An army may march on its stomach, but many of us civilian rank and file from the Middle East have been ingesting a rich array of wholesome and nutritious comestibles for centuries. In a military context, the assumption here – actually, sober fact on the ground – is that unless you happen to be a fighter pilot in, say, the Israeli Air Force, or a member of some elite unit, you have to make do with the basics, prepared en masse. Not exactly cordon bleu, but it clearly keeps our brave girls and boys on their feet and doing the national defense business.
But wouldn’t it be interesting to dig into some dietary habits of yore, especially in this geographic and cultural neck of the woods? Staple grub seems to have been the name of the game in these environs for some time now. Have residents across the Middle East, for example, always been on the lookout for a tasty dish of hummus? What about falafel? Tehina? And what vittles did soldiers of old get to keep them marching and fighting? That, and much more, can be learned about at the A World of Flavors exhibition which opened at Jerusalem’s Museum for Islamic Art last week.
The show takes an overarching look at the evolution of cuisine across an expansive hinterland, stretching from Iraq in the East to Spain in the West, from the advent of Islam in the 7th century CE up to the Ottoman Empire, with the odd reference to the present day. The exhibits take in a broad array of visual aesthetics, including dishes of all sizes, shapes, quality, hues, and functions, as well as artwork and, amazingly, copies and originals of ancient cookbooks.
As a youngster, I was introduced to the machinations of producing enticing chow by 1960s-70s British TV chefs such as the legendary Fanny Cradock – alongside her henpecked monocled hubby, Johnnie – and the irrepressible Graham Kerr, aka The Galloping Gourmet.
A millennium elapsed after the dawn of the Islamic Era, before mass circulation channels developed to enable the wider and more rapid dissemination of information on a wide variety of topics. Prior to that, it was generally a matter of international trade and other links, and the odd military conquest or two, to facilitate the circulation of new ideas from foreign lands.
As the Islamic Empire spread across the Middle East and North Africa, and into Spain, the incoming culture began to make inroads on local lifestyles. That, naturally, included eating habits, probably one of the few areas of life in this conflict-suffused part of the world that doesn’t incite polemics.
A few years back, I interviewed an Arab and a Jewish student from Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design who collaborated on a final project based on Bamba. They suggested that the one thing all Jews and Arabs agree on is not hummus – as most of us other mortals believe, although the chickpea paste does crop up time and again in the exhibition in a variety of guises – but the puffed peanut butter-flavored snack.
CURATORS Adi Namia-Cohen and Limor Yungman decided, wisely, to provide the visitor with some global and culinary bearings from the outset.
As you enter the first display section, you espy a large map on a wall showing the area around the Mediterranean, and east to Iraq. The tastefully designed geographic spread gives you a basic idea of what dishes came from where, and when. There are also some fun historic tidbits in there as well.
How many of us, for example, knew that the Rambam had a penchant for lemon-flavored lollipops? The feted rabbi and philosopher was a medical man too and knew how to take care of his own well-being, as well as counseling others in matters of health. Apparently, Maimonides would serve his guests cookies while opting for a lemon lollipop for his own epicurean delight. The candy on a stick was deemed to stimulate appetite and assist the digestive process.
Yungman, who has a PhD from France in food history, says she and Namia-Cohen wanted to give some structure to the public’s traipse through the victuals.
“The exhibition opens with the map that tells the story of the Arab conquests, from the 7th century [CE], through six raw ingredients – rice, saffron, cinnamon, orange, sugar, and eggplant.” The idea was to offer us as varied an ingredient base as possible. “There are spices, fruit, and a vegetable,” Yungman continues. “They are the markers of this cuisine, and they spread to other places in the wake of these conquests.”
There are other fruits in the display mix, such as dates which, we are told, the Koran notes the prophet Muhammad promoted as a healthy, nourishing, and satisfying bite. It was also an inexpensive snack. That makes perfect sense. After all, Islam originated from a largely arid land where palm trees were probably one of the few items of vegetation that thrived. Camel’s milk and grains were also easily available in the Arabian Peninsula and were generally used to make porridge.
Meanwhile, over on the upper crust side of society, rulers had their own court cooks, with the head chef entrusted with ensuring that the head of state not only enjoyed his repasts but also got himself plenty of wholesome nutrition. Interestingly, women who were taken on to serve in royal courts as slaves also found work in the kitchen, and some of them even attained key positions. There was also more to being a chef than just creating attractive and flavorful dishes. The cooks served as gastronomic cultural agents and played an active role in court cooking contests, gastronomy-themed poetry, and cookbooks.
There are a couple of references to the latter in the exhibition, including a page from the Kitab al-Tabikh cookbook by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, which may originate from Iraq in the 13th century. The recipe on display is for a meat-based vegetable creation called Tharid Shami.
There are several surprise items in the show, such as the lengths to which cooks back in the day went to vary the ingredients they stirred into hummus. One might have thought that in more existentially challenging times, people went more for simplicity. Not so, it seems.
“There is a cookbook from Cairo with a recipe that shows how much seasoning and spices they used for hummus dishes,” Yungman notes. “It is one of the earliest recipes for hummus in existence.” There are also preparation instructions from Haleb in modern-day Syria.
That put me in mind of a gorgeous publication called simply Hummus, co-produced by French-based Israeli designer Dan Alexander in 2020, along with Tel Aviv restaurateur Ariel Rosenthal, aka Hakosem (“The Magician”), and food writer and chef Orly Peli-Bronshtein.
The project envisages an imaginary “hummus route” across the Middle East, from Cairo, through Gaza, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Acre, and Beirut to Damascus. The tome is full of fascinating information – historical and personal-anecdotal – including recipes and compelling photographs. Leafing through the book, one quickly concludes, no doubt much to the chagrin of the aforementioned Bezalel students, that hummus is a sort of lingua franca among all the countries of the region, political conflict notwithstanding.
“Arab cuisine spread and became a connecting element across the whole region under Muslim occupation,” Yungman explains. Much like other areas of the arts and culture, such as painting, architecture, and music, the prevailing line of dietary thinking was – often literally – spiced up by local nuances, hence we end up with an abundance of variations on the base comestible.
The references to improvisations on hummus were something of a revelation for me.
While, of course, there were the well-heeled right across the Muslim Empire, the vast majority of people lived more or less hand to mouth. Hence, presumably, they stuck mostly to cheap and cheerful sustenance. Apparently, local fare put in more than a fleeting appearance on the dinner table throughout the Islamic era.
“There are all sorts of ingredients they used which we don’t use today,” Yungman advises. “That is exactly what this exhibition sets out to show – how rich this cuisine was in terms of ingredients, flavors, and colors. We don’t really consider that. We might have images in our heads of camel caravans and a simple lifestyle. But there was such a wealth of dishes back then.”
One should note, however, that was not the case across the board. There was, Yungman explains, a clear differentiation between what the country folk tucked into and the food the city dwellers ate. “The rural fare is much simpler, but the urban cuisine was very rich.”
That very much applies to the range of our own Israeli fare. As a definitive cultural melting pot, with many of us with roots in all sectors of the globe, we probably have one of the broadest stretches of foodstuffs in the world. Certainly, tourists with any appreciation of quality cuisine have a hard time leaving the country.
Israel has become a culinary melting pot from waves of aliyah
Over the decades, the waves of aliyah have introduced Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike into the culinary maelstrom, each bringing with them their cultural and edible heritage from home, and beefing up the local offerings in the process. Many an Ashkenazi has gingerly tasted and subsequently embraced spicy condiments, while Sephardim have taken on such delicacies from “the heim” as pickles and chicken soup.
You can get a snapshot of the wealth of food offerings at our very own shuk Mahaneh Yehuda, which has laid on the attractive polychromic goodies, heaped high on the stalls, for 100 years. I was reminded of that on a recent trip to Istanbul, where I moseyed over to the Grand Bazaar. There was plenty to find there, but was no competition for the Jerusalem market.
There are a handful of video works in the exhibition, with a number of top chefs getting down and dirty with some yesteryear recipes and producing an array of hot and cold dishes that reprise some of the vittles folks around these parts – and farther abroad across the Islamic territorial rule – downed on a regular basis. All the recreated ancient portions included one or more of the six raw ingredients that Yungman had mentioned at the outset.
WE GET more than just aesthetics from A World of Flavors, as there were various ceremonial, celebratory, religious, and social mores-related backdrops to the preparation, serving, and ingestion of food across the Arab world.
Special occasions, naturally, demanded special spreads, and the cycle of life gets its own slot in the show. A fetching scene, from the Maqamat al-Hariri manuscript illuminated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti in Iraq in 1237, shows a group of men devouring some tasty-looking portions. It must have been heavy going, as the expressions on their faces indicate that they have been at it for some time and perhaps should take a breather to let their tummies settle before resuming the onslaught.
The well-to-do invitees were the beneficiaries of one all-mighty team effort to provide the guests with a meal they wouldn’t forget in a hurry. The wedding itself lasted 40 days, but the preparations took an entire year, during which 140 donkeys bearing wood to keep the ovens well stoked arrived at the kitchen three times a day. Despite the plethora of fuel provisions, we are told that all the wood was gone by the first evening. What they did after that is anyone’s guess.
The stars of the nuptials got their posterity due. Two key dishes from medieval Arab cuisine bear the names of the bride and groom. Ma’muniyya, a semolina and almond pudding colored with saffron and perfumed with rosewater, was named after al-Ma’mun, the groom. And the bride, Buran, got her tasty commemorative salute with a dish of fried eggplant called Buraniyya.
Religious occasions such as feasts marking the two most important holidays in the Islamic calendar, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, feature pictorially at the museum. The exhibition info advises that the Eid al-Fitr meal held in the year 380 of the Hegira (990 CE), at the court of the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, opened with a festive procession through the city’s streets. It included models of two palaces sculpted out of sugar and covered with leaves of gold, each model weighing 850 kilograms.
The banquet began after the procession: A six-meter-long cloth was unfurled on which flowers were scattered, perfume was sprinkled, and 21 trays were laid, each containing 21 layers of grilled and stuffed poultry dishes surrounded by colorful sweets.
That’s enough to make your eyes pop, get the adrenal juices running freely, and push the salivary glands into overdrive. B’tayavon. ■
A World of Flavors closes on April 30, 2024. For more information: www.islamicart.co.il/