Food and cooking are so deeply entrenched in the culture and history of the Middle East that recipes have survived for centuries. It is an art form. And yet, more recently, food in the region, like many parts of the world, has become characterized through shortages, traceability, costs, composition and the latest trends.
Once an institution and mainstay of the family home, is cooking losing its place in our lives? This question has become particularly pertinent across the region where cooking was revered in a bygone era, inspiring poetry and song. Now, the increasingly cost-effective fast food delivered to the door is pushing people away from the traditions of home cooking.
The Arab world’s love affair with well-cooked traditional dishes are embodied by poems, such as those by the 9th-century Abbasid prince Ibrahim ibn Al Mahdi, the half-brother of the Caliph Harun Al Rashid, who was immortalized in the Arabian Nights tales.
“Farhana overwhelms the heart of the famished with joy, as it emerges in a bowl like a full moon in the darkest of nights,” recited Al Mahdi, known as the prince of epicures. “Farhana,” meaning “the happy one,” because it brings joy to those who eat it, refers to a medieval casserole-like dish of meat and vegetables, 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 world’s oldest and most comprehensive Arabian cookbooks, in which the Arab scribe collected details of dishes traditionally served in royal courts in Baghdad.
Al Warraq’s cookbook includes recipes for the iconic Ramadan triangular pastry sambosa – then known as “sanbousa” – and considered the queen of snacks during 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” (translated quite literally as fast food). This traditional dish, among others, has survived the test of time with cross cultural appeal, and is still served at Arab and Muslim dining tables around the world.
It is thought that the art of cuisine actually began in Iraq, or what was then Mesopotamia. The world’s oldest cookbook was etched around 1,700 BCE in 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 in the 35 dishes are still unknown, they included stew, with combinations of meat, vegetables or grain cooked in water.
Another cookbook to have survived from the region is the Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from Al Andalus and Al Maghrib. The text by the 13th-century Andalusi Scholar Ibn Razin Al Tujibi was meticulously translated and published last year. It showcases 475 exquisite recipes from the unique cuisine of Moorish Spain.
With such a rich culinary legacy, one would hope that traditional Arabian dishes remained a staple at homes across the Middle East. However, some western dishes have become far more prevalent. Variations of the burger and pizza have been elevated to dominate dining tables in recent years. Traditional Arabian cuisine has been relegated and consigned as a “token” side dish. It is reserved for special occasions such as Eid and Iftar celebrations during Ramadan, and the occasional visit from relatives and in-laws – where there may be a perceptive need to display a more cultured culinary understanding.
There is an abundance of cookbooks in circulation focusing on both Arabian and cuisines from other nations. They aim to not only assist in the preservation of specific dishes, but also serve to benchmark expectations for traditional dining in the 21st century. However, the objective of the traditional cookbook has evolved. For the homemaker 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 yet another image-based social media-centric display of gastronomic opulence.
Backed by modern convenience, this approach means new homes are built to omit the traditional dining room, in favor of open plan living-dining spaces. Traditional family-centric mealtimes more frequently compete unsuccessfully with an overbearing TV or family members glued to mobile phones.
This existence has been perpetuated and exploited by an ever expanding array of food delivery apps, which challenge the ideals of a home cooked meal.
According to data compiled by Statista, the growth in the online food delivery market is expected to exceed 5.3 million users in the United Arab Emirates and 18.8 million users in Saudi Arabia by 2027. At the same time, a section 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 junk food has increasingly become a cheaper alternative to home-cooking.
However, much as global market shocks may be harmful to traditional cooking, they can also change consumer habits and preferences for the better. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a huge rise in people cooking at home — some with mixed results.
It remains to be seen if such challenges reaffirm the significance of the traditional cookbook in the modern home as a precursor for the home-cooked meal, or if convenience, lack of discipline and questionable eating habits have removed this mainstay permanently as a family institution.
Perhaps it may take creativity and poetry found in ancient traditional dishes like those in Al Warraq’s cookbook to inspire the art of food, and re-emergence of the home cooked meal.
Rym Tina Ghazal is the editor in chief of an arts and culture magazine, and a former war zone correspondent.