Sunday, January 18, 2009
Cookery Book Review: Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
My personal enjoyment for Turkish food began over ten years ago when my friends and I, fresh out of high school, went to the Turkish Cafe in Ponsonby (one of Auckland's restaurant rows) on a whim and hungry for something "different." Exotic to us, then, was Turkish food - and belly-dancers, but they do not an authentic Turkish meal make. Anyway, like most initiates, I tried hummus and doner kebabs for the first time, followed by baklava and syrupy Turkish coffee. Everything felt velvety on my tongue. Though simply presented, it was the luxury provided by the textural qualities of the food that won me over. I became obsessed with the restaurant for a couple of years.
If we are to talk about Turkish food in the over-arching, umbrella-sense of the culinary ideal, it is useful to know that it draws from many regional influences. The Osmanlis (Ottomans), the greatest of all Turkish dynasties, adapted Persian and Arab dishes in addition to those of the region Bolu, where the Osmanlis used to hunt, and from where the greatest cooks of the Ottoman Court were sought. Aspects of what became Ottoman and consequently a national cuisine left their mark wherever the Ottomans reigned, which speaks to the myriad versions of hummus and baklava throughout North Africa, Southern Europe and the Middle East. Historical information pertaining to cultural and sociological insights form the narrative depth from which spring the recipes of Claudia Roden's grand cookery text The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, which celebrated its 40th year in publication last year (first published by Penguin in 1968 as The Book of Middle Eastern Food).
(Please note that the concept Middle Eastern herein refers not to a specific region but to an extensive community of various cultures that have traded and shared with each other, sometimes by force or lack of choice (territory wars, dispersed populations, etc.)
In order to cook anything from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, one should become acquainted with the various ingredients that are predominant. After an engaging introduction on the genesis and scope of her text, Ms. Roden provides the reader with information on the necessary flavourings, aromatics and condiments of Middle Eastern cookery, most of which are relatively easy to source in any large metropolitan centre, in any area where there is a distinct Arab, Iranian or Muslim community, or online, if all else fails. Such examples are: dibbs, a date syrup that is used as a natural sweetener in Iraq; orange-blossom water; pomegranate syrup (or pomegranate molasses), a dark, tart flavouring that I cannot do without; ras-el-hanout ("top of the shelf"), a spice mixture that can contain anything between 12 and 100 ingredients; and argan oil, from a nut native to Morocco.
Recipes are presented in chapters devised according to: Appetizers (Entrées for those outside of the US), Salads, and Cold Vegetables; Yogurt; Savoury Pies; Soups; Egg Dishes; Fish and Seafood; Poultry; Meat Dishes; Vegetables; Rice; Bulgur, Couscous, and Pasta; Breads; Desserts, Pastries, and Sweetmeats; Pickles and Preserves; and Drinks and Sherbets. I will touch on some of these chapters in this review.
The first food chapter, Appetizers, Salads, and Cold Vegetables, presents "an art of living," which most of us love: mezze. The perfect mezze plate comprises small bites of varying textures and temperatures. Those which inundate supposed-Occidental images of Middle Eastern mezze are well-represented here: hummus, dukkah, taramosalata, and baba ghanouj. My proclivity is towards those with Syrian accents, as indicated by the presence of pomegranate molasses in muhammara (a condiment also made with walnuts, garlic and coriander) and Betingan bel Dibs Rumman (in which pomegranate molasses plays a principal role in the marinade for baby aubergines). Common ingredients across the board are: chickpeas, aubergines, tahini (a paste made of ground sesame seeds), walnuts, and peppers. Parsley seems to be the primary herb used, and popular spices include sumac, cumin, and turmeric.
For the uninitiated, soup is a good entry into any cuisine, for the comfort of a soup bowl is seemingly universal. This may help overcome the reluctance to try something different - or at least it works when I try to get those of shy palates to challenge their tastebuds. Many a Middle Eastern soup is tangy (due to the reliance on good, sharp lemon juice), such as the Egyptian hamod and Greek avgolemono, and most rely on lentils or vegetables (particularly pumpkin and spinach) to create density in the soups. Another popular ingredient is yogurt, which is generally added after the simmering period; it adds depth and creaminess while rounding out intense flavours in a healthful way. Of all the yogurt soups, I particularly like Eshkeneh Shirazi, a specialty from the Iranian city of Shiraz (a city of gardens and fruit trees in which the oldest sample of wine has been found) to which chicken stock is added to a roux, then it is seasoned and brought to the boil before adding chopped walnuts and dried fenugreek. After a simmering period, a large quantity of yogurt is added, then the soup is quickly served. Some soups are national dishes, and their presence provides great insight into the various cultures explored in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
I cannot count how many times I have flipped through the Poultry chapter in the years that I have owned The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. Poultry is the stand-out star for special occasions, particularly festivals. As Claudia Roden presents each recipe simply, one can serve a dish that is ordinarily grand in an accessible, mid-week way. For example, Hamam Mahshi bil Burghul is a way of expressing one's love for someone else, but it is essentially roasted and stuffed small poultry (usually poussins or chickens). We all know how to do this, and I use this particular recipe on a regular basis - the poultry marinates in an aromatic oil of cardamom, cinnamon and allspice and is stuffed with sweetly spicy and nutty bulgar wheat that is plumped up in chicken stock. Of course, I suppose, nothing says "I love you" better than a well-prepared, roasted chicken. Combining poultry with sweet ingredients (particularly cinnamon and fruit) is fairly commonplace throughout the Middle East. Fast approaches include Tabaka Piliç (Georgian chicken with plums) and Djaj bel Loz (Moroccan chicken with almonds and honey).
Meat Dishes picks up on the lavishness of the Poultry chapter, for meat was largely associated with aristocracy, and is to this day used sparingly and for special occasions in some parts of the Middle East. There are many recipes for stuffed meat, ground meat, tagines (Moroccan stews), and offal. As a lover of lamb (no surprise, I suppose, given that I am from New Zealand), this chapter is a particular favourite. Great and interesting examples of lamb dishes include: Shish Kebab (marinated, grilled meat on skewers), Kuzu Kapama (a Turkish dish for leg of lamb with scallions and herbs), and the Turkish lamb stew with creamy aubergine sauce (Hünkâr Beğendi). For those who love meatballs, there are 8 recipes in this chapter. Meatballs with spinach and hummas (Kofta bel Sabanekh wal Hummus) is popular throughout the Middle East, and I like to serve it an Iranian sauce made with orange juice (khoresh sak) - a photograph is provided at the opening of the post; the taste outshines and belies its simple appearance.
As meat is used judiciously, there is a reliance on Vegetables, Rice, and Bulgar, Couscous, and Pasta, which make up three detailed chapters in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. If ever you want to glamourise and vaunt a side dish of vegetables, or if you are looking for vegetables presented as a main course, look no further. In the Middle East, vegetables are grilled, stuffed, preserved and gently cooked in myriad ways. In Egypt, leeks (korrat) are added to fried garlic and caramelised sugar, sprinkled with lemon juice and salt, then stewed. One then chooses to serve them cold as an appetizer/entrée or warm as a side-dish. In Iran, spinach is given a jolt by being added to soft mixture of fried onions, turmeric, cinnamon, prunes and black-eyed peas (Aloo Sfenaj). Personally, I get giddy at the sight of all the aubergine recipes. There are directions on how to fry, broil, grill and roast them, and there are many base recipes given with regional variations. I love the Palestinian dish Ma'loubet el Betingan, in which aubergines are sliced and broiled before being presented in a layered dish. Place sweetly spiced lamb on the bottom of a frying pan, cover it with slices of broiled aubergine, which in turn is covered with rice. Repeat the process, then fill the pan with water, which is gently brought to the boil then turned down to a simmer until the rice is tender. Easy to prepare and a savoury delight, Ma'loubet el Betingan is then set off with toasted pine nuts.
Rice is given royal treatment in Iran. When served plain (chelow), it is used to fill out dishes or to accent ingredients contained in the main meal. It is elevated to a polow when combined with other ingredients in an artful manner (often with nuts and sweet, dried fruit). Many a special pilaf (rice dish) come from Iran and Turkey. One such example is Balkabagi Pilav, for which cubed pumpkin simmers in chicken stock with rice and lightly friend onion, heady cardamom and cinnamon until the rice has absorbed the chicken stock and the pumpkin is tender. Sauces are often employed to make a meal out of rice alone. These sauces (or khoresht-ha in Persian) are dramatic, for their puncutate fluffy, buttery rice with an edge of bitterness and sourness. Khoresht-e Ghormeh Sabzi is a herb sauce made with dried limes, fenugreek, and an abundance of herbs (namely, dill, parsley, cilantrao). Khoresht-e Rivas is a sauce made with tart rhubarb, softened with allspice and cinnamon, and paird with mint and parsley. Short-grain rice is used for rice puddings and stuffing vegetables.
Bulgar, Couscous, and Pasta showcases the versatility of these Middle Eastern staples, most of which are common to many households outside the Middle East due to easily making them tasty in a short space of time. Bulgar is cracked wheat, which is to say wheat kernels that have been boiled, dried, then ground. It adds a nutty flavour to dishes and comes in three types of grind: coarse, medium and fine. It is used to make extraordinary pilafs and salads. In the days of the Ottoman Empire it was soaked in chicken stock and was combined with toasted pine nuts and raisins. Like this, bulgar could be used as a side dish or as a stuffing - I like to stuff aubergines and bell peppers with it for a quick, summery lunch. Couscous is a staple of North Africa, and it is made by grinding semolina in a coarse manner, then coating it in flour. It is usually steamed in the dishes made from it, which are often also called couscous. Used as a bed for flashy ingredients (such as almonds and squab, perfumed with onions, gingner, saffron and ginger) or as an integral ingredient for a savoury stew (such as the Moroccan dish Kesksou Bidaoui bel Khodra, in which lamb stews with seven vegetables and chickpeas), couscous is a delight. The predominant pasta used in the Middle East is orzo, known in Arabic as "birds' tongues." Like bulgar, it is best flavoured by soaking up stock.
The majority of desserts (whether they be preparations of fruit, pastries or sherbets) from the Middle East are very sweet, but they are consumed in small doses. I adore them because they are always beautifully coloured and exquisitely perfumed. If you want a show-stopper, Claudia Roden has been thorough in providing the reader with many options to deliver. If you are in the mood for fruit, a fruit salad is enlivened with rose water, orange slices are lifted with a touch of orange-blossom water, and apricots are simmered in a perfumed rose water and sugar syrup before being filled with cream and adorned with chopped pistachios (the Turkish dessert Kaymakli Kayisi Tatlisi). If you prefer ice cream, try ones made with pistachios or almonds, or even the traditional sahlab offering from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt (made with mastic and orange-blossom water, sahlab is the ground root tuber of the orchid family that creates a chewy ice cream). There are gorgeous pastry desserts, such as baklava (layers of filo pastry interspersed with perfumed and buttered ground nuts, usually pistachios or walnuts, M'hencha (a Moroccan dessert of ground, sweetly-spiced almonds, rolled up in filo, which is then spiralled into the shape of a snake before it is baked), and Ma'amoul (date-filled pastries - in Syria and Lebanon the pastry is made with semolina instead of flour). You will now have an idea of the ingredients preferred in desserts: fruit, sweetened and spiced nuts, and rose and orange-blossom waters. Ataïf are Arab pancakes, made with yeast and coated with a fragrant sugar syrup. These pancakes can also be filled with nuts and lightly fried before being dipped into the syrup (known as Ataïf bi Loz, as photographed in this paragraph).
And this is just a sampling of what The New Book of Middle Eastern Food contains. There are breads, preserves, and fish courses, too. Giving a textural quality to the recipes is a rich backdrop of history, cultural observations, riddles, and anecdotes. For the kitchen or armchair traveller, this is an ideal text. I feel like I have been to the Middle East every time I cook from or read this seminal cookery book. The cooking methods have been adapted for modern kitchens and technology, the recipes have been tested for success (though, of course, there is always room for personal interpretation and tastes), and the tone of Claudia Roden's writing is never intimidating - it is as welcoming and friendly as the lavish dishes provided in this, one of my "desert island books": The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
(When I first began blogging, I participated in a blog event in which we were to cook from a cookery book, and I chose this one. You can read about and the chosen recipes here.)
Tessa ~ Welcome! Thank you for the kind comment. Food blogs are a great network.