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The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine

The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine

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The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine

348 pagine
3 ore
Nov 15, 2018


The Fertile Crescent region—the swath of land comprising a vast portion of today’s Middle East—has long been regarded as pivotal to the rise of civilization. Alongside the story of human development, innovation, and progress, there is a culinary tradition of equal richness and importance.           
          In The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine, Peter Heine combines years of scholarship with a personal passion: his knowledge of the cookery traditions of the Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal courts is matched only by his love for the tastes and smells produced by the contemporary cooking of these areas today. In addition to offering a fascinating history, Heine presents more than one hundred recipes—from the modest to the extravagant—with dishes ranging from those created by the “celebrity chefs” of the bygone Mughal era, up to gastronomically complex presentations of modern times.
          Beautifully produced, designed for both reading and cooking, and lavishly illustrated in color throughout, The Culinary Crescent is sure to provide a delectable window in the history of food in the Middle East.
Nov 15, 2018

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The Culinary Crescent - Peter Heine



The German scholar Adam Mez, who founded the School of Islamic Studies at Basel University in Switzerland, is thought to have been the first person to produce an intensive study of the role played by eating and drinking in Islamic societies. All he had at his disposal were literary and historical sources. Accordingly, the end result was a somewhat skewed picture of medieval Oriental cuisine – by which he meant principally Arab cuisine. The first medieval Arab cookbook to come to light, which was only edited as late as 1934 by the Iraqi scholar Daoud Chelebi, was translated into English five years later by the British Arabist Arthur John Arberry. In 1949, research into the culinary history of the Islamic world took a great leap forward with the completion of a doctoral dissertation by the French orientalist Maxime Rodinson (1915–2004) entitled Recherches sur les documents arabes rélatifs à la cuisine (‘A study of Arab documents on the subject of cookery and food’). This was the first account of Arab/Islamic cuisine to proceed from the basis of a cookbook. In addition, Rodinson, who was influenced by the contemporary ‘Annales School’ of French historiography, focused primarily on the social and political significance of the art of cooking in his research and addressed the question of the influence of Arab cooking on European cuisine. There followed studies of Arab cookbooks from al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) and a variety of Islamic cuisines ranging from Morocco to Indonesia, all of which have substantially enhanced our knowledge of food and drink in Muslim societies.

The great boom which has taken place in the publication of cookbooks over the last two decades or so has not passed by Eastern cuisines. Thanks to her encyclopaedic knowledge of the culinary traditions and cuisines of the Near and Middle East, the most important author in this regard has been Claudia Roden (b. 1936), who since the late 1960s has produced numerous volumes containing recipes she has collected and notes on the cultural history of food, along with anecdotes and autobiographical observations.

The majority of cookbooks on individual countries of the Islamic world are devoted to the cuisine of Morocco; the doyenne of this particular field is the French author Zette Guinaudeau-Franc. One of the first writers to introduce an English-speaking audience to the real cuisine of the Middle East was Elizabeth David (1913–1992). Her celebrated first work, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), included recipes and ingredients that harked back to the time she had spent in Cairo and Alexandria in British-occupied Egypt during the Second World War.

Further references to cookbooks and works on the cultural history of food and drink in the Islamic world can be found in the Bibliography section.

No Pork, no Alcohol

‘O you who believe! – Eat of the good things which We have provided for you and be grateful to Allah if it is Him that you worship.’ Thus declares Surah 2, verse 172 of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Whereas other religions tend to treat eating and drinking as mere necessities for the maintenance of life, Islam also regards these functions as manifestations of the perfection of the divine creation. The Qur’an exhorts people to delight in eating and drinking. The Prophet Muhammad, who in the view of Muslim believers had the deepest, most complete knowledge of the Qur’an, called the ‘uncreated word of Allah’ a banquet (ma‘duba) to which everyone was invited. For everyone who read it, the Prophet further elucidated, it offered the greatest diversity of dishes – piquant, sweet or sour. On the other hand, the Qur’an admonished the faithful not to indulge in gluttony; ‘Eat and drink, but not to excess. For He [Allah] does not love the intemperate’ (Surah 7:31).

Of course, in common with all other religions, Islam is not without its precepts and proscriptions. However, in comparison to the dietary requirements in Judaism, these are positively simple. In Islam, there are rules relating to eating and fasting. Prior to eating, a person must wash their hands and invoke the name of God before partaking of their first mouthful. It is equally important to eat only with one’s right hand. As far as fasting is concerned, there are certain days and periods during which people are enjoined to refrain entirely from taking food and drink, others on which fasting is allowed, and finally yet others on which fasting is forbidden. Hence, fasting is prohibited on the feast days of Eid al-Adha (‘The Feast of the Sacrifice’) and on Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, as well as on every Friday except those which fall in Ramadan. Dietary taboos, on the other hand, relate almost exclusively to the consumption of pork and alcoholic beverages. To the devout Muslim, pork in any form is harām – that is, strictly forbidden.

For instance, Surah 2:173 clearly states: ‘He has only forbidden you what dies of its own accord, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah.’

Why no pork?

Muslim exegetes and commentators of the Qur’an, as well as Jewish scholars who have pronounced on the comparable proscription in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11:7), and finally Western cultural studies academics have put forward numerous theories as to how the ban on pork first arose. Medical arguments are frequently cited. Trichinae (parasitic roundworms) in pork can cause serious illnesses. When these pathogens were first discovered in the 19th century, Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians alike regarded it as being proof of the wisdom and truth of their holy scriptures. However, the real reason for the proscription should rather be sought in theological thinking. In the ancient Middle East, pigs were sacrificial animals slaughtered in honour of heathen gods and goddesses. The ban on the consumption of pork was intended therefore to set Jews and Muslims clearly apart from the devotees of the deities of the ancient East and classical antiquity even where everyday practices were concerned.

Muslims have a deep aversion, even disgust, towards pork. Even if they have inwardly distanced themselves to an extreme degree from their religion, they still forego consumption of this meat. It can easily happen that a Communist of Arab descent, who is by no means averse to a glass of whisky, will criticise an Egyptian Muslim female colleague for eating ham. Likewise, the Tatars of Central Asia often have no problem with drinking alcohol, but only very rarely eat pork. In spite of the long period of anti-religious propaganda in the Soviet Union, their intense dislike of pork has remained.

Moreover, the taboo relates not only to the consumption of pork but also to the use of pigskin and pig’s bristles.

In addition, Muslims avoid gelatine, even when used in the manufacture of medicines. Contemporary Muslim scholars of Sharia law disapprove of coreligionists working as waiters in restaurants where dishes containing pork are served; their advice is to only take such jobs when no other employment is available.

According to the ahadīth, the body of reported words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad that have been handed down and which along with the Qur’an are counted among the authoritative texts of Islam, Muslims should also refrain from eating predators or raptors. In general, they should avoid all foods that are commonly regarded as repellent. This derives from the fact that, generally speaking, everything which is seen as unpleasant also counts as unclean. A person becomes unclean through contact with unclean things. As a consequence, all of his or her spiritual observances, such as the fulfilment of religious duties, are rendered null and void and have to be repeated in a state of ritual purity.

Ritual slaughter

When the Qur’an, in the aforementioned Surah 2:173, speaks of ‘what dies of its own accord’ (in other translations, simply rendered as ‘carrion’), it means the meat of mammals or birds that have not been ritually slaughtered. This rule therefore does not apply to fish or other aquatic animals. Special regulations exist for ritual slaughter. As far as possible, the animal must be turned to face in the direction of Mecca. Then the phrase ‘In the name of God’ (bi-smi-llah) must be uttered before the animal is put under the knife, a procedure that involves severing the carotid arteries and allowing the beast to bleed to death. This practice is not only employed for the acts of ritual slaughter on Eid al-Adha, the principal feast day of the Muslim calendar, but also at other times. In traditional Muslim societies, in which slaughtermen and butchers are entrusted with this practice, Muslims are certain of obtaining ritually clean (halāl) meat.

In the light of the globally expanding food-processing industry and the international distribution of its products, as early as the 1970s there ensued among Islamic legal scholars a debate over whether, for example, deep-frozen chickens from Spain or Denmark could be considered halāl. In proffering their expert opinion, most of the scholars referred to a statement made by the Prophet Muhammad which permitted his followers to accept invitations to dine from Jews and Christians. For in these instances, it was reasonable to assume that the animals which were brought to table had not had the name of a heathen God intoned over them when they were slaughtered. Rather, it was highly probable that the name of the God common to all three great monotheistic Abrahamic religions had been spoken. However, the scholars engaged in this debate stated unequivocally that meat from countries with communist regimes could not be consumed, since atheists would certainly not have invoked the name of God. Major international meat-processing and packing concerns now therefore ensure that they have corresponding certificates issued by the Muslim authorities in the producer countries testifying to the ritual cleanliness of their products. In so-called ‘white meat’ (i.e., poultry) abattoirs run by Muslim owners, even in Europe, Muslim clerics are present during the automatic poultry-slaughtering process, whose purpose is to repeatedly recite the phrase ‘In the name of God’; in view of the highly automated production line, the tempo of the operation and the noise in such plants, this ritual is apt to strike the non-Muslim observer as somewhat strange.

In certain European countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Poland or Switzerland, animal welfare regulations are in place preventing the slaughter of any animals without first stunning them, even for exclusively ritual purposes. In other words, there are no legal exemptions for halāl or kosher meat, which therefore has to be imported. The most important producer of such meat for export is France. In the United Kingdom, ritual slaughter is permitted as such, but under strict provisions which require that animals are properly and humanely restrained, and that stunning equipment is kept close at hand for use should the animal suffer avoidable pain, agony or agitation. To ensure rapid bleeding, knives must be sharp and well maintained and both the carotid arteries and the jugular veins (in cattle, sheep and goats) or both carotid arteries (in birds) must be severed. However, fierce debates continue to rage over the cruelty of ritual slaughter without first stunning the animal, and recently there have been moves in some local authorities to ban the supply of non-stunned halāl meat to state-run schools. In practice, though, in the UK some 85 percent of halāl meat is already stunned before the animal is killed.

When Muslims find themselves obliged to eat food prepared by non-Muslims, there is often the fear, despite reassurances to the contrary, that the meat they are served has not been slaughtered in accordance with the ritual requirements of Islam. Many thus prefer to opt for a fish dish or a vegetarian meal instead. Scepticism towards meat from unfamiliar butchers can also be seen between the various denominations of Islam: in the 1980s, for instance, the regime of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invited Egyptian farmers to resettle in Iraq and offered them very attractive conditions. This was clearly a strategy to try and weaken the indigenous Shiite population who lived in the region earmarked for the settlement area and who were opposed to the rule of the Sunni-dominated Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party under Saddam. In a study conducted by an Arab sociologist, all the Egyptian farmers who participated in the scheme praised the good relations they had with their Shiite neighbours, though whether they did so out of political opportunism or conviction was a moot point. Yet in response to the question of whether they would ever buy their meat from a Shiite butcher, they replied: ‘Oh no, who knows what those people do to the meat!’

The proscription against alcohol

While pork was clearly proscribed right from the very earliest days of the history of the Islamic religion, the situation with alcohol (a term which actually derives from the Arabic word al-kohl) is somewhat more complex. In early revelations to the Prophet, wine from vines is regarded as something positive. In Surah 16:67 of the Qur’an, therefore, we find the following: ‘And from the fruits of palm trees and grapevines you derive intoxicants as well as wholesome provision. Surely there is a sign therein for those with the faculty of reason.’

At this stage, then, fruits and the alcoholic beverages derived from them were still being described as manifestations of Allah’s benevolence. In Surah 4:43, a later revelation, though, there is already a distinctly admonishing tone on this matter: ‘O you who believe, do not come to pray while you are intoxicated until you know what you are saying.’

And finally, in Surah 5:90, an injunction to avoid alcohol entirely is formulated: ‘O you who believe! Intoxicants and games of chance, idolatrous sacrifices at altars and divination by shooting arrows are all abominations, the handiwork of Satan. Therefore eschew such things in order that you might prosper. Satan’s plan is to stir up enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and distract you from the recollection of Allah, and from prayer. Will you not then abstain?’

Yet at first the rejection of alcohol did not assert itself with the same strictness as the ban on eating pork. At the outset, therefore, wine was not construed as being harām, but instead was categorised by Muslim scholars as ‘distasteful’ (makrūh). Their judgment was complicated by the fact that wine is mentioned in the Qur’an’s descriptions of Paradise. In Surah 56:18–19, there is talk of ‘…vessels, pitchers and a cup of wine from a flowing spring, from which they will develop no headache, nor will they be intoxicated.’

As with numerous other statements in the Qur’an, Muslim commentators have also struggled over the past fourteen centuries to arrive at a unanimous judgment on this question. Some have even sought to interpret it as a justification of wine. Their initial approach was strictly philological, in ascertaining that the Arabic word for wine in the Qur’an was khamr, namely ‘wine from grapevines’. Yet as is well known, wine can also be produced from other fruits. For example, a wine fermented from dates was widespread. This wine was called nabīdh rather than khamr. But because the Qur’an took a critical view of khamr, but not of nabīdh, date wine was deemed permissible. And because Arabic has more than 150 separate terms for wine, the degree of latitude regarding the ethics of wine consumption is extremely broad. Medieval Arabic literature satirised this in a multitude of anecdotes; in one a pious scholar is offered a glass of nabīdh, which he happily drinks, followed by a wine by the name of kumait (a red wine), which he also downs without demur. Finally, when he has drunk enough or his hosts are loath to serve him any more, they deliberately bring out a bottle of khamr, which he indignantly rejects.

The scholar al-Jubba’i (d. c. 915) developed an original line of reasoning in this regard. He considered wine made from dates as permissible. His rationale for this was that God had created and allowed things in this world which were akin though inferior to those things that the Blessed were able to enjoy in Paradise. Accordingly, human beings would strive to reach Paradise by living a life that was pleasing to God here below. The same logic applied to nabīdh, which was deemed to have an inferior quality in comparison with khamr. Another line of argument did not touch upon philological aspects, rather it maintained that the Qur’an only banned intoxication and not alcoholic drinks as such. In other words, moderate consumption was always possible. In view of these numerous uncertainties, up to the 14th century Muslims of all strata of society only adhered in a limited way to the ban on alcohol. In addition, comparatively large minorities of Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule were allowed to produce and consume alcoholic beverages, and not just on ritual grounds. The Christian innkeeper and his hostelry became common motifs in the extensive body of poetry on the subject of wine drinking that developed in the Arabic, Persian and Turkish languages. And finally there were also some Muslims who did not observe the alcohol ban at all and who quite openly sought to indulge their love of wine. Thus, the poet Abu Nuwas (d. 815)

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