For a thousand years, Arab cuisine changed very little. Today, there’s a revolution going on in Arabian cooking and food and travel writer, Habeeb Salloum, who specializes in Arab food and culture, has captured it in his new cookbook, The Arabian Nights Cookbook: From Lamb Kebabs to Baba Ghanouj, Delicious Homestyle Arabian Cooking
Until very recently, the Arabian diet was fish- or meat-based with rice and spices (depending on whether you lived on the coast or in the desert). In the 1980’s with the oil boom in the Middle East, a rapid and dramatic culinary revolution began. Suddenly, there was money for fruits and vegetables from less arid regions. The influx of cash made it possible to irrigate the arid land and grow crops that had previously been unthinkable in this desert region. With oil came thousands of foreign workers, each bringing foods from their own cultures. The result is a whole new exciting Arabian cuisine that combines traditional Arab foods and cooking techniques with cuisines and ingredients from around the world.
It’s this new Arabian cuisine that caught the attention of Salloum, who traveled extensively throughout the Arabian Gulf region, eating in restaurants and private homes and recreating many of the best dishes in The Arabian Nights Cookbook. Salloum includes and adapts recipes for traditional Arab dishes like whole roasted lamb (Kharouf Mihshee) into manageable recipes for the home cook. He also includes recipes for “new” Arab foods such as sweet bread pudding (Aysh as – Saraaya) from Egypt, Syria, or Lebanon and Tabbouleh Salad from Lebanon, recipes unheard of in the Arabian Gulf before the 20th century.
Salloum takes readers on a journey into this mysterious and little known culinary world with an expert and steady hand. He begins the trip with an informative section on Useful Tools and Implements and how to use them (who knew you could buy a falafel mold for shaping falafel patties or that there’s a corer to hollow out zucchini for stuffing?). Another educational section is the one on Essential Arabian Ingredients, which demystifies the use of spices like allspice and cardamom, spice blends like baharat (caradamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, paprika, and pepper) and Za’tar (a spice blend based on the tart sumac fruit), and ingredients little known outside the Middle East like pomegranate syrup and orange blossom water. It’s all essential education for cooks unfamiliar to new Arabian cooking and Salloum as teacher makes it understandable and accessible.
The author offers a chapter on Basic Arabian Recipes from homemade yogurt and Saudi white rice, to garlic sauce and orange blossom syrup. Then it’s onto the real “guts” of the book starting with appetizers and snacks such as hummus, chickpea fritters, deviled eggs, and crispy sesame seed sticks. Next come salads, a relatively new food to this once completely arid region. He offers delicious recipes such as creamy cucumber and bell pepper salad, tomato and fresh coriander salad, spicy eggplant salad, and warm and spicy potato salad.
However, it’s the soup section where I really o swoon. Spiced Lentil Soup with Lemon, Creamy Tomato and Chickpea Soup, Noodle Soup with Lamb and Spinach and more temp readers with soups that are both beautiful to look at and delicious to eat.
Thanks to photograpaher Suan I. Lim’s skillful work, nearly every recipe is lusciously illustrated. She literally made me want to leap off the couch and begin cooking the moment I opened The Arabian Nights Cookbook.
The author divides the entrée sections into Chicken Dishes, Seafood and Fried Dishes, Meat Dishes, and Vegetarian Dishes. Each recipe is beautifully photographed and, like he does throughout the book, Salloum introduces each dish with a paragraph or two explaining the history, the ingredients, or techniques to successfully make the recipe. Every dish also includes the number of servings, prep time, marinade time, and cooking time, all helpful in meal planning. Throughout all the chapters, Salloum offers helpful tips such as “How to Pulverize Caradamom Seeds” and sidebars such as “Arab Coffee Demystified.”
The Arabian Nights Cookbook ends with a chapter on desserts such as Sweet Date Pudding, Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cardamom Shortbreads, and Saudi-Style Crepes filled with Sweetened Almonds. The final chapter includes recipes for drinks – Cardamom-Spiced Hot Milk, Iced Yogurt Drink with Fresh Mint, Real Arab Coffee Made Just Right, and more.
Salloum’s easy-to-read, practical Arabian recipes adapted for the home cook, beautiful photographs of the dishes, and informative introductions and tips combine to make The Arabian Nights Cookbook accessible and exciting for cooks looking for out-of-the-ordinary cuisine. Salloum has another winner and The Arabian Nights Cookbook is a cookbook that has earned an honored place on my kitchen bookshelf. — BH