Middle Eastern cuisine faces competition from fast food but benefits from an edge of tradition | Rym Tina Ghazal
Food and cuisine are so deeply rooted in Middle Eastern culture and history that recipes have survived for centuries. It’s an art form. And yet, more recently, food in the region, as in many parts of the world, has been characterized by shortages, traceability, costs, composition and the latest trends.
Once an institution and pillar of the family home, is the kitchen losing its place in our lives? This question has become particularly relevant throughout the region where cooking was revered in bygone times, inspiring poetry and song. Now, increasingly profitable fast food delivered to the door is driving people away from the traditions of home cooking.
The Arab world’s love for well-cooked traditional dishes is embodied in poems, such as those of the 9th-century Abbasid prince Ibrahim ibn Al Mahdi, half-brother of Caliph Harun Al Rashid, immortalized in the tales of One Thousand and One Nights. . .
“Farhana overwhelms the hearts of the hungry with joy, as she emerges in a bowl like a full moon in the darkest nights,” recited Al Mahdi, known as the Prince of Epicureans. “Farhana”, which means “the happy one”, because it brings joy to those who eat it, refers to a medieval dish of meat and vegetables in a casserole, known as Maghmouma. It is one of the 600 dishes featured in Ibn Sayyar Al Warraq’s 10th century cookbook, “Kitab Al Tabikh(Book of Dishes). This book is one of the oldest and most comprehensive Arabic cookbooks in the world, in which the Arabic scribe collected details of the dishes traditionally served in the royal courts of Baghdad.
Al Warraq’s cookbook includes recipes for the iconic sambosa, a triangular Ramadan pastry – then known as “sanbousa” – and considered the queen of snacks in medieval times. The recipe is composed in the form of a verse to eloquently describe the preparation of this most delicious of “al ma’kal al mu’ajjal” (literally translated as fast food). This traditional dish, among others, has survived the test of time with cross-cultural appeal and is still served on Arab and Muslim dining tables around the world.
It is believed that the art of cooking actually began in Iraq, or what was then Mesopotamia. The oldest cookbook in the world was engraved around 1700 BC. Cuneiform, a system of writing on clay tablets used in the ancient Middle East. The tablets are contained in the Babylonian Collection at Yale University. While some of the ingredients of the 35 dishes are still unknownthey included stew, with combinations of meat, vegetables, or grains cooked in water.
Another cookbook that has survived from the region is the The best of Al Andalus and Al Maghrib food and delicious dishes. The text by 13th-century Andalusian scholar Ibn Razin Al Tujibi was meticulously translated and published last year. It presents 475 exquisite recipes from the unique cuisine of Moorish Spain.
With such a rich culinary heritage, one would hope that traditional Arabic dishes would remain a staple in Middle Eastern homes. However, some Western dishes have become much more common. Variations of the burger and pizza have been elevated to dominate dining tables in recent years. Traditional Arabic cuisine has been relegated and consigned as a “symbolic” side dish. It is reserved for special occasions such as Eid and Iftar celebrations during Ramadan, and the occasional visit from parents and in-laws – where there may be a discerning need to display a more culinary understanding. cultivated.
There is an abundance of cookbooks in circulation focusing on both Arab cuisine and the cuisines of other nations. They aim not only to help preserve specific dishes, but also to meet the expectations of traditional catering in the 21st century. However, the focus of the traditional cookbook has evolved. For the housewife, they serve as polite visual reminders of a bygone era, with the potential to shame rather than satisfy. For the consumer, culinary choice has become another manifestation of social media-centric, image-based gastronomic opulence.
Supported by modern conveniences, this approach means that new homes are being built to omit the traditional dining room, in favor of open living-dining spaces. Traditional family-centric meals more often compete unsuccessfully with overbearing television or family members glued to cellphones.
This existence has been perpetuated and exploited by an ever-growing range of food delivery apps, which challenge the ideals of a home-cooked meal.
According to data compiled by Statista, the growth of the online food delivery market is expected to exceed 5.3 million users worldwide. United Arab Emirates and 18.8 million users in Saudi Arabia by 2027. At the same time, part of society has become increasingly health conscious and the demand for healthier food choices has also risen sharply.
The sharp rise in food prices, particularly in parts of the Middle East where the bulk of grain supplies came from Ukraine or Russia, means that junk food has increasingly become a cheaper alternative in home cooking.
However, just as global market shocks can be detrimental to traditional cuisine, they can also change consumer habits and preferences for the better. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a huge increase in the number of people cooking at home – some with mixed results.
It remains to be seen whether such challenges reaffirm the importance of the traditional cookbook in the modern home as a precursor to home-cooked meals, or whether convenience, lack of discipline and questionable eating habits have permanently removed this mainstay in as a family institution.
Perhaps it will take the creativity and poetry found in ancient traditional dishes like those in Al Warraq’s cookbook to inspire the art of food and the re-emergence of the home-cooked meal.