Given the still pronounced Commonwealth reach of Great Britain, reaching across oceans to Canada and Australia, we felt that there is still one international cuisine that Commonwealth people have not adopted and should, namely Arab cuisine emanating from the Middle East.
In the five food categories and beyond, here are the foods that dominate:
- The most important meat is lamb.
- Citrus fruits prevail over all other types of fruit.
- Arab cuisine uses every vegetable in numerous ways.
- Romaine is the dominant lettuce but parsley and cilantro are far more important.
- Beans and other legumes are a staple of the diet especially fava beans and garbanzo beans.
- Labane (the e is pronounced like in “help”) is the most important dairy product.
- Olive oil is by far the most important oil.
- Coffee, olives, and garlic are omnipresent.
- Wheat is used to make both the local bread simply called pita and tabbouleh.
If you were setting out to produce a pokies game (slots in Australian English) about Arabic food for a British or Aussie casino, these would be the symbols!
Here are a few “nevers”: However, in a pinch you can go “modern”.
- Never used reconstituted lemon juice.
- Never use garlic powder or frozen chopped garlic.
- Never use canned beans.
- Never use olive oil in frying.
- Never add milk to coffee. Sugar and fresh, chopped cardamom are preferred.
- Never use cow’s milk to make labane.
This is a chick pea dip that is eaten with pita. The pita is used almost as a fork. To make authentic hummus, you start with raw chick peas and soak them overnight in cold water. The next day you cook them slowly. Slow cooking softens them on the inside evenly with the outside. Some cooks remove the skins but that is very time consuming and isn’t really necessary.
Once the chick peas are cooked, the process is very simple. The ingredients are the chick peas, raw tehina (sesame seed paste), garlic, lemon juice, and salt (never pepper). Fresh squeezed lemon juice is preferred; many people in the Middle East have a lemon tree in their yard. If you want to cut the lemon flavor, you can add cold water.
You need a good food processor. Simply add all the ingredients in the proportions of your choice and blend for at least two minutes to produce a smooth paste.
Use raw tehina, add lemon juice and garlic, and cold water to thin and cut the lemon and blend well.
This is primarily a cracked wheat and parsley dish. This is an uncooked salad; the biggest mistake uninitiated cooks make is to soak the cracked wheat in hot water. The water must be very cold!
The wheat used in authentic tabbouleh is bulgur wheat. You need finely cracked—not coarsely cracked— bulgur. A mealtime serving might call for a quarter cup of grain. Soak the grain in cold water in equal measure to the amount of grain. The grain soaks up the water quickly.
Meanwhile, you need to chop a lot of parsley. You need a very good chopping knife as the parsley must be finely chopped. You can use the thin stems; cut off and discard the thick stems.
This is another recipe that depends on your and your family’s taste. The amount of parsley and garlic depend on taste. Many cooks add some fresh mint.
Here are two more very important points and the source of many mistakes by inexperienced cooks. Tabbouleh needs olive oil to blend with the other flavors. Never add the olive oil until just before serving. The same goes for finely chopped tomato and cucumber if you want to add them. Olive oil is an essential ingredient but must be added just at the last moment; tomato and cucumber are not essential.
Authentic Arabic coffee is called Turkish coffee because the Ottoman Turks were the empire at the time coffee was discovered by a shepherd and it was the Turks who exported it all over the Middle East.
Authentic coffee is cooked in a small pot that holds enough for a few demitasse size cups. The coffee is very strong and sweetened according to taste. The traditional way to cook Turkish coffee is to put sugar and water in the pot and bring it to a boil stirring in the sugar. When the water just begins to show small bubbles, add the coffee and wait.
The heat from below will cook the coffee from below. As the heat rises in the coffee, the water will start to rise and threaten to overflow the rim of the pot. Remove the pot from the flame until the water subsides and return the pot to the flame.
Repeat this process a few times.
Never stir the coffee whilst it’s cooking.
If you want to add cardamom, you need to find fresh cardamom and pound it yourself. You add the cardamom at the same time you add the coffee.
You can use pickled lemons in salads, in rice, in stir-fried, and in many other dishes you like. It adds a combination of sour and salty but neither flavor is overpowering because the pickling process tempers them.
You need well-sealed glass jars.
Cut off the very ends of the lemons and make sure the skins are absolutely clean because you’ll eat them later. Cut the lemons into thin but not too thin slices.
The next step is vital: lightly dredge the lemon slices in coarse salt and then immediately shake off, tap off, and gently rub off the salt. Put the lemon slices one by one in the jar. The salt begins the fermentation process but you don’t need a lot.
When the jar is full, add fresh squeezed lemon juice. Some add a single small hot pepper. The jars must be 100% sealable because you turn the jars upside-down every few hours. Keep the jars on your kitchen counter or outside if they can be kept out of the sun. Keep them outside the refrigerator like this, turning the jars every few hours, for three days. Then keep the pickled lemons in the refrigerator. They have a fairly long shelf life because of the salt but fairly long is not forever!
So if you haven’t tried your hand at Middle East cuisine, but are looking for something new and relatively easy, give it a go – you won’t be disappointed.