Forget the Quran

Claudia Roden’s cookbook Arabesque is an excellent primer on the Middle East.

In a July 2002 Harper’s book review, late Columbia professor and Palestinian activist Edward Said recounted an anecdote about an interview he gave to a Danish journalist after Sept. 11, 2001. Before asking her first question, the journalist apologized for not having read the Quran. Cosmopolitan literature professor that he was, Said responded, somewhat pedantically, ” ‘If you met a Syrian coming to visit Denmark for the first time, would you suggest he should prepare himself by reading the Bible or by reading Hans Christian Andersen?’ Without hesitation she answered, ‘Andersen, of course.’ I then suggested that reading great contemporary novelists from the Islamic world, writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih, Jabra Jabra, or Yashar Kemal, might be more worthwhile than plowing through the Koran.”

Were he to give the same interview today, Said might also suggest reading Claudia Roden’s new cookbook, Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon. A subtle and comprehensive introduction to Middle Eastern food, it offers a different but equally enlightening angle on a part of the world that most Americans think of only in terms of politics. And, unlike many books that attempt to explain the Middle East, it’s not weighed down by arcane historical details and ideological crossfire.

Shish kebabs and hummus don’t generate headlines like cluster bombs and suicide attacks do, but food occupies a vaunted position in every Middle Eastern country from Morocco to Iran. As the Turks say, “Food feeds the essence of life.” In Egypt, the word for bread (aish) also means life. And on both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, the subject of falafel can spark debates as vehement as those about Jerusalem. Roden understands this essential role food plays in Middle Eastern culture and history better than anybody does.

A Francophone Egyptian Jew whose ancestors were spice traders in Aleppo, Roden is the Madhur Jaffrey of Middle Eastern food, a one-woman cultural bridge who deserves much of the credit for bringing Middle Eastern cuisine into the homes of cooks in the United States and Britain. In Arabesque, Roden focuses on Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon (which boast some of the most refined Middle Eastern cuisines). With 150 recipes and dozens of essays on unfamiliar ingredients and customs, Arabesque whisks us through history, from the ancient Phoenicians to the 20-domed kitchen of the Ottoman sultans, from 9th-century Baghdad to the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Her new cookbook is divided into three sections—one for each of the countries—and Roden prefaces each with an extensive introduction that details the cuisine’s historical context as well as the cultural significance of certain dishes. Take, for example, her erudite essay on couscous—the national dish of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. In two and a half pages about this tiny yellow grain, she encapsulates centuries of history and cultural exchange. Originally from Ethiopia, she explains, the special wheat from which couscous is made was brought to North Africa in the 7th century by conquering Arab armies. But it was North Africa’s indigenous Berbers who first developed the technique for making couscous, rolling the wheat into tiny balls and then cooking it over a broth. Wrapped up in the story of couscous, Roden gives us a history lesson as well as some insight into North Africa’s unique mixture of Arab, Berber, and sub-Saharan African cultures.

But Arabesque is no history textbook. Roden’s introductions also shed light on more subtle aspects of Middle Eastern society, such as the tension between tradition and modernity. This anxiety, which has provoked conflict among Middle Eastern intellectuals for centuries, is perfectly illustrated by Roden’s description of her visit to a couscous-processing factory in Tunisia. At the beginning of the tour, Berber women offered Roden and the other visitors a colorful demonstration of traditional couscous preparation, rolling it out by hand and then sifting the grains according to size. But when asked how he suggested cooking it, the factory owner demurred. “He said that … you can just as well add water and heat it through in the oven—even, he added very quietly, in a microwave.”

Roden is also particularly adept at identifying how culinary influences are linked to politics. While every Middle Eastern country has had its share of invasion and imperial powers, nowhere has seen as many conquerors as Lebanon, a history which is reflected in Lebanon’s cosmopolitan and multifarious cuisine. In her chapter on this small country “less than half the size of Wales,” Roden traces the gastronomical influence of previous rulers, from the Crusaders to the Ottomans. Peeling away the layers of history, she links the prevalence of vegetarian dishes in Lebanese cuisine to the Byzantines, the 4th- and 5th-century rulers of Lebanon, who were apparently strict about not eating meat during Lent. To the French, who controlled Lebanon from 1920 to 1943, she attributes “a certain style and elegance.”

But the story of Lebanese cuisine doesn’t end in Lebanon. Roden goes on to describe the many ways that Middle Eastern immigrants, especially the Lebanese, who “are famously great immigrants,” have influenced Western food. In the past 50 years, she relates, Middle Easterners have spread out across the world—Turks in Germany, North Africans in France, and Lebanese in Latin America—bringing their food and culture with them. As any Tunisian will proudly tell you, couscous with merguez (a spicy sausage) was voted the most popular dish in France. And in Germany, doner (a Turkish meat sandwich) is as prevalent as bratwurst. This might seem normal to Americans. Ours is a country built on immigration and almost all our favorite foods, from falafel and hummus to hot dogs and pizza, were brought over by immigrants. But in Europe, Middle Eastern immigrants are shaking the very core of their identity, in no small part through food.

To be sure, no one book can encompass everything you need to know about the Middle East. Roden, for example, is uncharacteristically quiet on religion. And Iran, home to perhaps the most ancient and sophisticated of all Middle Eastern cuisines, gets little more than a footnote. But we can’t blame her for that. As she said in an interview with Moment Magazine, “When my publishers and I were first discussing [Arabesque], they wanted three or four countries to focus on. So we settled on Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey. I said, ‘How about Iran? Iran has some wonderful recipes.’ And they said, ‘Iran? No, no, no! Not Iran!’ Ever since then I’ve been joking that my next book should be The Axis of EvilCookbook.”