Middle East feasts: the camel's hump and other dishes
Posted July 3, 2018 12:46 a.m. EDT
(CNN) — When it comes to exploring the exquisite cuisine of the Islamic world, there is no better guide than Anissa Helou.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, the daughter of a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, Helou was raised as a Christian but has become a world authority on Islamic cuisine. Now based in London, Helou is the author of several cookbooks, which encompass the historical and cultural significance of her recipes.
Her latest, doorstop-sized cookbook, "Feast: Food of the Islamic World," was published in May. Helou selected some of her favorite recipes from the tome, and -- in her own words -- offered CNN a tour of the Middle East in 10 dishes.
Madfun -- Saudi Arabia
Hospitality is important for followers of Islam because the Prophet Muhammad accords high status to those who treat their guests well. One way to honor guests invited for a meal is to roast a whole animal. Lamb and goat are popular, while Bedouin families might roast a camel. In Saudi Arabia, people buy the beast live at market and either take it to a slaughterhouse or kill it at homes themselves. Next the meat is marinated in a heady mixture of spices, rose water and saffron. Traditionally, it is then wrapped in a wet straw mat and buried in the ashes of a pit oven to roast slowly, although these days a domestic oven is often used.
Camel hump -- United Arab Emirates
The camel is special to Arabs. As a resilient beast of burden that can survive long treks through the desert with little access to water, it enabled the region to develop as a trading hub. Its meat is prized in the Middle East with the best part famously being the hump. I first tried it in Dubai when a friend gifted me a baby camel. I watched as butchers slaughtered it and then I roasted the hump. It was delicious -- the meat was pale and tender; the fat was very soft and not at all greasy.
Shish kebabi -- Turkey
The first mention of kebabs was in an 11th century Turkish dictionary, according to Nevin Halici's "Turkish Cookbook," and it is safe to assume that the Ottomans -- who ruled from 1299 -- were responsible for popularizing them throughout the Middle East. They are the quintessential street food, mainly because of the tradition of the khans -- lodges where traders and travelers stopped overnight on their journeys and ate meals of grilled, skewered meat and bread supplied by itinerant vendors.
Khobz -- Lebanon
A major staple across the Middle East, bread holds a sacred place in Islamic culture and it is considered a sin to waste it. Wheat was first domesticated about 12,000 years ago in the the Fertile Crescent (which extends from present-day Iraq to the Sinai Peninsula), and leavening techniques were developed in Egypt. Early breads include saj (baked on a hot metal plate, either concave or flat) and tannur (baked against the walls of a pit oven). Pita bread came later with the development of front-loading ovens.
B'stilla -- Morocco
The caliphs of the Abbasid Caliphate, which came to power in the mid 8th century, loved the recipes of Persian cooks. They employed them throughout their expanding empire, and so their subtle combinations of sweet and savory spread. B'stilla, a Moroccan pigeon pie, is the ultimate example of how sweet and salty can combine. Made with layers of ultra-thin pastry that encase stewed pigeon, scrambled egg and toasted almonds, it is dusted with powdered sugar, garnished with lines of cinnamon and served at all celebrations, religious and secular.
Mansaf -- Jordan
Yoghurt, said to have been discovered when the milk carried in goat skins by Turkish horse riders curdled, is a long-lasting fermented product ideal for nomadic people. Even longer lasting is jameed, which is made by straining and salting yoghurt, then rolling the thickened product into balls which are dried until hard. Popular with Jordanians and Palestinians, Mansaf combines two staples of the Islamic world -- rice and bread -- with meat cooked in a jameed-based sour sauce. Mansaf is traditionally eaten by diners gathered around a large platter.
Tharid -- Bahrain
Reputedly the Prophet Mohammad's favorite food, tharid is made of a thick layer of crispy dry bread pieces topped with a hearty stew of meat and vegetables. During Ramadan, a month of piety and fast, families gather at sunset to break their fast with a meal called iftar in Arabic. Each Middle Eastern country has its typical Ramadan dishes. Tharid is a must for iftar in Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The first recorded Arabic cookbook, "Kitab al-Tabikh" ("The Book of Cooking"), was written in the 10th century by Abu Muhammad ibn Sayyar for an unnamed patron thought to be a prince of Aleppo -- once one of the most enchanting cities in the Middle East and considered, by some, to be its gastronomic capital. This dish of meatballs in sour cherry sauce is quintessential Aleppo cuisine. Taste this dish with fresh cherries during their short season, in early June.
Rangina -- Qatar
Long before oil brought wealth, the date was the main staple of Gulf Arabs, both in terms of diet and trade. Date palm sap is used to make palm sugar while the wood, although not very hard, is used in construction. This "fudge" combines dates stuffed with walnuts and meltingly soft flour-based halva. Its name refers to the colorful garnish of slivered pistachios and almonds.
Bastani -- Iran
The Persians reputedly made the first ice cream, or a form of it, by pouring grape juice or syrup over ice which they kept in underground chambers. This ice cream is the ultimate frozen treat. Flavored with rose water and saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, it is thickened with another very expensive ingredient -- salep. Salep is derived from the dried bulb of wild orchids, which are endangered in some places because they have been over-harvested. In Iran, shards of frozen cream are mixed into the ice cream.