Delphine Roger. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Although the regions we call the Middle East and South Asia constitute a very wide area, their collective culture has been shaped by a shared history from the conquest of Alexander the Great to the Islamic empires. The precepts of Islam have been adopted in most of the countries in the area under scrutiny, if not always by the majority, as in India. There are, therefore, many similarities in their cultures and especially in their preparation of foods. Each country, region, and town has its own cooking traditions, but it is easy to spy the similarities behind the differences.
This region of the world is socially traditional; therefore, women stay at home most of the time and are in charge of the kitchen. Food is often prepared in the company of other women in Muslim houses, which makes it a time for socializing. Professional cooks (always male) are employed for special occasions in wealthier homes.
The cooking is done mostly on a stove. The process is very long and slow, resulting in a very tender meat or vegetable, literally ready to disintegrate. The people of the Middle East and South Asia have no liking for red meat (even pieces of meat or kebabs for roasting are cooked previously or at least marinated).
Food is almost never cooked in water alone. Rather, it is first fried, then simmered or boiled, and finally enriched with fat. There is also a wide consumption of street food, fried or grilled. Savory pastries, such as borek, samossa, and brik, are popular.
Meat is an important item of the diet for those (except for the vegetarians) who can afford it, and it is used as often as possible, even as part of a stuffing or in a broth. Lamb is the favorite meat, although the less expensive chicken dominates in poorer houses. Because of the Islamic influence, pork is avoided, except by minorities, such as the Goanese Christians, for example.
The cookery is also characterized by the use of many pulses, clarified butter (samn or ghee, mainly from buffalo’s milk), and fresh yoghurt (as a drink and a cooking liquid). Unlike in the Far East, milk, milk products, and milk sweets are important here, and all the people of the region rely on a basic cereal, mostly rice or wheat. Food is very colorful as well as flavorful because of the use of such spices as saffron and turmeric. Spices are used extensively, even if only in small quantities. There is a spice street in every bazaar in the Middle East and South Asia. All the countries of the region are on the same spice route, which begins in Asia, with the Middle East a conduit for spices on the way to Africa and Europe.
Scents are also typical of this exotic cookery: Rose, amber, musk, camphor, santal, orange blossom, jas-mine, and orchid are used in many a sherbet and dish. People share a fondness for sour things: Lemon or lime, vinegar, tamarind, sumac, pomegranate juice, and sour cherries add zest to meat dishes.
Spices are also used for their assumed medicinal properties, and the composition and preparation of foods is often explained in terms of health needs created by climatic conditions. In fact, another similarity between the cultures of South Asia and the Middle East is a belief in medico-magic properties of food. This, in turn, encourages secrecy in cooking, and the preparation of aphrodisiacs and other potions at times tends to blur the tasks of cook and alchemist.
The History and Culture of Food in the Middle East
The Middle East encompasses a large area stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to Afghanistan and includes the border states of the eastern Mediterranean. It is divided into many countries: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. The people of the Middle East are of several racial types and have embraced different religions. Geographic and climatic conditions are extremely diverse in the region. Nonetheless, the Middle East can be described as a single cultural entity. Islam has played a unifying role in the area through the building of vast “Islamic” empires that rule over most of these people and the conversion of a vast majority of the population.
There is, therefore, a Middle Eastern civilization with a collection of several culinary traditions, each of which will be given due attention (although the food of the minorities of the region, Coptic, for example, or the cosmopolitan cuisine of Israel will be ignored for the sake of coherence). Overriding similarities in tastes and manners, however, will also be pointed out.
Before the Arrival of Islam
Long before dwellers in Europe could imagine the possibilities of fire, the civilizations of the Middle East had invented agriculture, cattle breeding, and numerous ways of preparing and enjoying foods.
The diet of pre-Islamic Arabia was the typical diet of a pastoral people in a desert region. It was simple and monotonous, with the most important roles played by dairy foods. According to ancient poems and the Koran, milk, milk products, and dates were the main items of the diet. Camel milk was most frequently used, but goat and sheep milk were also available. The milk could be diluted with water and was used in the preparation of a sort of cheese and of clarified butter (samn) for cooking.
The oases provided the nomads with dates, which were sometimes the only food available. Dates supplied energy, were easy to carry, and, over time, acquired a symbolic value. They were served at festivals, and the Prophet Mohammed later stressed their importance by making them one of his favorite foods, especially for the breaking of fasts.
Meat was seldom eaten, except for festive occasions, when sheep were frequently consumed and especially appreciated for their fatty tails. Camels, sometimes slaughtered and their coagulated blood shaped into sausages to be cooked, were another source of animal protein. Beef, pork, or fowl were quite unknown. Hare, bustard, large lizards, and grasshoppers could become food in harsh environments.
Cereals were scarce. The Prophet ate cakes of coarse barley with a little vinegar, oil, and perhaps a few dates. Dried barley was also made into a meal that was easily cooked into a gruel with the addition of water and fat. Another type of gruel (harira) was prepared from flour cooked in milk. A richer gruel could be made with bran and meat.
A number of vegetables were also available throughout the settled communities of the desert. Cucumbers, vegetable marrows, beets, chicory, and olives were common, as well as leeks, onions, and garlic. Lemons, pomegranates, and grapes or raisins were the main fruits, although figs and apples are mentioned in some texts. By combining all these products, the Arabs could prepare a few elaborate dishes. Tharid was one: bread pieces soaked in a meat and vegetable broth. Hayes was another. Made of milk, butter, and dates, it is said to have been another favorite of the Prophet. These dishes and the more common broths were quite bland. The nomads preferred to sell the spices they had rather than use them themselves. Imported wine was a luxury, but the Arabs were familiar with fermented drinks, prepared from dates, barley, honey, or raisins.
Thanks to numerous archeological remains, it is possible to imagine how the kings and people of ancient Egypt would dine. Cattle and sheep were slaughtered in the palace and then might be roasted whole or grilled in pieces. Lamb chops were a delicacy, and fowl was also served, as were different types of bread and pastries. The food was seasoned with cream and, perhaps, imported olives from Greece. Lentils and fish constituted a simpler diet, and beverages consisted of beer, milk, and wine. Beer was prepared from the fermentation of barley, wheat, and dates. The country was so rich in wheat that during its Roman period (30 B.C. to A.D. 395) it became the empire’s granary.
It was in ancient Mesopotamia that agriculture and cattle breeding were invented, and we can infer much about the diet of these early inventors from that of the people living in the region today. The staple food for this population of agriculturists was bread made of barley rather than wheat. Barley was often eaten in the form of gruel as well.
The banks of the Mediterranean are famous for their olives and grapes. The whole of the region that was once ancient Mesopotamia is very fertile: Cucumbers, turnips, onions, leeks, fennels, herbs, lentils, and chickpeas are among the vegetables grown. Many types of fruit can also be found, most importantly, dates, figs, and pomegranates. Fish is sometimes served, but meat is scarce. In the past, a sheep or goat was occasionally slaughtered for sacrifice or in honor of a guest. But as a rule, beef and pork, along with fowls and pigeons, were rarely eaten. Apart from pulses, most of the protein came from eggs, milk, and milk products, which included curd and cheese. Honey was and is a common treat. Olive and sesame oils are abundant. The common beverages were water, milk, or beer. The rich, however, enjoyed palm or grape wine.
Cooking was done on a stove. For the poor this consisted (and still consists) of a simple cavity, dug in the ground of a house or courtyard, and coated with clay in which embers were piled. These hearths are sometimes built in raised fashion along a wall, and some are ovens entirely of clay.
The arrangement of ovens designed for the baking of the bread is quite complex. They are built in the shape of beehives, with a side opening to introduce the embers. The bread cakes are placed against the hot walls inside and cook very quickly. These ovens are located in a courtyard or in empty ground between houses, where the meal is usually prepared by grinding grain with hand millstones made out of a long, flat stone and a pestle, or by pounding meal in three-legged stone mortars.
General Features of Food in the Middle East
The Imprint of Islam
In pre-Islamic Arabia, there were few prohibitions on food, although certain holy families did not eat meat, and each tribe had customs that might prohibit the eating of a certain part of an animal. Wine was drunk quite often and sometimes ritually. But, even before the time of the Prophet, certain Arabs had been influenced by Judaism and Christianity. Thus, they abstained from eating animals not ritually slaughtered or those sacrificed to idols and, perhaps, refrained from drinking alcohol. The Prophet, however, established what was lawful (halal) and unlawful (haram) to eat. Prohibitions in some instances included blood, the flesh of an animal that had died, or that of an animal not properly slaughtered. In addition, pork was proscribed, along with a few marginal animals that were snakelike in appearance or wild.
Mohammed insisted that the restrictions for his people were not as excessive as they were for Jews. He also stressed that food should be regarded as a divine blessing and, therefore, thoroughly appreciated. The Koran at first praised the virtue of wine but soon showed reservations about it and, finally, forbade it. In addition to these rules, Islam decreed a periodic general fast during the month of Ramadan.
Middle Eastern Table Manners
Food is traditionally eaten with three fingers of the right hand, from dishes or trays that can be shared by four to eight people. The thumb, index and middle fingers are used to pick up the food. It is polite to take the piece of food nearest to you in the serving dish. Pieces of meat or vegetables are usually taken with the help of a piece of bread, and fingers are licked after the meal.
The “table” is laid in a simple manner: Cloth is spread on the floor, or a large tray is placed on a low stool to form a table. Today, people sit cross-legged around these arrangements, although Pierre Belon, a sixteenth-century observer, noted that Arabs rested on their heels while eating and Turks sat on the floor. Dishes for those dining are displayed in front of them, usually all at the same time. If there is dessert, it is brought after the meal, and coffee follows in many Middle Eastern countries. Hands are washed with the help of a basin and a flask and dried on towels before and after meals.
The meals are inaugurated in Islam with an invocation of God. Islam dislikes the mixing of the sexes, and so in traditional homes, women and men usually eat apart. Everyone stops eating at the same time, and it is polite to nibble until your neighbors are finished. The choicest parts are offered to special guests. A host can also honor a guest by offering him a good morsel from his hand. There is a strong sense of hospitality, and the expected, or unexpected, guest will always be offered something to drink and eat.
Basic Ingredients and Cooking Techniques
Much of the Middle East is desert, with only about 10 percent of the land useful for cultivation. As a consequence, the common diet can be quite monotonous. Chickpeas and lentils have been part of Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years, along with a number of vegetables and fruits. The aubergine (eggplant), for example, is omnipresent on Middle Eastern tables. The Turks claim they know more than 40 ways of preparing this vegetable. It can be smoked, roasted, fried, or mashed for a “poor man’s caviar.” According to a Middle Eastern saying, to dream of three aubergines is a sign of happiness.
Because of the shortage of pasture land, sheep, goats, and chickens are the main animals raised. Pork is not eaten by Muslims and, generally, beef is not much appreciated. Animals are slaughtered by Muslim ritual; the throat is slit quickly, cutting through the trachea and the esophagus. Thus, the animal does not suffer. At the moment of cutting, the name of God is invoked. Ideally, the animal will have its left side facing Mecca at the moment of death.
Barley has become increasingly neglected in favor of wheat and rice. Wheat is used as flour in many leavened and unleavened breads. So too is burghul or cracked wheat, a preparation in which the whole grains are partially cooked, then dried and cracked. Three sizes of burghul are available, medium and large grains found in pilafs and stuffings, and a fine variety that is preferred for salads and kibbeh. Medium and large grains must be soaked before use.
Rice arrived in the Middle East later than wheat and is used mainly by urban populations, whereas wheat is the staple food of the countryside. Many types of rice are available, with the best and longest grains coming from Iran. It is prepared differently in every region, although rice is soaked everywhere. In Syria, it is boiled for 2 minutes in the same water it was soaked in, then simmered for 20 minutes until the water is absorbed. Melted butter is poured on it and the rice left to stand for a few minutes before eating. In Lebanon, water and butter are boiled together. In Egypt, the rice is fried in fat, then simmered. Iranians claim to have the best method of cooking rice: They parboil for 6 to 8 minutes, then steam with butter in a sealed dish. The rice is fluffy and flavorful, with a golden crust at the bottom of the pan.
Milk is widely used, especially in the form of thin or thick yoghurt. It is also churned into clarified butter (samn).Other cooking oils are derived from olives, cottonseeds, nuts, corn and sesame seeds. Olive oil is often associated with fish and salad dishes. A very sought-after delicacy is the rendered fat of sheep tails.
Because the region has long been involved in spice trading, some spices, mostly of Indian origin, are part of the diet. These include turmeric, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. If they can be afforded, nuts are widely used in cooking (walnuts in Iran and pine nuts in Lebanon, for example). A few exotic items in a Middle Eastern pantry are sumac, a red spice with a sour lemony flavor that is the powder of dried, round berries and gives color and taste to many dishes (in Iran it is sprinkled on rice or kebabs); tahina, which is sesame seed paste; and mahlab, the powder of black cherry stones. Rose and orange blossom water, mastic, and powdered orchid root are also used, but more rarely.
Traditional cooking is done on a stove or fatayel, with bread usually baked by a professional. Moreover, in the past, the baker’s oven also served as a public oven. Families sent their pans or dishes to be placed in the oven for very slow cooking. Today domestic ovens play this role most of the time. Middle Eastern cooking is a painstaking and slow process, made possible on an everyday basis because most women of the Middle East spend the day at home. For this reason, these women are able to carry on cooking traditions and people remain very much attached to the dishes of the past.
There is a considerable pride of craftsmanship that goes into Middle Eastern cookery. Miniature foods (like miniature paintings) are favorites, stuffings can be incredibly elaborate, and mock dishes are sometimes invented to puzzle the guests. Pastries are elaborate and reflect craftsmanship, as do the numerous finger foods, such as small pizzas, stuffed grape leaves, fried meat balls with delicate moist fillings, and confections that are jewel-like.
Coffee was first popular in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, then spread throughout the region. There is no ceremony, no bargaining, nor any counseling session without coffee. Cups are small and made of different materials, which vary from country to country. The sugar is usually boiled together with the coffee in water (although Egyptians like their coffee unsweetened). When the water boils, sugar and coffee are thrown into the pot. The beverage is stirred, simmered briefly, then poured, still frothy, into cups. In Lebanon, coffee is often flavored with orange blossom water.
Other Middle Eastern favorites are pickled vegetables or fruit (raw or lightly cooked and soaked in a salt-and-vinegar marinade) and fruit syrups (sherbet) of many kinds: orange, rose water, quince, apricot, and tamarind (in Egypt). A meat and wheat soup is usually served, especially for celebrations. Meat is often minced or hand pounded before cooking. If not, it is cubed, or at least cooked so as to be easily torn to pieces, because it is eaten with the fingers. A typical salad dressing in the Middle East is a simple mixture of olive oil and lemon juice, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and herbs.
The dietary similarities of Middle Eastern countries reflect the long unification and acculturation process under Arab, “Islamic,” and Ottoman domination. Under the Abbassids, for example (ninth to twelfth century), during the Golden Age of Islam, there was one single empire from Afghanistan to Spain and the North of Arabia. The size of the empire allowed many foods to spread throughout the Middle East. From India, rice went to Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and eventually, it became known and cultivated all the way to Spain. The use of sugar was common among wealthy people, along with spices from Asia, coffee from Arabia, olive oil from Syria, cheese from Crete, saffron from Tuscany, and even wine from the south of France. Dried and salted fish, honey, and hazelnuts also reached the Middle East from Russia and the Slavic countries.
To keep the products from deteriorating in transit, different techniques were used. Melons from Transoxiana were packed in ice inside lead boxes before they were sent to Baghdad. Nuts and desert truffles were dried. The crystallizing of fruit in honey or sugar, an old process developed in ancient Rome, was also employed, and milk was often preserved in the form of cheese.
Cooks also traveled; those from Egypt and Bolu, in Turkey, were the most famous and in the most demand. In addition, recipes spread, making Iranian and, later on, Turkish dishes fashionable. The culinary arts were considerably elevated early on under the Caliph Hârûn-al-Rasîhd (786-801). The gastronomy of the time is depicted in poetry, as well as in medical treatises on food hygiene. The caliphs of Baghdad were renowned for their lavish and sophisticated tables. The rulers liked to converse about food and encouraged people to write about it and experiment with it. Manuals on good manners stressed that the well-bred man of the time could not ignore the culinary arts.
Palace food was characterized by its expense (plenty of meat, spices, sugar, rice), complexity (elaborate combinations of flavors, as well as stuffings), beauty (rich colors), and mock dishes. Palace doctors offered advice in the choice and preparation of food, as dietetics was important for the elite.
Many dishes of that period are still prepared today with ingredients available to the common people. Some of these are vinegar preserves, roasted meat, and cooked livers, which could be bought in the streets, eaten in the shops, or taken home. Such dishes considerably influenced medieval European and Indian cookery; for example, paella, which evolved from pulao, and pilaf and meat patties that started out as samosa or sambusak.
Despite the rich and relatively coherent cultural area created by the Muslim conquest, three main types of Middle Eastern cookery can subsequently be distinguished. One is that of Iran, another that of the Fertile Crescent, and the last that of Turkey. Each of these will be examined in turn.
Iran is a vast land of varied climatic conditions. The coast of the Caspian Sea is known for its heavy rainfall and a verdant vegetation. But such a climate precludes the growing of long-grain rice and citrus fruits, such as oranges, tangerines, lemons, and limes. The region along the Persian Gulf is one of extreme heat, suitable for palm trees and the production of dates. Wheat is grown everywhere except on the Caspian coast, and the whole of the country produces tea, olives, peaches, apricots, pomegranates, pistachios, and walnuts. The famous red and white Damask roses, cultivated in Iran, yield an excellent rose water. The melons and grapes of Iran are also renowned. Although alcohol is prohibited in the Islamic religion, Iran was known in the past for good wines, especially those from Shiraz.
Sheep and goats are raised in large areas of Iran, with the main breed of sheep having fat tails and lean meat (fat is concentrated in the tail). These animals also provide milk from which large quantities of yoghurt are made.
Iranian dishes have changed little over the centuries, and many of them are somewhat unique in the Middle East because sweet and savory ingredients are often cooked together. A lamb stew with spinach and prunes is one example and duck in a sour cherry or pomegranate sauce is another.
Another feature of Iranian dishes is the wide use of fresh herbs, such as parsley, dill, coriander, mint, and cress, and a bowl of fresh herbs can play the role of a salad. Herbs mixed with rice flavor the green sabzi pollo. Iranian dishes are very subtly and lightly spiced. Saffron and cinnamon are among the most commonly used spices, dill and coriander seeds among the herbs most frequently employed.
Rice is an Iranian specialty, with many different kinds available, ranging from the longest and most flavorful to the quite ordinary. Rice is used in various ways: as chilau (white) or as pollos (with different meats and vegetables), and as a dessert (a shol-e-zard or saffron rice pudding served, among other occasions, for the annual observance of the martyrdom of Imam Hassan).
There is an Iranian legend explaining the high value of rice. When the Prophet Mohammed was accidentally conveyed into paradise, he sweated with terror at the idea of facing the throne of the Almighty. Six drops of his precious sweat came to earth from paradise. The second of these became a grain of rice.
As noted, Iranians have a unique method of preparing rice. This method is designed to leave the grains separate and tasty, making the rice fluffy and very flavorful. After soaking, parboiling, and draining, the rice is poured into a dish smeared with melted butter. The lid is then sealed tightly with a cloth and a paste of flour and water. The last stage is to steam it on low heat for about half an hour, after which the rice is removed and fluffed. The golden crust on the bottom of the pan, or tah-dig, is crumbled on top or served separately.
In addition to pollo, other typical Iranian preparations are koresht (stews of meat or fowl to be served with rice, such as chicken in walnut-lemon sauce or lamb in pomegranate sauce); khorak (eggplant casserole); and kebabs (pieces of roasted meat or game).
Iran is also famous for its soups, which include meat broth with chickpeas, typical rice and spinach soup, and hot yoghurt soup. Spinach originated in Iran and is used in many dishes. In a kookoo, or Iranian omelette, for example, the eggs are beaten and sometimes enhanced with a little baking soda so that the result is a very thick souffle, quite unlike an ordinary omelette. This versatile preparation comes in many variations, as does yoghurt, which when combined with fruit, herbs, and nuts is a common side dish, called borani. Their dolmehs, or stuffed vegetables, the Iranians borrowed from Turkey. Bread, in the past, served as a plate to hold food but today is employed in the Western way, on the side.
The early Persian empire (500 B.C.) was influenced by the Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, and Parthians. At the time of the Achaemenids, the king and the 1,500 individuals who generally dined with him had a great assortment of animal flesh from which to choose, including camels and ostriches. The satraps, or governors, also had to feed many guests. The satrap in Jerusalem, Nehemiah, often fed up to 150 notables at each meal. Food was prepared by a number of specialists, including chefs, bakers, pastry makers, drink mixers, and wine attendants. Tablecloths spread on the floor were of costly fabrics, and gold and silver vessels were in use among the nobility. Indeed, the Persians had such a passion for gold cups that Darius III once lost three or four tons of them, made of gold and encrusted with gems, to an enemy.
Like Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrian kings before him, the Persian monarch enjoyed the special Helbon wine, from the vineyards on the slopes above Damascus, as well as wheat from Assos, salt from the oases of Ammon, oil from Karmanice, and water from the Nile and Danube.
With Alexander the Great (330 B.C.), links were established between India and Persia, that created common features in their cooking traditions. Under the Sassanids (third to seventh century), Persians seem to have become masters in the art of fine living. A Pahlavi text notes that the study of gastronomy was part of the education of a well-bred boy at the time of the Khusraus (end of sixth and early seventh century). Many of the words used in Middle Eastern cooking are of Persian origin and were popularized during this period. The cookery book of the Roman Apicius gives two recipes “in the Parthian manner.” Both include asafoetida, a resin, appreciated as a condiment in spite of its unpleasant smell, which used to be important in Persian cooking. One of these recipes is a chicken dish; another uses kid or lamb, flavored with ground pepper, rue, onion, and stoned damson plums. Clearly, Iranian taste for sweet and sour combinations was already apparent at this early date.
During the reign of Khusrau II (early seventh century), a very lavish and sumptuous cookery was invented to satisfy the appetites of the monarch who had conquered Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. It consisted of hot (grilled on a spit or fried) and cold meats, stuffed grape leaves, and marinated chicken. Other foods included mutton in pomegranate juice and rice pudding rich with honey, butter, and eggs. Young kid was popular, as was beef cooked with spinach and vinegar. Meat was marinated in spiced yoghurt, as it is today. Jams of quince, almond pastries, and dates stuffed with almonds and walnuts were served for dessert. Rishta, a kind of pasta similar to tagliatelle, was also known in ancient Persia.
In his twelfth-century writings, Marco Polo was impressed with the region and its wealth of foodstuffs: pomegranates, peaches, quince, and big fat sheep. But he noted that whereas the people of the countryside ate meat and wheat bread, those of Ormuz dined on dates, salted fish, and onions. Some 600 years later, John Bell, a visitor to Ispahan, took part in a big dinner:
The entertainment consisted mostly of different kinds of rice boiled with butter, fowls, mutton, boiled and roasted lamb. The whole was served in large gold or china dishes and placed in the baskets, which stood on a long cloth spread above the carpets. The dishes were interspaced with saucers filled with aromatic herbs, sugar, and vinegar. [In addition to] the common bread, [there were] some very large thin cakes, which were used instead of napkins to wipe our fingers. They were made of wheat flour. (Bell 1965)
Sherbet was served cooled with ice, the latter from water frozen in the winter, then kept in cellars.
Food in the Arab Countries
In contrast to the Iranians, the Arabs have subsisted on a fairly rustic diet. Its origin is in the simple food of the Bedouins, which has not evolved much. The wealthy prefer rice; bread is the staple food of the common people. Bread of millet is made in the Aden protectorate; elsewhere, it is more generally of wheat, with sour or sweet fresh dough. It can be baked or fried on a griddle. Porridge and wheat gruel are still popular, as they were in ancient Arabia.
Fresh dates are a staple food in the poorest houses and are common everywhere. Individuals who consume meshwi, or meat grilled or roasted on a spit, betray tribal origins. Those who cannot afford lamb eat chicken or eggs often baked in an eggah or thick omelette. This is a versatile preparation that can be flavored with all kinds of vegetables, herbs, or meat. It is very close to the Spanish tortilla or the Iranian kookoo. Arab dishes of bread broken in pieces and soaked in stock, with various toppings, are reminiscent of tharid, the Prophet’s favorite.
In coastal areas, fresh and dried fish are pounded and cooked with clarified butter and onions, or broken into pieces for easy consumption. Milk products are somewhat rare, with sour milk a common drink among the wealthy but not the common people. The mixture of milk, butter, and dates that Mohammed enjoyed is still prepared today. Spices and condiments, such as salt, pepper, chillies, tamarind, coriander, cloves, and cinnamon, are sometimes used.
A mansaf, or normal dinner, in a Bedouin family is simple, but served in a festive manner. Women cook huge wheat “pancakes” (shrak) on an iron plate. Several of these are piled on top of each other on a tray, then covered with rice and lamb, with butter poured over the top. A more elaborate meal for special occasions is a whole roasted lamb stuffed with rice, onions, nuts, and spices, and surrounded with mounds of rice, with hard-boiled eggs as a decoration. This meal is considered magnificent if the lamb is stuffed with a chicken, which, in turn, is stuffed with eggs and rice.
Meat balls (kofte) are another typical way of serving meat in Arab countries. They can be stewed in a soup, simmered in their own juice, or fried, and rice and spinach can be added to stretch the meat if it is scarce.
A meal is usually followed by one to three cups of boiling hot coffee. In the Aden protectorate, a kind of coffee prepared from the husks of the bean is a popular drink. It is not sweetened but flavored with ginger. A raisin tea made with boiled raisins and cinnamon is a specialty in Saudi Arabia.
Some travelers have left vivid written images of the foods and table manners of seventeenth-century Arabia. Among other things, their writings show how food was served. A large skin or woolen cloth was spread on the floor and dishes were placed on top. On great occasions, more than 10 dishes were offered and served six or seven times. In the middle of the table was placed the spectacular whole lamb or sheep with its trimmings. Arabs of rank ate at a small table 1 foot high with a large plate of tinned copper on it. Their food was served in copper dishes, tinned within and without. Instead of napkins, they used long linen cloths placed on their knees.
Western observers stressed the fraternity around these “tables.” Sir Thomas Roe noted that Arabs make no great differences among table guests – the king and common soldiers, masters, and slaves, sat together and took food from dish (Roe 1926). Such fraternity is a value in Islam and still a tradition in Arabia. Travelers remarked, however, that women ate apart.
They also stressed the simplicity of the meals. Arabs had only a few cooking utensils of copper and big wooden bowls to use as large dishes or for kneading bread dough. They were reported to be fond of fresh bread and said to have baked it in a number of ways. Three examples of baking techniques are the use of an earthen pot in which a fire of charcoal was kindled (the bread was cooked on the sides of the pot), the placing of the dough on a heated plate of iron, and baking directly on charcoal.
In the desert, however, even the “more eminent schiechs [sic],” wrote Carsten Niebuhr, “eat of nothing but pilau or boiled rice. It is served up in a very large wooden plate” (Pinkerton 1811). A little mutton was consumed on occasion, but pastries were rare.
Most Arabs in poorer circumstances dined on bread and onions, sometimes with a little sour milk, salt, cheese, or oil.”But the most plenty and useful of all their fruits are their dates, which support and sustain many millions of people,” wrote Roe (1926). Travelers, such as Roe, were also impressed by the use of coffee:”As soon as everyone is seated a servant brings a pot of coffee. It is very hot and poured in tiny cups. They are filled two, even three times, then a pipe of tobacco is presented” (Roe 1926).
Even though Islamic regulations were strictly observed and prayers said before and after meals, some inquisitive foreigners remarked that Muslims sometimes drank alcohol privately at night. Notwithstanding these “mistakes,” the travelers gave the picture of a very traditional and modest food consumed by the Arabs, the same food that the Prophet himself had eaten.
Food in Egypt
Dishes served in Egypt constitute another type of old and simple tradition that goes back to pharaonic times, like the melokhia soup, a broth with the leaves of corchorus olitorius, (Tussa jute) which imparts a glutinous texture. Also old is the batarekh, or salted dried roe of the gray mullet, served sliced with bread. Pulses play an important role in the diet. Lentil soup is common, and the national dish is ful medames, brown Egyptian beans boiled and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley. To eat ful medames according to custom, one must first eat some of the beans whole, then mash some in the juice, and finally crush the rest with a hard-boiled egg placed on top of the dish. Cooked white broad beans, shaped into patties (falafel), spiced, and fried, are another favorite of the Egyptians, especially when eaten in a pita, or hollow flat bread.
Egypt is not a country where people consume animal protein in large amounts, but hamud, a chicken soup with lemon, is very popular. It is traditionally served with rice, cooked in the Egyptian way, fried then boiled. A kind of kibbeh (pounded meat and cereal) is prepared in Egypt, with ground rice instead of cracked wheat as in the Fertile Crescent. Fish kebabs are also quite common, and pigeons are frequently consumed. Couscous, a North African dish of a sort of semolina prepared with meat and vegetables, is served in Egypt as a dessert, topped with butter and fried raisins.
Nonetheless, the diet of the fellahs, or peasants, is mostly vegetarian. They usually have three meals a day, futour at sunrise, ghada taken while working in the fields, and a hot meal in the evening called acha. All of these meals consist mainly of raw or stewed vegetables.
In a fifteenth century Egyptian market, all kinds of foodstuffs could be purchased. Among them were wheat, barley, rice, beans, peas, chickpeas, carrots, cucumbers, lemons, watermelons, beef, mutton, chicken, goose, camel flesh, sugar, olive oil, sesame oil, clarified butter, and white cheese.
Pierre Belon du Mans, visiting in the sixteenth century, noted that Egyptians knew how to preserve foodstuffs. Lamb, for example, was cubed and boiled, cut in very small pieces, and boiled again in fat with cooked onions. Then the preparation was salted, spiced, and stored in barrels for up to two weeks. The French traveler also mentioned other preservation techniques, such as olives in brine, dried sea bream, salted gray mullet roe, and dried cheese (Belon 1557). These are not particularly sophisticated techniques, but they do show that Egyptians were able to make good and prolonged use of the products of their land.
Food in the Fertile Crescent
Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon have similar culinary traditions because all three were influenced by early Greek and Roman civilizations. In addition, Lebanon has recently been the recipient of a strong French influence, which is said to have enhanced the quality of its cookery.
This region is marked by the use of burghul, or cracked wheat, which is often consumed in the form of the traditional tabouleh, an herb salad with burghul and lemon juice. Burghul also plays an important role in another specialty of the area, kibbeh, which is said to have been mentioned in ancient Assyrian and Sumerian writings. Certainly, archeological evidence indicates that all the utensils and products necessary for this dish were on hand in the region long before Islam put its imprint upon it.
Kibbeh is made by pounding lamb with burghul, onions, and a little cinnamon; it is a mixture that can be eaten raw (kibbeh naye), grilled, or fried. Stuffed kibbeh is a variation that has become an art in Syria. A kibbeh shell is shaped around the finger of the cook as evenly and thinly as possible. It is then filled with meat, nuts, and herbs and sealed. Once fried, it becomes crisp with a moist inside. Kibbeh is one of the many possible items one can choose as a typical snack (mezze), along with a variety of olives, nuts, small pizzas, and pies. In Syria, a favorite is muhamara, a mixture of chopped nuts with hot pepper sauce. In Lebanon, another favorite is mankoush, a spicy herb flat bread. Lebanese people can spend hours nibbling these sorts of snacks while enjoying a drink of arak, an anise-flavored liquor. Local specialties include rice with almond sauce (Damascus), brown lentils and rice (Lebanon), bean salad (Lebanon), and lamb with yoghurt (Jordan). Fattoush, or bread salad, with a dressing of olive oil, onions, and lemon juice is common throughout the region.
In Turkish food, one encounters the same differences between country food and the palace cookery that we have seen in other countries and regions once parts of the Ottoman empire. A classic Turkish meal starts with hot or cold yoghurt soup. In some villages the soup is made on baking day in a pit oven. A Turkish menu also offers mezzes (appetizers), such as sausage, vegetables in oil, cheese, pastirma (dried pressed meat cured with garlic and spices), or borek (flaky pastries with different fillings). A classic Turkish menu will feature soup, a meat dish, a borek, a vegetable dish, and a dessert.
Meat is a very important item in Turkish cookery. It comes in dozens of varieties of kebabs. Mutton and lamb are favorites, especially minced or pounded. Meat is even used in fruit dishes and puddings; examples include stewed apricots or quinces with lamb and a pudding of chicken breast. For big parties, a whole kid is roasted on a spit. Minced meat is the filling for the numerous dolmasi, or stuffed vegetables, such as peppers, tomatoes, vegetable marrow, and grape leaves.
Eggs are an important item of food, and many Turks raise chickens in their backyard. There are more than 130 varieties of fish available in the Bosporus Straits, with mackerel the most popular. A kind of unleavened flat bread made at home is the Turk’s staple food. The baker offers many varieties of white bread, the most famous of which is the ring-shaped simit.
Turkey is well known for its pilafs, or rice dishes, made from long-grain rice, pounded ripe wheat (dogme), toasted unripe wheat (firik), and bulgur, or couscous. They are enriched with meat, dried fruit, vegetables, spices, and yoghurt.
Yoghurt is used in two forms in Turkey, one semi-liquid and the other firm. The latter is often eaten with jam or used for cooking, while the former, as a yoghurt drink (ayran), is often served with meals.
A very special Turkish drink is salep, which is made with the infusion of a powder from the root of the salep orchid in milk and served hot. Coffee has been prepared and served in coffeehouses in Turkey since the fifteenth century. It is offered black and strong, usually with confections. Turks are very proud of their sweets, and a confectionery in Istanbul can feature more than 100 sorts of halvah (sweetmeats), such as plain and rose lokum and almond and pistachio marzipan.
In the past, vendors made and sold all kinds of foods on the streets. Today, these individuals are not so numerous, but sesame-sprinkled simits are still sold everywhere, the water or juice seller is still seen, and the streets of Istanbul still often smell of grilled fresh mackerel or roasted lamb.
Regional differences are important in Turkish food. The Aegean region is renowned for its fish and seafood. The Mediterranean region is rich in vegetables, with aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic featured in many stews. People of the Black Sea region enjoy cabbage soup and anchovies in many dishes, including a pilaf. Anatolia is the home of the best Turkish roast meat. Bursa is the town that gave birth to the world-famous doner kebab, meat roasted on a vertical revolving spit.
The nomadic period (before the eleventh century)
In the Turkish city of Konya, people ate bulgur and lentils and knew how to use the pit oven, or tandor, 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. Turks in central Asia probably drank soups of tarhana (dried curd and cereals) and, when still nomads, they relied on mutton and horse meat, unleavened bread, milk, and milk products. Manti (a kind of ravioli) and corek (ring-shaped buns) were probably also known.
The Seljuk sultans and principalities period (1038-1299)
During these centuries, the nomads were drawn from their steppes into the armies of the caliphate. They began to settle down, ruled a number of local dynasties, and as they did so, acquired more refined manners and tastes. Dishes of the period reveal that cooking was becoming an art. In an eleventh-century dictionary, for example, there is mention of a layered pastry, of noodle soup, grape syrup, and a corn-flour halvah.
Mowlavi Jalâl-al-Dîn Rumi, founder of the order of Whirling Dervishes, was a philosopher who, nonetheless, showed great interest in the subject of food. Thus, it is possible to infer from his writings the types of comestibles consumed in the thirteenth century. A few examples include saffron rice, homemade noodles with meat, kadayif (layered nut filled pastry), all kinds of halvah, wine, and fruit syrups. Within the order, strict rules were established concerning the organization of the kitchen and tables manners. Among other things, such rules show that social distinctions were made among those involved in food preparation, from sherbet makers to coffee masters to waiters, dishwashers, and cooks.
The Ottoman period (1299-1923)
One group of nomads, the Osmanlis, or Ottomans, came to control the Islamic empire. Their rulers were cosmopolitan, having previously been slaves (or descendants of slaves) in all parts of the known world as far north as Russia and western Europe. These new rulers first took Persia as a model for their court life, then developed their own, including the culinary arts, borrowing from all over their empire.
The first Turkish cooks employed in the palace came from Bolu, the region where the sultans did their hunting. The men of Bolu were accustomed to leaving their land to learn this craft at the palace. Food was so important to the sultans that the insignia of their renowned janissary force was a pot and a spoon, symbols of their higher standard of living. The titles of janis-sary officers were drawn from the camp kitchen, such as “first maker of soup” and “first cook.” The sacred object of the regiment was the stew pot around which the soldiers gathered to eat and take counsel.
When Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror, captured Constantinople (1453), he laid down the rules for food preparation, to be followed at the court for a long time to come. The palace kitchen was divided into four main areas: the king’s kitchen; the sovereign’s kitchen (responsible for food for his mother, the princes, and privileged members of the harem); the harem kitchen; and a kitchen for the palace household. That there was a movement toward culinary specialization seems clear in that the kitchen staff included bakers, confection and pastry makers, a yoghurt maker, and a pickle maker.
Ottaviano Bon (1653) has provided us with a good account of the kitchen in the seraglio in the seventeenth century, which shows how complex the organization had become. Food was prepared by the Ajomoglans (Christian renegades) and 200 cooks and scullions who began their work before daybreak.
The sultan would eat three or four times a day, commonly dining at 10 in the morning and 6 in the evening, with snacks in between. He ate cross-legged, with an expensive towel upon his knees and another hanging on his left arm. Three or four kinds of white bread and two wooden spoons were placed before him (one for soup, one for dessert) upon a piece of Bulgar leather. The sultan’s ordinary diet consisted of roasted pigeons, geese, lamb, hens, chickens, mutton and sometimes wild fowl. He would eat fish only when he was at the seaside. Preserves and syrups were always on the “table,” though pies were “after their fashion, made of flesh” (Bon 1653). Sherbet followed the meal, since the ruler had adopted Islam and could not take wine.
When he finished, the leftover food was given to high officers. Lesser officers ate from a different kitchen where the food was of lesser quality. Odah youths (young Christians or Turks raised to become officers of the sultan) were fed on two loaves of bread a day, boiled mutton, and a thin pudding of rice with butter and honey. Queens had the same food as the sultan but consumed more sweets and fruit, reflective of their sweet and delicate nature. They drank their sherbet mixed with snow in the summer.
The hierarchy in the palace may be seen in many ways. Four kinds of bread were baked, the best for the sultan (with flour from Bursa), middle-quality loaves for ordinary officers, and a black and coarse bread for the servants; sailors received only sea biscuits.
Reaching the sultan’s kitchen were luxury items from all over the empire. Alexandria sent rice, lentils, spices, pickled meats, and sugar, as well as prunes and dates. The latter were used in the dressing of roasted or boiled meats. Although few spices were used in Turkish cooking, an incredible amount of sugar was invested in pies, sherbets, and confections. Even common people offered each other sweets.
In addition, Valachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia sent honey to be used in broth, sherbets, and meat stews. Olive oil arrived from Greece and butter from the Black Sea region.
Bon noted that Turks used the flesh of calves in the same way that Christians used pork in puddings, pies, and sausages. They also dried the meat to make basturma. The serai kitchen was lavish in its use of meat, with 200 sheep, 100 kids, 10 calves, 50 geese, 200 hens, 100 chickens, and 200 pigeons slaughtered daily.
This aristocratic tradition of opulent dining that Bon depicted in the seventeenth century would continue into twentieth-century Turkey. Every meal of wealthy families would feature seven courses: fish, egg or borek, meat or fowl, cold vegetables in oil, hot vegetables with butter, pilaf, and pastry or pudding. Such meals were certainly not the democratic and rustic affairs of the Arabs.
The History and Culture of Food in the Indian Subcontinent
The Indian subcontinent is a huge triangle extending from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin and from the Baluchistan deserts to the rice fields of Bengal. It is divided into the countries of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Himalayan states. A diversity of physical environment in this area explains the diversity of the various agrarian civilizations and, in turn, the diversity of cookery traditions. The obvious contrast between the wheat eaters of the North and the rice eaters of the South is but one of numerous possible means of classification. Opposition is also found in the vegetarian ideal of Hinduism and the Muslims’ fondness for meat. But it is interesting to note that the art of cooking unites, rather than divides, the people of the peninsula. This is an art that has evolved into a very rich and complex affair called “Indian cookery.”
Indian Cookery: A Kaleidoscope
As noted, we can divide the subcontinent into agricultural zones in which either wheat, rice, or millets are predominant. Although cereals are supplemented by various plants and pulses, they nonetheless constitute the staple food in each zone.
Rice is eaten everywhere in the Indian world, but it is the staple food only of the South and of Bengal, where it is boiled and served with a dahl (made from one of the many pulses of the peninsula), or perhaps with different curries and fresh yoghurt. When rice is ground and parboiled with split peas (urad dahl), it becomes a batter that the cooks of Tamil Nadu leave to ferment and to steam in molds to make the spongy idlis. The same batter can be shaped into small doughnuts and fried, or spread on the griddle to make a crispy pancake called dosa. All these preparations are served with chutney, a spicy vegetable curry, or a souplike sambar.
Millets like jowar (sorghum), bajra, or ragi are cultivated on the poorest soils and are found mainly in the Dekkan, Western Ghats, Gujerat, and Rajputana. They have been the staple food of the peasants, although “richer” cereals are increasingly becoming more preferred.
Wheat is mainly cultivated in the northern provinces. Most of the time it is used as bleached and unbleached flour. When mixed with water and salt (and for richer loaves, with milk, butter, or oil), it is the basis for the numerous Indian breads.
Roti or chapati, a thin whole-wheat griddle bread, is the daily accompaniment of dahl. With butter in the dough or on the pan, it becomes a golden paratha. Deep fried, it turns into a puffy puri. But thanks to the Muslim influence, northern India and Pakistan also know oven bread in its various forms. The most commonly found are the unleavened oblong nan or the round and soft shirmal, which is smeared with saffron milk. Lucknow and Hyderabad are also famous for their sourdough square breads or kulchas. All these oven breads are made of white flour and traditionally baked on the sides of the tan-door, the central Asian clay oven.
Such bread goes well, and is best associated, with the nonvegetarian cookery of the North, which includes kebabs and rich stews (kormas) of lamb or chicken.
North and South
Like the differing architecture of their temples and linguistic features, the North and South of the subcontinent have separate staple foods, and there are many differences between their cookeries.
With the curries, for example, the masalas (spice mixtures) that give each dish its character are not the same. In the North, the spices are dried, ground, and then dry-roasted or fried before being added to a dish. The dishes themselves are often nonvegetarian, due to a stronger Muslim influence, and tend to be dry so that food can be scooped up with bread. In the South, fresh spices are pounded with a liquid into a paste. The dishes these pastes flavor are mostly vegetarian, and rather liquid, to moisten the plain rice that generally is an important part of the meal.
Northern cooks will, therefore, have many dry spices on hand, such as cardamom, ginger, turmeric, black pepper, chillies, coriander, cumin, and, sometimes, dried vegetables or fruits that could not endure in the humid climate of the South. They use ghee (clarified butter) to cook the meat and oil (mustard oil, if possible) for the vegetables. Among the many pulses employed is the chickpea, which is a favorite in the North. Green tea in Kashmir and black tea, elsewhere, is boiled with water and sugar, spiced with ginger and cardamom, and whitened with rich buffalo milk.
By contrast, southerners use few dried spices and no dried vegetables. Rather, the latter are bought fresh on a day-to-day basis. Fruit and vegetables are preserved, however, in oil and chillies (achar) and in vinegar (pickles). In addition to jars of these relishes, a good kitchen will have different varieties of rice, some for everyday use, others for festivals and desserts, and still others for the servants. Rice flour will be present, as well as many types of pulses. In the vegetarian South, pulses are a major source of protein. Ghee is seldom used, but sesame and coconut oils are common.
The South, in tropical Asia, is also a land of coconuts and many other exotic products, such as man-goes, limes, bananas, “drumsticks,” moringa oleifera, and jackfruit, all of which are often part of the diet. Coffee, introduced by the Arabs, is preferred to tea in the South, where it is prepared with milk and sugar. Now it is also found everywhere in its instant form.
Cooking utensils differ from north to south, although the chula (square hearth), the tawa (griddle), and thekarkhai (deep frying pan) are common to the entire peninsula. In the North, the dry spices are ground on a grindstone (chakki), and in the South, the fresh ingredients are pounded with a mortar and pestle. The coconut grater is also typical of the South. Food is served on individual metal trays (thali) in the North, but on a clean banana leaf in the South. Finally, although all people of the subcontinent eat with their right hand, northerners tend to use the tips of the fingers, whereas southerners will dip their whole hand into the food.
More Regional Variations
The diversity of the culture of food and drink in the Indian world is much more complex, however, than simply differences between north and south. There are many interesting variations within the vast regions.
For example, the valley of Kashmir in the northern-most part of India has a somewhat cold climate, which is perfect for growing fruits, walnuts, and cumin, and for breeding sheep. Thus, as one might expect, the cookery is more closely related to that of central Asia. The tea there is made in a samovar and is a green tea, as in Tibet. The bread is closer to that made in Afghanistan than to Indian chapatis and is generally baked in clay ovens by professionals.
In Rajasthan, culture has dictated other food habits. Historically, their men have been warriors and, thus, have long been accustomed to outdoor cooking. For this reason, many of their dishes include marinated and grilled meats (including game), often prepared by males.
In contrast to this rugged fare, a Maharashtran meal starts with a sweet, eaten with a puri or chapati. Maharashtra is rich in seafood and coconuts, and both are often blended together. Every morning the ladies of many houses begin their day by grinding coconut and spices on a grinding stone. The milk of the coconut is also present in practically every dish, even in pulao (flavored rice, the Indian rendition of the Turkish pilaf).
Bengali food is reputed to be quite plain, but the sweets of the region (sandesh, rasmalai, gulab jamen, and all-milk sweets soaked in syrup) are famous. The waters of the Bay of Bengal yield hundreds of varieties of fish and shellfish. In fact, the “vegetarian” Brahmans of the region, who theoretically should avoid seafood, eat it nonetheless, calling it “vegetables of the sea.”
The Portuguese, in their quest for empire, settled in Goa as well as in other places. Thus, personal names, architecture, and festivals, along with the foods of the region, reveal this influence. Indeed, Goanese food is Portuguese food, save for the lavish inclusion of red chillies and coconut milk. The use of onions and tomatoes in many soups is very Portuguese, and the Goanese consumption of pork is unique in India. Vinegar gives many dishes a typical sour-hot taste. Sweets include a lot of egg yolks and almonds. Thus, dishes such ascaldine, bife, souraca, and assada are all reminders of the colonial past.
Malabar Muslim cookery constitutes another example of a blending of local and foreign traditions in India. Kerala Muslims are supposed to have descended from intermarriage between local Kerala women and Arab traders who settled there. Malabar food has a great deal in common with food elsewhere in Kerala in that it testifies to an extensive employment of coconuts, coconut oil, and rice. But the Arab influence is evident in dishes such as alisa (a wheat and meat porridge), or stuffed chicken. Another dish (byriani) shows the linkage with the Muslims of northern India, although it contains coconut and prawns. A Muslim love for bread is reflected in the Moplah specialty called pathiri, which is a rice chapati.
The four major religions of India are Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam. The Islamic influence, which arrived in the eighth century, placed great emphasis on the enjoyment of food because it was considered a reward from God to the believer. Yet food is not a petty matter in the view of other dominant religions either. “All doings come from food” is an Indian saying. For the traditional Hindu, cooking and eating are not just matters of survival but moral investments and rituals as well. The Mahabharata, one of the sacred books, refers to the necessity of ensuring purity in food and drink as one of the ten essential disciplines of life; and even in the big cities, a majority of Indians still live according to such age-old customs.
Vegetarianism is a precept of the three Indian religions although, of course, the people of India were not always vegetarian. The first humans who appeared near the basin of the river Indus around 15,000 B.C. ate meat along with rice, molasses, spices, and betel leaves. It was not before the Vedic era (1500-800 B. C.) that an aversion toward meat consumption appeared in ancient texts. At this time, milk acquired a symbolic value and the cow was described as a “gift.” Little by little, animals were replaced by clay or flour figurines for sacrifices, and instead of consuming the cows that constituted much of their wealth, the people of India began revering them.
It was the new religions of Buddha and Mahavira Jina (sixth century B.C.), however, which provided the decisive impulse to the vegetarian doctrine. Both prescribed nonviolence (ahimsa) and the abstinence from meat. This ideal is still subscribed to by the orthodox Hindus, whereas Jains go so far as not to touch foods that resemble meat, such as tomatoes, beet roots, and so forth.
However, there has always been an ambivalence in the Hindu attitude toward meat consumption. If Brah-mans avoided it, it was recommended to the Kshatriyas (kings and warriors) and was not forbidden to the castes of merchants, agriculturists, and servants. All this suggests that the Hindu concepts on food were elaborated for a whole society, in which everyone had duties and a diet suited to those duties. Those who lived close to the world and its violence were urged to eat meat to gain energy. By contrast, the Hindu priests and Brahmans embraced vegetarianism; indeed, those who prayed were enjoined to avoid everything exciting to the senses, even onions.
Each individual can follow many diets. Hindus believe that a perfect life is lived in the four stages of student, householder, hermit, and ascetic. A man, therefore, might be vegetarian while single, then be nonvegetarian, and finish his life in abstinence and fasts.
The cow is still held sacred, its products considered excellent for health, as well as religious purposes. Pureghee (clarified butter) is highly esteemed, and many Indians still feed the newborn baby with a spoonful of ghee after the Brahman ritual. They also give ghee to sick individuals and, although very expensive, it is still considered the best cooking medium.
While vegetarian doctrine was being elaborated, concepts of pure and impure foods were being developed as well. A ritual is organized around the meal to ensure its purity, which includes bathing and the wearing of clean clothes for both the cook and those who dine. The kitchen must be as clean as a temple and separated by a little wall from the rest of the house, far from the refuse area and near the prayer room. It is often swept and washed, and, traditionally, the floors are covered with cow dung, a sacred substance and one regarded as an antiseptic.
Purity also shapes the whole Hindu society as a hierarchical structure with the Brahmans at the top. An exchange of food is traditionally prohibited among the segments or castes of this society, especially from the lowest (most impure) to the highest (Brahmins). Even in the same family, it is considered “unclean” to touch food that has been touched by someone else, which is why the food is served directly from the cooking vessels onto the thalis (leaves). This also explains why there is no tradition of dining out in India. The quest for purity is too strong.
These age-old principles are still professed by most Hindus, but orthodoxy is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of health (diets low in fat, sugar, and spices), diversity (new recipes), status (for example, the Western habit of going to restaurants), and convenience (ready-made food).
As we have noted, Islam also strongly imposed itself on the cookery of the subcontinent for religious, as well as for purely gastronomic, reasons. Although a late cultural and religious arrival, Islam came to India via many channels. Arab traders, Afghan and Turk soldiers, along with Iranian administrators, all settled down there and made converts to their religion, as well as to portions of their culture.
If Hinduism has given a high spiritual content to the meal, it has paid little attention to the art of cooking. Boiled cereals and griddle bread, stewed vegetables, and pulses had been the usual diet since the beginning of Indian civilization. Islam gave to Indian cookery its masterpiece dishes from the Middle East. These include pilau (from Iranian pollo and Turkish pilaf), samossa (Turkish sambussak), shir kurma (dates and milk), kebabs, sherbet, stuffed vegetables, oven bread, and confections (halvah). Such dishes became so well acclimated in India that vegetarian versions of them were elaborated. It is this cross-cultural art that is now acclaimed all around the world.