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Arab cuisine (Arabic: مطبخ عربي) is defined as the various regional cuisines spanning the Arab world, from Mesopotamia to Saudi Arabia, and incorporating the Levantine, Egyptian, and other traditions.
Originally, the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula relied heavily on a diet of dates, wheat, barley, rice, and meat, with little variety and heavy emphasis on yogurt products, such as labneh (لبنة) (yogurt without butterfat).
There is a strong emphasis on the following items in Arab cuisine:
- Meat: lamb and chicken are the most used, with beef, goat, and camel used to a lesser extent. Other poultry is used in some regions, and fish is used in coastal areas. Pork is completely prohibited for Muslim Arabs, being both a cultural and religious taboo (Haram) and prohibited under Islamic law, whereas many Christian Arabs do eat and enjoy pork products, especially in Lebanon, where cold cuts of ham are frequently consumed in Christian neighbourhoods.
- Dairy products: dairy products are widely used, especially yogurt and white cheese. Butter and cream are also used extensively.
- Herbs and spices: mint and thyme (often in a mix called za'atar) are widely and almost universally used; spices are used much less than in Indian cuisine, but the amount and types generally varies from region to region. Some of the included herbs and spices are sesame, saffron, turmeric, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, and sumac. Spice mixtures include baharat.
- Beverages: hot beverages are served more than cold, coffee being on the top of the list, mostly in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf. However, tea is also served in many Arab countries. In Egypt and Jordan, for instance, tea is a more important hot beverage than coffee.
- Grains: rice is the staple and is used for most dishes; wheat is the main source for bread. Bulgur and semolina are also used extensively.
- Legumes: lentils are widely used as well as fava beans and chickpeas (garbanzo beans).
- Fruits and vegetables: Arab cuisine also favors vegetables such as cucumbers, eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgette), okra, onions, and fruits (primarily citrus), which are often used as seasonings for entrees. Olives as well as dates, figs, and pomegranates are also widely used. Dates are a particularly important staple in the Arab diet, often eaten with coffee.
- Nuts: almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts are often included.
- Greens: parsley and mint are popular as seasonings in many dishes, while spinach and mulukhiyah (leaves of plants of the Corchorus genus) are used in cooked dishes.
- Dressings and sauces: the most popular dressings include various combinations of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and/or garlic, and tahini (sesame paste). Labaneh (thinned yogurt) is often seasoned with mint, onion, or garlic, and served as a sauce with various dishes.
Notably, many of the same spices used in Arab cuisine are also those emphasized in Indian cuisine. This is a result of heavy trading and historical ties between the two regions, and also because many South Asian expats live in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf.
Essential to any cooking in the Arabian Peninsula is the concept of hospitality and generosity. Meals are generally large family affairs, with much sharing and a great deal of warmth over the dinner table. Formal dinners and celebrations generally involve large quantities of lamb, and every occasion entails large quantities of Arabic coffee. In an average Arab state household, a visitor might expect a dinner consisting of a very large platter, shared commonly, with a vast amount of rice, incorporating lamb or chicken, or both, as separate dishes, with various stewed vegetables, heavily spiced, sometimes with a tomato-based sauce. Most likely there would be several other less hearty items on the side. Tea would certainly accompany the meal, as it is almost constantly consumed. Coffee would be included as well.
There are many regional differences in Arab cuisine. For instance, mujadara in Syria and Lebanon is different from mujadara in Jordan or Palestine. Some dishes, such as mansaf (the national dish of Jordan), are native to certain countries and rarely, if ever, make an appearance in other countries. Unlike in most Western cuisines, cinnamon is used in meat dishes, as well as in sweets such as baklava. Other desserts include variations of rice pudding and fried dough. Groundnuts are a common filling for such treats. Saffron is used in everything, including sweets, rice, and beverages. Fruit juice is quite popular due to the climate. Due to historical interactions, Arabic cuisine has been imminently influenced by Persian and Turkish culture. The rice dish known as pilaf is very popular in Arab countries and among Arab communities around the world.
Structure of meals
Cafés often serve croissants for breakfast. Breakfast is often a quick meal, consisting of bread and dairy products, with tea and sometimes jam. The most used is labneh and cream (kishta, made of cow's milk; or qaimar, made of domestic buffalo milk). Labneh is served with olives, dried mint, and drizzled with olive oil. Pastries such as manaqeesh, sfiha, fatayer, and kahi are sometimes eaten for breakfast. Flat bread with olive oil and za'tar is also popular. Most Arab families also consume hummus and falafel with pita bread.
Traditionally, breakfast used to be a much heavier meal, especially for the working class, and included dishes such as lentil soup (shorbat 'adas), or heavy sweets such as knafa. Ful, which is fava beans cooked with chickpeas (garbanzo beans), garlic, lemon, and olive oil is a popular working class breakfast as well. Lablabi is another heavy garbanzo-based stew popular for breakfast in Tunisia.
Lunch is considered the main meal of the day, and is traditionally eaten after the noon prayer. It is the meal for which the family comes together, and when entertaining, it is the meal of choice to invite guests to. Rarely do meals have different courses; however, salads and mezze (an appetizer) are served as side dishes to the main meal. The latter usually consists of a portion of meat, poultry or fish, a portion of rice, lentils, bread or bagel, and a portion of cooked vegetables, in addition to the fresh ones with the mezze and salad. The vegetables and meat are usually cooked together in a sauce (often tomato, although others are also popular) to make maraq, which is served on rice. Most households add bread, whether other grains were available or not. Drinks are not necessarily served with the food; however, there is a very wide variety of drinks such as shineena (or laban), karakaden, Naqe'e Al Zabib, irq soos, tamr Hindi, and fruit juice, as well as other traditional Arab drinks. During the 20th century, carbonated soda and fruit-based drinks, sold by supermarkets, have also become very popular. In some Arab countries, such as Lebanon, alcoholic beverages such as Araqi or Almaza beer are popular.
Dinner is traditionally the lightest meal, although in modern times, and due to changing lifestyles, dinner has become more important.
In addition to the two meals mentioned hereafter, during Ramadan sweets are consumed much more than usual; sweets and fresh fruits are served between these two meals. Although most sweets are made all year round such as knafeh, baklava, and basbousa, some are made especially for Ramadan, such as qatayef.
Futuur (also called iftar, or Afur in the Somali language), or fast-breaking, is the meal taken at dusk when the fast is over. The meal consists of three courses: first, they shall eat a date based on Islamic tradition. This is followed by a soup or anything they would like, the most popular being lentil soup, but a wide variety of soups such as chicken, oats, freeka (a soup made from whole wheat and chicken broth), potato, maash, and others are also offered. The third course is the main dish, usually eaten after an interval, when Maghreb prayer is conducted. The main dish is mostly similar to lunch, except that cold drinks are also served.
Regional Arab cuisines
The cuisine of Eastern Arabia today is the result of a combination of richly diverse cuisines, incorporating Persian, Levantine, Yemeni, and Indian cuisine, and many items not indigenous to the Persian Gulf region, which were imported in dhows and caravans. Do not forget that harees, fattah, and many other dishes are originally from the Persian Gulf.
The cuisine of Yemen is rather distinct from other Arab cuisines. Like most other Arab cuisines, chicken and lamb are eaten more often than beef. Fish is eaten mostly in coastal areas. However, unlike most Arab countries, cheese, butter, and other dairy products are less common, especially in the cities and other urban areas. As with other Arab cuisines, the most widespread beverages are tea and coffee; tea is usually flavored with cardamom, clove, or mint, and coffee with cardamom. Karakaden, Naqe'e Al Zabib, and diba’a are the most widespread cold beverages.
Although each region has their own variation, Saltah (سلتة) is considered the national dish of Yemen. The base is a brown meat stew believed to be of Turkish origin called maraq (مرق), a dollop of fenugreek froth, and sahawiq (سحاوق) or sahowqa (a mixture of chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and herbs ground into a salsa). Rice, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and vegetables are common additions to saltah. It is eaten with flat bread, which serves as a utensil to scoop up the food. Other dishes widely known in Yemen include: aseed, fahsa, thareed, Samak Mofa, mandi, fattah, shakshouka, shafut, Bint Al-Sahn, kabsa, and jachnun.
Levantine cuisine is the traditional cuisine of the Levant, Mashriq, or Greater Syria area. Although now divided into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and Israel, the region has historically been more united, and shares most of the same culinary traditions. Although almost identical, there is some regional variation within the Levantine area.
Some of the basic similarities are the extensive use of olive oil, za'atar, and garlic, and common dishes include a wide array of mezze or bread dips, stuffings, and side dishes such as hummus, falafel, ful, tabouleh, labaneh, and baba ghanoush.
It also includes copious amounts of garlic and olive oil, often seasoned with lemon juice—almost no meal goes by without including these ingredients. Most often foods are either grilled, baked, fried, or sautéed in olive oil; butter and cream are rarely used, other than in a few desserts. Vegetables are often eaten raw or pickled, as well as cooked. While the cuisine doesn't boast a multitude of sauces, it focuses on herbs, spices, and the freshness of ingredients.
Iraqi cuisine utilizes more spices than most Arab cuisines. Iraq's main food crops include wheat, barley, rice, vegetables, and dates. Vegetables include eggplant, okra, potatoes, and tomatoes. Pulses such as chickpeas and lentils are also quite common. Common meats in Iraqi cooking are lamb and beef; fish and poultry are also used.
Soups and stews are often prepared and served with rice and vegetables. Mansaf is a popular dish. Biryani, although influenced by Indian cuisine, is milder with a different mixture of spices, and a wider variety of vegetables including potatoes, peas, carrots, and onions. Dolma is also one of the most popular dishes.
In the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jordan, the population has a cooking style of their own, involved in roasting various meats, baking flat breads, and cooking thick yogurt-like pastes from goat's milk.
Musakhan is a common main dish, famous in northern Jordan, Jerusalem, and northern West Bank area. Its main component is taboon bread, that is topped with pieces of cooked sweet onions, sumac, saffron, and allspice. For large dinners, it can be topped by one or two roasted chickens on a single large taboon bread.
Maqluba is another popular meal in Jordan and central Palestine. Mujaddara, another food of the West Bank, as well as in the Levant in general, consists of cooked green lentils, with bulghur sauteed with olive oil. Mansaf is a traditional meal, and the national dish of Jordan, having roots in the Bedouin population of Jordan. It is mostly cooked on occasions such as Ramadan, Eid ul-Fitr, a birth, or a large dinner gathering. Mansaf is a leg of lamb or large pieces of mutton, on top a markook bread that has been topped, usually, with yellow rice. A type of thick dried yogurt made from goat's milk, called jameed is poured on top of the lamb and rice to give it its distinct flavor and taste. The dish is garnished with cooked pine nuts and almonds.
Levant cuisine is also famous for its wide range of cheeses like Shanklish, Halloum, and Arisheh. Kishk is also a famous Syrian soup, alongside many soups made of lentils. Lebanese food also has a wide range of dips like Hummous, Baba Ghannouj, and Labneh, and also caters many raw meat dishes. Syrian food could be either extremely vegetarian or a meat lover's paradise. Lemon, oregano, za'atar, paprika, and various other Mediterranean spices and herbs are used in Syrian cuisine.
To top it off, Syrian cuisine also incorporates wine made in Syria and the Syrian equivalent of the Greek Ouzo, known as Arak. Syrians have invented their own dishes over the centuries, some of the most popular being raw Kebbeh and Arak; meat Sfiha; and grilled Kebbeh and other different types of Kebbeh.
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Egyptian cuisine is a very rich cuisine that has many unique customs. These customs may also vary within Egypt itself, for example, in the coastal areas, like the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and Canal, the diet of the people relies heavily on fish. In the more agriculture areas, the reliance on farm products is much heavier. Duck, geese, chicken, and river fish are the main animal protein sources. Unlike the surrounding Arab cuisines, which place heavy emphasis on meat, Egyptian cuisine is rich in vegetarian dishes; both of the national dishes of Egypt; Ful medames, ta'amia (also known in other countries as falafel), and kushari, are generally vegetarian. Fruits are also greatly appreciated in Egypt: mango, grapes, bananas, apples, sycamore, guava, and peach are very popular, especially because they are all domestically produced therefore are available in relatively low prices. Another famous dessert from Egypt is called Om or Um Ali which is similar to a bread and butter pudding made traditionally with puff pastry, milk and nuts. It is served all across the Middle East and is also made on special occasions such as Eid.
Spices are used extensively in western Arab food. Contrary to the rest of the Arab world, the most common red meat is beef. However, lamb is still the meat of choice, only avoided due to its higher cost. Dairy products are used less extensively than in other countries in the Arab world.
Among the most famous Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, Berber dishes are couscous, pastilla (also spelled bsteeya or bastilla), tajine, tanjia, and harira. Although the latter is a soup, it is considered as a dish in itself, and is served alone or with dates, especially during the month of Ramadan.
The most popular drink is green tea with mint. Traditionally, making good mint tea in Morocco and Algeria, is considered an art form; the drinking of it with friends and family members is one of the most important rituals of the day. The technique of pouring the tea is as crucial as its quality. The tea is accompanied with hard sugar cones or lumps.
Somali cuisine varies from region to region, and consists of an exotic mixture of native Somali, Ethiopian, Yemeni, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Italian culinary influences. It is the product of Somalia's rich tradition of trade and commerce.
Among the favorite Somali dishes include xalwo (halva), a sweet hardened jelly; soor, a soft cornmeal mashed with fresh milk, butter, and sugar, and served with maraq (stew); and sambuusa, a small fried pasty with meat and vegetable filling.
In comparison to its North African and Levantine neighbors, the cuisine of Sudan tends to be generous with spices. The Sudanese cuisine has a rich variety in ingredients and creativity. Simple everyday vegetables are used to create stews and omelettes that are healthy yet nutritious, and full of energy and flair. These stews are called in general "mullah". So one could have a zucchini mullah, spinach "Riglah" mullah, etc. Sudanese food inspired the origins of Egyptian cuisine and Ethiopian cuisine, both of which are very popular in the Western world. Popular dishes include Shahan ful, ful medames, hummus, Bamya (a stew made from ground, sun dried okra), and Gurasa (pancake), and different types of salads and sweets.
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Ful Medames فول مدمس
Shish kebab كباب
Pickled lemon ليمون مخلل
Lahm Ba'ajeen لحم بعجين
Baba Ghanoush بابا غانوج
Waraq Enab ورق عنب - ملفوف
Ka'ak كعك - كحك
Hibiscus tea كركديه - عنآب
Luqmat al-qadi لفمة الفاضي
Shish taouk شيش طاوك
Falafel فلافل - طعمية
Kleicha الكليجة - كعب الغزال
- Nabeel Y. Abraham. "Arab Americans," Encarta Encyclopedia 2007. Archived 2009-10-31.
- Gulf Recipes and Cuisine - Page 1 - Shahiya.com
- "Umm Ali Recipe - Egyptian Bread Pudding".
- Discover the authentic Moroccan cuisine
- "Luce Ben Aben, Moorish Women Preparing Couscous, Algiers, Algeria". World Digital Library. 1899. Retrieved 2013-09-26.
- Media related to Arabic cuisine at Wikimedia Commons