“The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine” by Peter Heine

The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine, 
Peter Heine, Peter Lewis (Trans) (Gingko Library, November 2018) The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine, Peter Heine, Peter Lewis (Trans) (Gingko Library, November 2018)

There’s a rather ungrammatical saying which goes “sometimes I eats to live, but mostly I lives to eat.” That’s why we have cookery books; we love to eat and we love the things that go along with eating, namely social interaction and sheer sensual pleasure.

Food can also put us in touch with other cultures without our having to leave home and brave the unpleasantness of modern air travel. We in rich countries understand food not as a privilege, but the nearest thing we have, along with shelter, to a basic right, and when people are deprived of it through poverty, misgovernment or famine we respond, or should, with such things as soup kitchens (which seem, as Peter Heine tells us, to have originated in the Middle East) or food aid.

Food is, after all, one of the common threads which bind all human beings together, and a prolonged lack of it can do serious damage to our humanity. Food represents hospitality, too; in some cultures (notably Arab), one is required, by the unwritten laws of hospitality, to feed even enemies, and once they sit one’s table they must be left unmolested. Food can also be used, as it was in the Mughal Empire’s kitchens, to demonstrate one’s social standing or power, and court chefs down the ages were constantly inventing new dishes to highlight their ruler’s glory and prestige.

In our own time food has, as Heine tells us, even become political, with Zionists, who felt that a new country needed a national dish, appropriating hummus and falafel. Nowadays, claiming that hummus and falafel are Israeli dishes merely inflames Palestinian passions rather than encouraging people to sit down together at a table and enjoy some together. The reason? It was felt (in 1948) that these were “two simple Middle Eastern recipes that all the new state’s citizens could afford.” They even invented some “historical” evidence, citing allusions to chickpeas in the Torah! It is sad to think that the two staples of what we in the West see as Middle Eastern food have come, for some, to represent repression and tyranny.

Heine manages, in a little more than two hundred pages, to cover more than a thousand years of culinary history and practices.

Middle Eastern cuisine is, of course, one of the most popular of the various “foreign” foods we in the West enjoy today, and, insofar as it’s part of what’s loosely-defined as a “Mediterranean” diet, it’s also considered healthy. For many people, though, it’s mostly hummus, pita or balady bread, doner kebabs, stuffed vine leaves (also Greek, of course) and falafel. Most people are likely unaware of the sheer variety of Middle Eastern food, not to mention its widespread geographical distribution, from North Africa through Arabia, the former Ottoman Empire and Persia across to India, with the cuisine of the Mughal Empire.

And that’s where Peter Heine and his wonderful book comes in. He doesn’t just serve up academic history, but tells interesting stories, discusses kitchen practices, and explains the roles which religion, trade, invasions and migration all played in the development of what we know as Middle Eastern cuisine today. Best of all, wearing his gourmet hat, he also includes over a hundred recipes, some quite simple and others lavish and luxurious. You can prepare food at home like an Egyptian peasant or a Turkish shepherd and eat like a Mughal emperor or the Caliph of Baghdad, all courtesy of Heine’s selection of recipes. It’s a great way to get beyond take-outs and overpriced restaurants, and a good lead-in to cookery classics such as Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food (my own standby for this kind of cooking) or anything else in Heine’s extensive bibliography, and he appears to have read almost everything.

Heine approaches his subject from every conceivable angle. He begins with a chapter entitled “No Pork, no Alcohol”, which is probably one of the first subjects a Westerner might raise about Middle Eastern food. We are told that the prohibition of pork was based not on the fact (actually unknown until the 19th century) that undercooked pork can make people ill, but that pigs had been used as sacrificial animals by pre-Islamic pagans. However, as Heine tells us, the Qu’ran does say that if a Muslim is starving he can eat pork and not be a sinner for so doing, and Arabic has, apparently, “over one hundred and fifty terms for wine.” Muhammad himself seems to have felt that a very moderate amount of wine was quite acceptable (getting drunk was not), but the Hadiths, later interpretations and sayings by scholars, seem to be the source of the prohibition.

Islam also deals with food that is preferred, such as camel meat and a casserole called tharid, one of the Prophet’s favorite dishes; this kind of information may be found all over Heine’s book and demonstrates his encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Eastern food and its traditions. Further chapters deal with subjects such as what food was eaten by Ottoman sultans, various caliphs, the Persian shahs and the Mughals, the flow of commodities from East to West and how individual foodstuffs such as tomatoes, peppers and potatoes dishes came to be used in the East, or how Middle Eastern food like doner kebabs and falafel came to the West.

 

Heine includes a section on modern-day Middle Eastern cuisine as well as on how food has, sadly, become an issue in both economics and politics. This, together with the topics listed above, all makes for a very wide-ranging and interesting look at the subject of food, although for this reader it was the recipes which made the strongest appeal (I loved the Turkish Shepherd’s Salad as an alternative to the standard Greek salad, and the musaqq’a was divine). Actually making some of the food discussed in the text and sharing it with friends gives life and substance to Heine’s discussion, as well as helping us understand why this cuisine has become so popular and also emphasizing how food brings people together.

Don’t just read this book, although that’s obviously a great part of its appeal: use it! My only reservation on this point is that it’s a handsome volume printed on good paper and it would be a shame to stain it with saffron or spill cinnamon all over its pages.

As Heine notes, “Middle Eastern societies were multinational, multiethnic, multireligious and socially highly diverse;” all these different elements could once have come together in peace and amity over food, but in our times this common bond has been eroded by nationalism and the “proxy wars” initiated for dubious purposes in the Middle East by the United States and its allies or regional powers such as Iran or Turkey. This situation is all the more unfortunate because Iran and Turkey, not to mention Iraq and war-torn Yemen, were once part of that multinational community which brought us this remarkable cuisine.

 

Heine’s book is so packed with fascinating information and anecdotes that if you are anything close to a food aficionado it would be very hard to put it down. He writes very engagingly and knowledgeably; he is completely at home with his subject and presents it to his readers with enthusiasm and gusto. Heine manages, in a little more than two hundred pages, to cover more than a thousand years of culinary history and practices, showing readers how and why this particular form of cuisine has become so popular in the West, and immensely expanding our knowledge of it.

Food, we understand after reading this book, is not just something we put in our mouths for sustenance; in many ways it expresses the very soul of the nations from which it originates, and enjoying it together provides unique cross-cultural insights. It’s no accident that the group Chefs for Peace was formed in Jerusalem by an Armenian who has brought together Israeli, Arab and Christian chefs, and organizes communal dinners all over Europe and the Middle East.

A small step, perhaps, but we all eat, and we rarely dine alone. “You who believe,” says the Qu’ran, “eat the good things We have provided for you and be grateful to God if it is him that you worship.”


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.