Monday, March 10, 2008

Learning how to cook Middle Eastern Food

I admit that while I am not the best cook in the world, for a 25 year old, I am pretty good! When I came to college, I had no idea how to cook at all. I had watched my mother cook in the kitchen and helped her with mundane tasks such as chopping onions and making salad. However I had never made a meal from start to finish. I had never needed to. Why learn how to cook when you already have someone to do it for you (and do it well too!)??? I did know how to bake though. My sister and my cousins and I would bake cakes and cookies all the time (from scratch by the way. We wern't dependent on betty crocker like most people are today!)
All this changed however, when I graduated from high school and went to college in the University of Virginia. While UVA was an excellent school, Charlottesville wasn't exactly diverse. It had no Middle Eastern restaurants whatsoever. After living for one year in the dorms and surviving on disguisting dining hall food, I finally moved to an apartment. I realized that I finally had a chance to get myself out of the misery I was in by learning how to cook! My first cooking experience was with rice. I had no idea how to make it. My roomate (and best friend!) who is Iraqi taught me how to make rice the easy was (3aysh/ruz mash'7ool). I was really proud of myself! My mother also would send me emails with certain recipes I had craved. I learned the most however, from cookbooks. I bought several and I would follow the recipes exactly. Most of the cookbooks I bought were ones that my mother uses home also. A few months later, I had become an expert in cooking! The next year and the year after, my roomate and I invited over 50 people for fu6oor during Ramadhan! We did a crazy amount of cooking but everyone loved the food (of course they were hungry college students) and had a good time.
So for those of you wanting to learn how to cook, I suggest buying a few cookbooks like I did! Here are the cookbooks that I can't live without:
  • The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden: I love this book because the recipes are simple but they turn out great. The book has recipes from every region of the middle east with the exception of the khaleej and Iran. There are a lot of Egyptian recipes which is good since egyptian recipes are hard to find in other cookbooks. I've tried several recipes from this book and they all have turned out to be great! My mother loves this book also. I definately recommend buying this book if you want to learn how to cook!
  • The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos: This is another book that my mother relies on a lot. The book is divided into regions and spans the entire Middle East with the exception of the North African countries. I recommend buying it simply because it has recipes from everywhere.
  • The Arab Table by May S. Bsisu: This book was recently published in 2005. I bought it for my sister first but then I couldn't resist the temptation to buy a copy for myself also! Bsisu is an excellent cook! She is half Palestinian-half Lebanese and has lived in Kuwait for most of her life. So as you can imagine, she has a lot of recipes from all three countries. She also has recipes from other arab countries as well. Go buy this book now! Some of the recipes take a while to make but thats because she doesn't like taking shortcuts. Get this book if you want to be a good cook!
  • Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen by Sonia Uvezian: Sonia Uvezian is Lebanese of Armenian descent. The book covers recipes from the Levant (Al-Sham) region only. The recipes are amazing and delicious! Her version of mulookhiya is the best that I've ever tasted! I also learned how to make amazing Laban Ummo (Lamb with yogurt sauce) from this book. What's sad about this book though is that Uvezian decides to ignore Palestine completely. The book contains pictures and ancecdotes from the 19th and early 20th century, but mysteriously, any reference to Palestine was left out. This is all very strange because she keeps talking about the "greater syria region" but only refers to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan from being part of that region. She talks about some dishes of Palestinian origin but never mentions where dishes of Palestinian origin come from! The only other place is when she mentions Palestinians is when she talks about the make-up of the Jordanian population. She states: "At present, however, the Palestinians, who have emigrated from their homeland in what is now Israel, represent the majority." Emigrated?????????????? Expelled or massacred are better words to use if you ask me! Anyhow.. I digress.. Buy the book. Its great! Too bad she thinks of Palestinians as a bunch of people who willfully emigrated from their homeland to Jordan though.
  • A taste of the Arabian Gulf by Afnan Rashid Al Zayani: Since there are so few cookbooks that focus on Bahrain or the Khaleej, this book is your best bet if you want to learn anything about khalijee (and specifically Bahraini) cooking. Since the author is half Iraqi (I think.. many of the Al Zayanis have married people from Iraq) it also contains numerous Iraqi recipes. Since Bahrain has a large population of persian origin, she also includes many Iranian recipes. I rely on this book a lot. Honestly, I don't know what I'd do without it! I wouldn't know how to make many of the dishes I grew up with had it not been from this book! My only problem with some (actually most) of the recipes in the book, is that the author doesn't provide us with the simplest way to make the recipe. There are easier and quicker ways to make the same recipes which achieve the same (if not better!) results. Since my mother emails me a lot of recipes and has taught me a lot of cooking techniques, I have learned how to tweak her recipes in order to reduce my cooking time and still achieve a great result.

Books that I plan to buy (and that you should buy too!):

  • New Food for Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies or a Taste of Persia, both by Najmieh Batmanglij . I have many cookbooks that contain Iranian recipes, but I still don't own a book solely dedicated to Iranian cooking. Batmanglij is THE expert on Iranian cooking. Ask any Iranian cook and they will tell you! My mother owns the book a Taste of Persia. She loves it! I made one recipe from it, maragat bathinjan (Eggplant stew) and it turned out to be amazing! I made it three years ago and I still remember how it tastes! The cool thing about a Taste of Persia is that it has pictures for every single recipe. New Food for Life has more recipes than A Taste of Persia and more historical information. However, it doesn't have pictures for every single recipe. I am not sure which one I'm going to buy but most likely I'll buy New Food for Life.
  • Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of Iraqi Cuisine by Nawal Nasrallah: Iraqi food is simply the best food in the Arab world. I may be a little biased since Bahraini food is very close to Iraqi food but I still stand by my point! Unfortunately I don't own any Iraqi cookbooks. Most of the Iraqi recipes that I have made come from Afnan AlZayani's cookbook and Tess Mallos' cookbook. I did a lot of research on and it seems like out of all the cookbooks dedicated to Iraqi cooking, this one is the best. I can't wait to buy it!

I hope this list encourages you to go out and buy your own cookbook. Believe me, anyone can learn how to cook! You just need to be able to follow directions. And once you master that, you'll soon be able to internalize the techniques and make things without using any recipe!