Thursday, May 3, 2012

Flavors of Middle East and Africa

Mention the Middle East in a culinary context and most people think of kebabs and kofte. In fact, the region’s cuisine is as rich, colorful, and ancient as its history. The region is also renowned for its hospitality, where “a guest is a gift from God”; travelers often find themselves invited to sample dishes where they taste best: in the home. In contrast to the Middle East’s homogenous approach, Africa’s 61 territories have enormously varied cuisines, offering surprising delights.

Mesopotamia, as it was known in ancient times, is called the “Cradle of Civilization,” and it was here, around 7,000 years ago, that man first turned from nomadic hunter-gatherer into settled farmer. Part of a wider region known as the “Fertile Crescent,” which stretched sicklelike from North Africa’s Nile along the Mediterranean coast all the way to the Persian Gulf, this was the home of the Biblical Garden of Eden, and it was long known as the “land of milk and honey.”

Above : Pomegranate on sale in Iran, where it has long played a key role in the cuisine
It was the region’s abundance of food and, in particular, wheat that first caught the covetous eye of the Romans, who occupied the area in the 2nd century AD. Hot on the heels of the Romans came other powers who introduced their own culinary traditions but also adopted the local ones. Later, they carried this culinary combination with them as they swept east or west, bequeathing the whole region an unusual culinary homogeneity. Like the magnificent ancient monuments of the Middle East, its foods are a legacy of the powers that passed through it. With the Arabs in the 7th century came dates and nuts as well as exotic spices from seafaring merchants, bringing turmeric, cardamom, cumin, peppercorns, cloves, and allspice from India and Southeast Asia. With the Mongols came dumplings and the roasting of meat on fires – the world’s first kebabs. The Persians brought rice and poultry, sometimes combining both into such sumptuous dishes as khoresh-e fesejan and polo. The Ottomans introduced the fine art of sweet and savory pastry, conspiring to make such delectable delicacies as baklava, as well as the tradition of meze – dining on little dishes such as falafel and kibbeh nayyeh – and the fashion for drinking coffee.

Above :Women selling the daily catch of sardines on a beach in Maputo, Mozambique
The Phenomenon of the Souk
Nowhere are the region’s riches more evident than in the souks, each one a labyrinthine warren of stands selling the finest local goods and produce. There’s rice and waxy saffron from the Caspian Sea, honey-sweet soft fruits including translucent apricots from Lebanon, plump cherries, quinces, and melons from Iran, fragrant figs from Turkey, and beautiful artichokes, peppers, okra, zucchini,and eggplants from all over. The souk is a unique phenomenon of the Middle East, found in almost every town of the region; some are virtually unchanged since medieval times.
Africa’s Ever-Evolving Cuisine
The second largest landmass on Earth, Africa comprises over a billion people inhabiting environments that range from hot deserts and snow-capped mountains to tropical forests and coastal wetlands. The continent’s diversity of both peoples and geography is reflected in the contrast of its cuisines.
In East Africa, cattle are kept as a form of currency and wealth, so beef is generally reserved for special occasions; lamb, goat, poultry, and game are all eaten too. Arabs who settled the coastal areas of East Africa over a millennium ago introduced rice and spices such as cinnamon and cloves, together with golden saffron from Persia. Later, Indian settlers introduced their own cuisines, including spices and curry dishes as well as legumes such as lentils, pickled vegetables, and breads such as chapatis. European colonization saw the introduction of citrus fruit and yet more spices from their Asian colonies; chili peppers, peanuts, peppers, corn, and tomatoes from the New World; and tropical fruits from Brazil.
Almost the only country in Africa to escape colonization – bar a brief, fiercely resisted seven-year period – was Ethiopia, which to this day retains much of its indigenous culture and cuisine, including its distinctive sourdough bread, injera.
North Africa, culturally part of the Middle East, shares that region’s culinary traditions and influences, as well as boasting its own, particularly in regions close to the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
South Africa’s cooking is sometimes described as a “rainbow cuisine” because of the many influences that have shaped it.
The indigenous Bantu-speaking people lived on wind-dried meat and wild game roasted over fires – traditions still seen today in the form of biltong and the South African love of braai, or barbecues.
Other influences included the Dutch and British colonizers and Asian immigrants, who introduced legumes, soups, and curries. The resulting culinary synthesis of Asian and Dutch influence can be seen in dishes such as bobotie.
West African cuisine is best known for its starchy staples made from the locally grown yams, cassava, cocoyams, corn, and plantain that accompany spicy stews and soups. Outside Muslim Africa, alcoholic drinks are widely brewed, from the wines of Tunisia and South Africa and the honey wine – tej – of Ethiopia to the widely consumed palm wine and millet beer. The Middle East and Africa are brimming with exciting tastes and sights.
The continent’s diversity of both peoples and geography is reflected in the contrast of its cuisines.

Seafood vendor in Forodhani Gardens, by the beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania

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