Food for thought – a taste of the Arab Kitchen

Updated: Mar 9

Dr Jehad Al-Omari


I must admit that my favourite subject after History is Food. It is an obsession. Prior to relocating to Jordan from London in 2004, the one thing I worried about most was the lack of international cuisine in Amman. After all, when you have lived in the UK, especially London, you are truly spoilt for choice. Living in Wimbledon for a considerable period of time, I could find good quality Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Italian or Thai food in my immediate neighbourhood. If I ventured to the West End, just 30 minutes away on the Underground, I could sample other cuisines - Iranian, Indonesian, Mongolian or even fusion dishes. As an Arab, I sometimes used to go to Edgware Road to gorge myself on Arab food from the many Arab Restaurants which have made Edgware Road a truly Arab road since the 1980s. “Arab Road”? Yes, because apart from restaurants, the street and side streets are filled with Arab cafés, Arab supermarkets and Arab newsagents.


Why did the Arabs colonise Edgware Road? Maybe because it was near Hyde Park Corner when, in the 1970s and early 1980s, it was the only place Arabs could hear political debate openly and freely. It could also be that it is near many good five-star hotels that were filled with rich Arabs from 1974 onwards, following the Arab Oil Embargo and the rise in oil prices. These two reasons could have been why a Jordanian entrepreneur opened the first Arab restaurant in London, called Petra, in 1975. I remember as a teenager my father taking me to this restaurant after two months of bland English food at King’s College’s canteen. It was as if I was entering heaven. I was so hungry that I even ate okra, a traditional ingredient of many Arab dishes and one which I found disgusting at the time but now love.


Most Europeans can be excused for assuming that Lebanese food is representative of Arab food or, rather, that it is the main Arab cuisine. There is logic in this view; it was the Lebanese who took the initiative to open restaurants outside the region, just as the Bengalis did with Indian food. Strictly speaking, the Lebanese kitchen is a toned-down version of the otherwise very Levantine kitchen of the Eastern Mediterranean and in that region, it is the Aleppo kitchen that wins every time. Forget the Hummus and the Falafel, the Shawarma (Doner Kebab) and the Grills, and the Baklava and Kunafah which every Levantine kitchen has. Dig deeper and you will find that the Aleppo kitchen is the master at blending tastes. Think of cherries and meat and you get my drift. There is a good reason for the supremacy of the Aleppo kitchen. Aleppo is in the north of present-day Syria, in the centre of a rich agricultural region, and, historically, towards the end of the Silk Road from China to Europe. It might come as a surprise to British readers but the Levant Company was established in the reign of Queen Elizabeth in 1592, 6 years earlier than the East Indies Company. The former was headquartered in Aleppo precisely because of its rich trading history. In fact, the Levant Company had the final say in who got appointed as British Ambassador to the Ottaman court in Constantinople, proof of its strategic importance to British trade and interests at the time.


Although Mosul is today part of Iraq, the Mosuli kitchen is very much associated with the Aleppo kitchen and they are indeed similar. The reasons are both geographic and historical. Both cities are at the northern frontier of what is now called the Arab world. They have multicultural populations with strong Turkish and Armenian influences, not to mention the Persian and Kurdish influences to be found particularly in Mosul.


Another Arab cuisine that stands out and is fundamentally different in many respects from the Aleppo kitchen is that of Morocco. The country lies at the far western border of the Arab world. Moroccan kitchen is greatly influenced by European, especially Andalusian, cuisine and that of west Africa. Finally, there is the rich Yemeni kitchen in the deep south-east with its Indian and east African influences. Whereas the poorest Arab cuisine, despite its long history, is the Egyptian kitchen.


As an Arab living in London, there was a time in the 1970s where it was difficult to get hold of Arab bread, never mind other ingredients, especially those vegetables, grains and fruit so central to Arab cuisine. Finding okra, aubergines or pomegranates in supermarkets was an event to be celebrated. But now, even leading supermarket chains compete in their recipes for Hummus or Couscous. What attracts many westerners to Arab cuisine, particularly the Levantine. is the rich mixture of vegetarian dishes. There is a reason for this emphasis on vegetarian food. The Levant, being the birthplace of Christianity, was for many centuries before and after the advent of Islam still a predominantly Christian land. Vegetarian dishes were a religious necessity during the 40 days of the Lenten fast. This practice of fasting is still observed among Christian Arabs and equally observed by their fellow Muslims. During the month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from eating or drinking during daylight, it is not unusual to find Christians distributing water and dates at traffic lights for Muslim drivers and passengers rushing home to break their fast.


Now that I am settled in Jordan, people often ask me what I miss most about Britain, and I would say that London’s international cuisine is one of the five things I really miss. The others? My UK-based friends, walks in the countryside, theatre and shopping. I still find it difficult to find truly authentic international food in Amman. This has forced me to take up cooking. But finding the ingredients for, say, Chinese, Thai or Mexican dishes is difficult. Only a few days ago I tried to find Cayenne pepper in several shops but in vain. It is not that Jordanians do not enjoy international cuisine, it’s just that we still have a long way to go in developing our palate to accept certain tastes. This is not to say that Jordan does not have a rich cuisine of its own. It does. The most famous dish is the one pictured at the top of this article: Mansaf - lamb cooked in a kind of sour yogurt sauce called Jameed (see image below), served on a bed of rice and sprinkled with almonds, pine kernels and parsley. Another well-loved dish is Macmoora, most popular in the north of Jordan. It is often cooked during the autumn when the olives are harvested, producing fresh olive oil*. It is composed of meat or chicken between thin layers of dough, and onions soaked with olive oil, all roasted in the oven. A favourite of mine is Akoob عكوب, a type of thistle plant that is otherwise known as Gundelia. It has a taste very much like wild asparagus cooked with or without minced lamb and sometimes with yoghurt.


We Jordanians may be slow to adopt cuisines from outside the Arab world but we are willing to accept new tastes. For example, we have recently started to eat fish in a big way. This despite living in an almost land-locked country with only a very narrow opening to the Red Sea at the port of Aqaba.


Bon appétit or Sahtain صحتين everyone


*Jordan is believed to have the oldest olive trees in the world, some more than 3,000 years old.

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