A great Middle Eastern poet reminds us that labyrinth-like souks are at the heart of the region's rich gastronomic culture, says Lu Xiaojia
At the mention of the Middle East, one might first think of the multitudinous ethnicities, religions, languages… as well as the ever-changing political scenes. However, the people of the Middle East have remained faithful to their sources—the land. Though empires have come and gone, and the names of sultans and slaves might one day be all forgotten, the people have maintained their deep attachment to their traditions and customs, and, in particular, food.
For the moment, let us follow Omar Khayyam (a great medieval mathematician, astronomer, and Middle Eastern poet) and forget about all the conflicts and wars, thinking only of earthly delights. The Middle East boasts one of the finest gastronomic traditions in the world. At the first glance, this may seem surprising. An aerial view of the region with its vast, arid landscape does not indicate abundance—not of the edible kind anyway.
However, a stroll at any local souk (covered market) would overturn this first impression. If it is the criterion in China for a ‘town’ to have a ‘cigarette and paper’-type grocery store, a post office, a card and board game centre, and a Sichuan restaurant, then an equivalent town in the Middle East should have a mosque or two (or a church or synagogue, depending on the country), and a souk with at least one attarine (spice street).
Even a tourist lost in the labyrinth-like souk will never miss the attarine, for its vibrant, dazzling colours and poignant scent is the essence of Middle Eastern food. There scores of small shops are filled to the brim with boxes, sacks and jars of every spices imaginable, as well as dried fruit and nuts, grains, and dried vegetables such as baby okra, little red chillies, and hollowed-out aubergines that look like leather bells.
The variety of spices, fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and poultry available make a Middle Eastern souk the paradise for any serious cook and food lovers. In the grand bazaars of Istanbul, amid the carpet shops, jewellers and leather goods sellers, food vendors display their wares: giant chunks of white cheese sit by piles of olives and cured fish; lamb sausages hang over jumbled mountains of thinly sliced spiced beef; syrupy pastries filled with nuts are arranged beside creamy white milk pudding… in the markets you are aware, by the way shoppers behave, that you are in a country where people love food.
A gastronomic tour around the Middle East is a feast as much to the palates as for the eyes
Indeed, the Middle East is rich in vegetables and fruits of exceptional quality, thanks to the mineral-rich soil and abundance of sunshine. There is hardly any vegetable or fruit that does not grow in the region, and the few exceptions are mainly those that prefer a tropical habitat such as pineapple, guava and durian.
Present on a typical Middle Eastern table will be a large bowl of fresh vegetables—tomatoes, cucumbers, baby Cos lettuce hearts, radishes, spring onions—all eaten raw. Cucumbers are so sweet and moist that the Mid-easterns eat them like fruit; once on the train a lady peeled one and gave it to me as though it were an apple or orange—not to mention melons, grapes, figs, apples, peaches, pomegranates, plums and apricots. Vegetables and fruits are often dried for winter use, and just like in China, where dried mushrooms are preferred to fresh ones, some people in the Middle East also prefer a dried vegetable for their dolma (stuffed vegetable).
The vast variety of produce in the Middle East reflects the diversity of its landscape and climate zone, which in turn give rise to its diverse culinary traditions. A gastronomic tour around the Middle East is a feast as much to the palates as for the eyes: the deep blue Mediterranean, high mountains, balmy oases, and barren deserts… and the basic subsistence is best summarized by Omar Khayyam: the desert, the sown, and strips of herbage.