From exotic, colorful saffron to the flavor medley of za'atar, the ancient flavors of the Middle East tempt modern palates.
The irresistible aroma of chile, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves lured me many years ago into my love affair with Arabian food. So far, it’s been a lasting relationship.
A decade ago my sister moved to Egypt, giving me a perfect reason to immerse myself in the delights of Cairo’s markets, called souqs in Arabic. For anyone who’s been there, the word souq conjures up scenes of dusty alleyways spilling over with goods and provisions whose variety defies description. Many of these markets have been modernized, but some still retain their biblical feel.
Visiting Westerners might note a curious phenomenon in Arabian souqs. Unlike North American department stores that compete to offer the most variety under one roof, souqs geographically concentrate competing vendors. For instance, all the kitchen utensil sellers will be found in the pots and pans souq. All the carpet sellers will be found in the carpet souq. Herbs and spices will be found in the spice souq. Grouping products together in this way lets customers easily compare goods and prices — and provides an additional benefit: Wherever you are in town, the spice souq is easy to find thanks to its cloud of pungent scents.
Herbs and spices define a country’s cuisine: Think Italy, and you’ll imagine basil and oregano. China? Ginger will come to mind. Thailand must be lemongrass; Mexico, the piquant chile. For the Middle East, would you know to say sumac, za’atar and karkadey? No? Then please read on.
The King of Arabia
Any description of Middle Eastern herbs and spices starts with the king of the crop: cumin. This distinctive herb is found everywhere: freshly ground on top of hummus, sprinkled over bubbling chickpea broths with lemon, or used as the backbone of most curries and kebabs.
A couple of years ago, I traveled to Luxor, Egypt and found myself meandering through the food markets looking for a meal, bewildered at the chaos of daily life there. A rotund spice seller called me over to sell me little bags of cumin. As I declined politely he thrust a pinch of cumin into my palm and crushed it with his thumb. I took a good sniff and was instantly impressed by the wild intensity of the herb. I bought several bags.
Cultivated since biblical times, cumin is found across the Middle East. In Yemen cumin is employed in a mixture known as zhoug and in Saudi Arabia it is a signature ingredient in baharat. Many people might be more familiar with its use in Moroccan tagines, the comforting meat and vegetable stews named after the conical cooking pot used to prepare them.
I often encountered familiar Western herbs used in ways I found exotic. For example, I was surprised to find cinnamon sprinkled with lemon juice over cucumber and tomato. But one salad ingredient whose taste I couldn’t place turned out to be sumac.
This spice comes from the dried berries of a bush (Rhus coriaria) that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. Sumac is distantly related to North America’s poison ivy. Dried and ground, this purple-reddish powder is often mixed with salt to produce a spice that is wonderfully tart. I first tasted sumac in my favorite Lebanese restaurant in Dubai, the wonderful Istanbouli. The chef uses it to flavor fatoosh salads — a combination of cucumber, lettuce, tomato, onion and scraps of toasted pita bread.
I have also encountered sumac in Turkey and Iran, where the ground fruits are liberally sprinkled over rice. The well-known Turkish fast food specialty, döner kebab, sometimes is flavored with sumac powder.
Challenging to pronounce and definitely an unfamiliar flavor is the mixture of sumac, thyme and sesame seeds that is za’atar. I have found this tasty combination of flavors used throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It is usually mixed with olive oil and spread on bread, sometimes at the table. At other times, it’s spread onto fresh dough and baked. Za’atar also serves as a seasoning on vegetables, salads, meatballs or kebabs.
My memories of za’atar come hot from the ovens of the Lebanese bakeries that serve freshly baked bread rounds called manakeesh. They are a little chewy, but the tasty herb flavor is worth the effort.
In the same league as za’atar is dukkah, a typical Egyptian spice mixture. A slightly salty combination of roasted sesame seeds and hazelnuts, coriander, cumin, black pepper and thyme, dukkah predominantly is used to flavor meat. Egyptian white bread eaten together with olive oil and dukkah is a simple but delicious meal.
In the Kitchen
On the subject of Arabic cookery, one can’t forget chile, or to use the Arabic term, fil fil. Arabic food is not excessively hot in the same sense as Indian, Thai or Mexican food, but there are plenty of occasions when I’ve been left gasping for the water jug.
I got my first taste of Arabian chile sauce during a trip to the Egyptian desert oasis of El Fayoumm in the Libyan plateau. After a six-hour taxi ride I went into a restaurant with no menu and only one dish to offer. Kushari is a national dish in Egypt and consists of a bowl of vermicelli pasta, rice, lentils, onions and a stock sauce. On top of this you get a big spoonful of fil fil. This fiery relish is a perfect counterpart to the blandness of pasta and lentils.
If cumin is the king of Arabian herbs and spices, then the queen must surely be the rose, or at least rose water and rose oil. Rose fragrance plays a role in most Islamic cultures as it often has religious significance or is used as a room freshener.
Rose water also is used in cooking: for example, in the Moroccan ras el hanout and extensively in Egypt and Turkey, where it features in sweets such as the milky omm ali or in Turkish delight, a popular Middle Eastern confection. In Iran, honeys and jams are made more fragrant with rose flowers. Rose water often is used to give a light, floral fragrance to Arabic and Iraqi rice dishes such as machboos, which is similar to the Indian rice curry, biryani.
More Expensive than Gold
The most expensive of all herbs and spices, saffron’s name derives from the
Arabic za’fran, meaning “to be yellow.” Saffron is used in a variety of aromatic dishes, the most interesting of which is the Persian version of biryani, which combines saffron with peppermint to produce a light and fresh layered rice dish.
The huge expatriate Indian population in the Persian Gulf has paved the way for some fantastic curries in Dubai and Bahrain. These compelling meals of chicken or mutton (which can mean lamb or goat) are intensively flavored by saffron and Indian bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, green cardamom, star anis and nutmeg or mace.
Arabian Herbal Drinks
Arabian spice souqs are not completely devoted to the cooking pot: herbs are sold there for use in drinks, too. Arabic coffee wouldn’t be the same without the taste of cardamom. As evidence of its popularity, consider that 60 percent of the world production of cardamom is in Arab countries. The Bedouins throw cardamom pods into the coffee pot with the ground beans. The rest of us can indulge with coffee blends flavored with cardamom.
Arabs serve tea with lots of sugar, no milk and a bunch of mint. To order Arabian tea, ask for chai bil nana (tea with mint), which sounds so great when you pronounce it that you become an instant convert.
Arabs have developed their own way of cooling down to cope with the intense heat of the Middle East. I remember drinking my first glass of Egyptian karkadey and being unable to think of anything to which it compares. Made from dried hibiscus petals soaked in water and mixed with a large scoop of sugar, karkadey is quite tart and also quite refreshing.
The Scent of the Desert
When they’re not cooking or drinking herbs, the Arabs are probably burning them to scent the air. Frankincense is the scent of Arabia. Usually burned over hot coals, frankincense has an almost addictive aroma. Frankincense, a gum resin from boswellia trees, is inexpensive and ubiquitous; I’ve bought it in markets everywhere from Jordan to Tunisia.
Other tree-based Arabian room fresheners include myrrh and the wonderful buhurr. Myrrh fresheners are small scented wood chips burned over coals and are widely used in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Arab women drape their cloaks over the burning wood chips to allow the fragrance to permeate and perfume their clothes.
In the Middle East, boiling a pan of water filled with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon serves as a superb room freshener — especially if you’ve been cooking a lot of spicy food.
For thousands of years, the Middle East has been a sumptuous cauldron of herbs, spices, scented woods, flowers and precious perfumes. My favorite story of the spice trade relates to Arabs who drove their caravans across the desert loaded with abundant treasures. These travelers told of fierce carnivorous birds that built nests of cinnamon sticks from a mountain never reached by man. The traders used their cunning by placing out large pieces of raw meat as bait. The birds would swoop down, pounce on the meat and take it back to their nests. The weight of the meat would bring the nest crashing to the ground, whereupon the traders would dash in and gather up the cinnamon sticks.
Adrian Bridgwater spent four years living and working in the Middle East, based in Dubai and Cairo. He has traveled extensively in the region and has roughed it across Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Egypt’s Sinai desert and the Persian Gulf. With a rudimentary grasp of Arabic and an unbridaled enthusiasm for the people and culture of the region, he now lives in the United Kingdom but makes regular trips back to browse the markets and sample the infinite variety of Middle Eastern herbs and spices.
For delicious Middle Eastern recipes, please select DUKKAH EGYPTIAN CORIANDER AND SESAME SEED DIP, BATTATA HARRA HOT SPICY POTATOES or MUSAKHAN PITA BREAD WITH CHICKEN AND SUMAC