58. The Fertile Crescent

I am defining the Fertile Crescent as the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine. I must admit, I approached this region with much trepidation during my initial planning. To even mention the names of some of these countries can elicit a frothing rage from some partisans, and with so much ongoing violence, persecution and untimely death in the area, it is an understandably sensitive topic. This is distressing, as my goal of communicating this project is to inspire increased home cooking, understanding of different cultures, and ultimately contribute to uniting humanity under the common characteristic of cooking and enjoying delicious food. I was perplexed about whether covering each country in isolation or lumping them all together would elicit more ire, but eventually the prospect of deciding who would be credited with inventing the falafel sealed my decision – I had to consider the countries together… The beginning of this week’s planning marked a very sad occasion for me – TV chef and famous traveller Anthony Bourdain died of an apparent suicide. He is famous for his television series in which he journeys across cities of the world, sampling their food, meeting their people, and discussing the culture. You can imagine, then, that we shared many passions, and I was very saddened by his passing. Bourdain himself visited the Fertile Crescent in 2013, and began that particular episode with the description: “It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world, and there’s no hope – none – of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off”. Of course, what the episode actually revealed was Bourdain sitting down to, literally, break bread, with people from all sides of the conflict, and finding out that everyone was, well, human. And that is what I want to express most about this week, and what I think Bourdain would like to be remembered for – that every culture and nation is comprised of humans, and by and large those humans love to eat delicious things, take joy in feeding appreciative guests, and yearn to have their children’s tummies full of nutritious food when they go to bed at night. We could all benefit from remembering that more often, I think. Indeed, grassroots initiatives such as “Peace of Cake” have sought to put that message into action and restore trust by handing out cake to citizens, regardless of race or religion, with signs in all relevant languages promoting peace. Sometimes the simplest causes are the most noble. The “Fertile” part of the name “Fertile Crescent” refers to its particularly good soil, and its geographical role as a bridge between Africa and Eurasia, thereby accumulating great biodiversity from each. A hugely important part of this biodiversity was the rise of eight Neolithic founder crops, which were instrumental to early human agriculture: emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chick pea, pea, lentil and bitter vetch. Cows, goats, sheep and pigs were also domesticated here, and all of this cumulatively contributed to human evolution and migration throughout the world, and ultimately our success as a species. It is no surprise then that this region is also sometimes called “the cradle of civilisation”, and gave rise to many feats of early human genius, including writing, glass, irrigation, libraries, the wheel, and, as you are about to find out, some truly incredible food.

Fertile Crescent platter

Fertile crescent platter.jpg

In keeping with my diplomatic act of not attributing any of the most common, famous and shared foodstuffs to any single country or peoples of the Fertile Crescent, I prepared a tasting platter of some characteristic dishes that have indeterminate origins throughout the region. These are: flatbread, falafel, kibbeh, baba ghanoush, hummus, tabbouleh and sfeeha. Unlike many flatbreads, flatbread from this region is often slightly leavened, meaning a rising agent such as yeast is added to it. Falafel, as I alluded to in the introduction, is one of the most famous foodstuffs consumed in the Fertile Crescent. The name literally means “rollers” or “little balls”, and it consists of a deep fried patty made from ground legumes, usually chickpeas, and often flavoured with ingredients such as cumin, coriander, garlic, parsley, or green onion.  It is a common street food, eaten the world over as a meat-substitute by vegetarians, and often served inside a pita bread, or along with a selection of other entrees as a meze. Kibbeh (meaning “ball”) is also a deep-fried patty, but this time made of a filling of finely ground minced meat (such as beef or lamb) combined with onions, pine nuts, allspice, cumin and pepper. This is then covered in a coating of finely ground bulgur (cracked wheat), more mince, onion and pepper. The balls are often moulded into football shapes (as I did) and then deep fried until the outside is crunchy and golden, and the inside is moist and juicy. I am tempted to try baked kibbeh another time, which is a similar concept but with layers in a large casserole dish that goes into the oven. It seems much healthier and less time-consuming, but I wanted to try the real deal for my first time. Baba ghanoush and hummus are both dips, the former made from the smoky flavoured innards of fire-blackened eggplant mixed with tahini and olive oil, the latter made from ground chickpeas (hummus actually means “chickpeas”), tahini and olive oil. Common flavourings that can be added to both include lemon, parsley, cumin, garlic and paprika. There are recipes for hummus recorded since the 13th century, and it is often eaten for breakfast lunch and dinner, warm or cold, at restaurants, street vendors or at home, forming an integral part of daily life. I made both of my dips from scratch, blackening the eggplant under my electric grill rather than the traditional charcoal, and they were both thick, rich and wonderful. Tabbouleh (meaning “seasoning” or “dip”) is a salad made of chopped parsley, tomatoes, onion, mint and bulgur, flavoured with lemon, oil and garlic. It reflects the long history of edible herbs, grown in the mountains between Lebanon and Syria, which were hugely popular with the locals, and formed the basis of original tabboulehs. Finally, sfeeha are little open pies, traditionally made with a minced lamb filling with onion, pine nuts, pomegranate molasses, garlic and parsley, although I also made some with mashed roast pumpkin because I was catering for vegetarians. So, there you go, a platter clumsily uniting the cuisine of all countries in the Fertile Crescent. I’m not the first to attempt this, however; a renowned Israeli peace activist, Jonathan Kis-Lev, promotes the use of felafel and hummus as symbols of peace under which Israelis and Palestinians can unite. I’m not sure if it’s been effective thus far, but a meal like that certainly might dispose me to a more peaceful state of mind?

Musakhan and fattoush

Musakhan and fattoush.JPG

I can’t find any controversy about musakhan, so I guess it’s safe for me to tell you that it’s a Palestinian dish, in fact oft considered their national dish. It is traditionally prepared to celebrate the season in which olive oil is produced, but can now be enjoyed all year round. It is made with pieces of chicken, baked with olive oil, onions and pine nuts, flavoured with allspice, saffron, and considerable amounts of sumac, all served on top of some freshly baked flatbread called taboon bread. Sumac is a spice derived from berries of the Rhus shrub, which are dried and ground into a deep purple-red powder. It imparts a deep purple colour and unique flavour that is sour and slightly fruity. Sumac can also be used dry to garnish dips or salads, or to colour and flavour wet stews. For some reason every time I eat food heavily spiced with sumac, I note how much I adore the flavour and intend to cook with it more often, but then I never seem to remember. Perhaps this time? One of the things I love most about cuisine of the Fertile Crescent is the great variety of delicious salads! The rest of the world take note and learn from these people: the majority of you do not have enough salads… Fattoush is one such glorious salad, made from mixed greens, herbs and vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes, along with crisp pieces of fried flatbread, flavoured with olive oil, lemon juice and sumac. As with all great salads, fattoush is flexible to whatever might need using in the fridge, and can also include capsicum, feta cheese, onions, pomegranates, cabbage or whatever your practical heart desires to be used up first. Indeed, the very concept of fattoush sprang from practical housewives looking for new and inventive uses for stale flatbread, for which frying in oil is a brilliant and delicious idea.

Shakshouka, challah, manakish, with freekeh and Israeli couscous salads

shakshuka challah manakish israeli couscous and freekeh salads

Shakshouka, meaning “mixture” is made by first frying up a thick chunky sauce of tomatoes, capsicum and onions, often flavoured with garlic, cumin and paprika. Once the sauce is cooked and at a desired consistency, little holes are made in the mixture and eggs are cracked into them and subsequently poached. The meal is then usually garnished with fresh parsley before serving with bread. Some say it was brought to the Fertile Crescent by Tunisian Jews, where it became famously associated with the region, and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner interchangeably. However, others say it was invented in Yemen or the Ottoman Empire, so perhaps the mystery is lost to time. Regardless, I adore shakshouka, as I do almost any egg preparation imaginable. I am fully supportive of any movement to bring more eggs into the lunch and dinner arena, as I strongly feel that they have been relegated to breakfast for far too long. The salad that I served with my shakshouka is not typical enough to earn a special name (like tabbouleh or fattoush), but includes common ingredients from the area, and I have seen a number of authentic-looking recipes that used this combination. More importantly, it sounded (and was) delicious! I combined cooked freekeh (a grain from green durum wheat that is roasted and rubbed), with some rocket leaves, pomegranate seeds, pistachio nuts and red capsicum. I also made manakish, which is often affectionately referred to as a Middle-Eastern “pizza”. It is a flatbread made from dough that is topped with ingredients prior to baking, such as Arabic cheeses, minced lamb, spinach, or olive oil and za’atar. I used the latter, which is one of the most traditional options, and is a spice mix made of dried and ground thyme, oregano and marjoram, with toasted sesame seeds and sumac. I served my manakish with some labneh, a yoghurt cheese, made by straining yoghurt to remove most of the whey, producing a thick and sour creamy product, often stored and sold in balls immersed in olive oil. I’ve never eaten manakish or labneh before now, and I loved them both, especially with all of the runny egg yolk, tomatoey sauce and crunchy salad to accompany them. I will definitely reproduce this meal in the future; it has all of the elements for success!

Chicken shawarma pita pocket

chicken shwarma

Pita bread is perhaps the most famous of Arabic breads, possibly because of the childlike delight that engulfs the most cynical of diners upon opening up a seemingly solid circle of flatbread, and finding that it forms a convenient hollow pocket that can be stuffed with all of the ingredients of your dreams. The pita dough is made with wheat flour and a little bit of yeast, unlike many other unleavened flatbreads. The secret to forming the pocket is baking at incredibly high temperatures, which makes the dough expand quickly, puffing up into a steam-filled sphere. Once cooled, the bread returns to looking flat, but the middle remains hollow and separate. It’s actually one of the easier breads to make at home, and conveniently only needs to be proofed for about 15 minutes, which is convenient if, like me, your patience for hot fresh bread is severely limited. Pita can be eaten by itself, or as a vehicle for dips, or made into sandwiches by filling the pockets. I filled my pita pocket with a version of shawarma, which is a meat preparation where pieces of lamb, beef or poultry are stacked on a rotisserie and cooked, while servings are shaved off the outside as demand requires. Shawarma, literally meaning “turning”, is among the most popular street foods in the world, and is thought to originally derive from a similar Turkish preparation that morphed into the diner kebab.  I don’t have a rotisserie hanging around, but I roasted some chicken with some of the same spices used in shawarma and cut it into small pieces. Along with the chicken, I stuffed my pita pockets with lettuce, tomato, onion, and a garlic, yoghurt and tahini sauce. I remember requesting chicken shawarma pita pockets as a 7 year old as my fast food of choice, even when Macdonald’s was an available alternative, and my love of the combination hasn’t been dulled by the years – the juicy meat and crunchy fresh salad encased in the convenient warm sleeping bag of carbs is difficult to resist.