead. Perspiration has a cooling effect on the body, of course, and it is generally accepted that this is the purpose of such spicing. In contrast, spicing in Arabian cuisine is not extremely pungent. Although there are, as everywhere, individuals who enjoy a good hot red pepper, or a large dose of ginger, mustard or onion, the flavoring in Arabia is tasty enough to awaken an appetite in the heat, but not so hot as to induce a loss of the moisture so essential to life in an arid or desert land.

Certainly, in most cities of the Peninsula there are sophisticated supermarkets where you can find spices sold in rows of uniform bottles containing colored powders. But it is more common - and more fun - to buy the spices whole in some tiny, fragrant shop or stall in a suq. These whole spices are interesting in that they reveal, to a certain extent, which part of the plant has yielded the spice, whether bark or berry, seed or sap. More importantly for flavor, they will be stronger and more aromatic since the volatile essential oils are lost much more rapidly after the spices have been ground. The spice seller will often grind your spices for you on the spot, if you prefer, or he may offer to sell you a pre-ground mixture which he will assure you is excellent for specific dishes, such as a rice pilaf or a vegetable stew, but whose ingredients remain his secret.

Dates have always been an important food in the Peninsula, where several varieties are cultivated in ancient groves in the large oases; dates are a common condiment at any meal and with coffee. Various nuts - almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts and pine nuts - all of which grow in regions of the Middle East, lend texture as well as flavor to Arabian foods. Familiar spices and herbs like cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, hot red and green peppers (Capsicum spp.) and allspice, ginger, mint, parsley, bay leaves, basil, dill, rosemary, garlic and onions all are used frequently. A few others which are becoming more commonly known in the West are popular as well, such as cumin, caraway and coriander - both the tan, spherical seeds of the coriander plant and its parsley-like fringed green leaves, known in the West as cilantro. But beyond those there are still other spices and condiments important to the flavor of Arabia that are relatively unknown in the West today.

Sesame seeds, the pale, small seeds of a tall herb grown in many parts of the Middle East, are extremely important to the cuisine of the region. The seeds are pressed to extract a high-quality oil; lightly toasted, they add their nutty flavor to a large number of breads and pastries, or provide a tasty coating for sweet Medina dates stuffed with almonds. Tahinah, a paste made from sesame, is mixed with mashed chick-peas, garlic and lemon juice to make the beloved dip hummus. Sesame seeds mixed with honey are a nutritious, sweet snack. Perhaps Ali Baba commanded the cave to "Open, sesame!" because the seed pods of this plant (except for modern commercial varieties) burst open suddenly and forcefully when the seeds are ripe, scattering them widely.

Cardamom is an essential ingredient in that ubiquitous symbol of Arab hospitality, coffee. In the Arabian Peninsula, coffee is usually a straw-colored brew, made from lightly roasted beans, lavishly perfumed and flavored with crushed, large green cardamom pods, and served unsweetened in miniature handleless cups in a stream of generosity that ends only when the guest's thirst is unquestionably satisfied. As it is one of the world's most expensive spices, cardamom's generous use is intended as an honor. In addition, coffee brewed from dark-roasted beans, and usually prepared with sugar, is drunk occasionally. That brew is sometimes spiced with a little ground cardamom seed as well.

Cardamom is by no means limited to coffee; its pleasant, camphor-like flavor combines well with any food or beverage, hot or cold. (I challenge you to find an exception.) The seed pods, slightly crushed, are a standard spice in the traditional Arabian dish kabsah, a lamb-and-rice stew, and it is a common ingredient in fruit desserts.

As a native of southern India, the spice has traveled the short distance to the Arabian Peninsula since antiquity. The plant is a member of the ginger family, grows to a height of two meters or more (six or eight feet) and produces its aromatic seed pods on curly panicles at its base.

Dried limes lend a bright tang to stews, some varieties of kabsah, and fish dishes The limes may be used whole and fished out of the dish before serving, or pounded to a fine powder. To make your own dried limes, boil the small round variety of lime vigorously for a few minutes, then dry them in a sunny or otherwise dry and warm place for several weeks until they turn brown and feel hollow.

It is mahlab, the aromatic kernel of a kind of cherry with a black fruit, that gives that distinctive flavor and scent to the sweet braided yeast bread popular all over the Middle East. The droplet-shaped kernels are ground into a powder and used in this and other breads and pastries. In addition to providing "the bread spice," this versatile tree has several other uses: Its fragrant oil is used in making perfumes, its hard, heavy wood is valued in turnery, and the tree itself provides grafting stock for cherry growers in southern Europe and western Asia.

Mastic, the resin exuded from the bark of a small evergreen shrub closely related" to the pistachio tree, is best known in the West today for its use in such products as varnish and paint, but cooks in Arabia continue their centuries-old custom of enjoying its unique fresh, resinous aroma and flavor in meat soups and stews and in puddings. Mastic melts into the food rather than dissolving, so it is best to pulverize the translucent light-yellow lumps before adding them. Mastic is one of the many ingredients used in the popular shawurma, that elaborate construction of marinated meat, fat and flavors which rotates on a vertical spit placed close to a fire.

Nutmeg is the seed of a large evergreen; tree native to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) of what is now Indonesia. The fleshy yellow, peach-like fruit of this tree splits open when ripe, revealing the nutmeg encased in a dark-brown shell, which is in turn wrapped in a bright red net, or aril; this aril is the spice mace. Nutmeg has long been in popular use in the Middle East, as in the rest of the world, both as a flavoring and a medicine; however, its medicinal properties have caused it to be classified officially as a drug and it is therefore banned in Saudi Arabia today. Very large quantities of nutmeg can produce hallucinations followed by ferocious headaches, and an overdose can be lethal.

Rosewater and orange-blossom water lend their sweet perfumes to a wide variety of foods, notably puddings and pastries but also to some fruit drinks and salads. They may be used separately or together, depending on the dish and the taste of the cook. The essences are distilled from the petals of the flowers with water, a process developed by the Arabs; the flower waters on sale today are usually a dilution of this product. Rosewater is one of the earliest distilled products ever made, and its manufacture has been an important industry in the Middle East for about 1,200 years. Rosewater and orange-blossom water are added to food simply for the pleasure their fragrance gives, rather than for flavor.

Shaybah, also known as "old man's beard," is a tree lichen found in the Arabian Peninsula whose complex bitter, metallic flavor is popular in meat and vegetable stews. A small piece of curly black-and-silver lichen will flavor a large potful.

Saffron is commonly used in the more elegant rice dishes, both savory and sweet, as much for its beautiful yellow color as for its unmistakable earthy taste. Chicken and fish are also often flavored with saffron. This spice, the world's most expensive, is made up of the stigmas of an autumn-flowering crocus native to the Middle East. The stigmas and parts of their styles are dried to brittle red threads which, when ground, yield a yellow powder. Each flower has only three tiny stigmas, and something like 80,000 flowers are needed to produce a pound of spice. Most of the saffron in trade today comes from Spain, where it was introduced by the Arabs in the eighth or ninth century.

Powdered dark-red sumac berries provide a pleasant lemony spice which tastes especially good on meats such as shish kebabs. Although it is produced by a small Mediterranean/Persian tree related to the poisonous sumac of North America, and it is sometimes used in tanning leather, the agreeable acid of these berries is in no way harmful. Sumac was mentioned nearly 2,000 years ago in the writing of Dioscorides, a Greek physician serving in the Roman army, as having healthful properties; Dioscorides says it was "sprinkled among sauces" and mixed with meat. Modern-day eaters find it excellent on pizza. Sumac is also generally considered an essential ingredient in the spice mixture za'tar,

The tamarind is a small tropical tree similar in appearance to an acacia. Its name is derived from the Arabic for "Indian date." The pulp of its long brown seed pods yields an extremely viscous syrup with a distinctive sour flavor that is excellent in vegetables, meat and fish dishes. Tamarind syrup makes a delicious and refreshing cold drink, prepared like lemonade with water and sugar. This spice is not so exotic in the West as it may seem at first: Tamarind is an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.

Za'tar is the Arabic name for the herb thyme, but it also denotes a delicious mixture of two parts thyme, one part sumac, one part sesame seeds and a little salt. (Proportions may vary, and other spices may be added according to each family's taste.) Served with a high-quality olive oil and flat Arab bread, it is a popular breakfast throughout the Middle East.

Alice Arndt is a culinary historian who has lived in the Middle East for 10 years.

This article appeared on pages 33-35 of the March/April 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1988 images.