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Superior Culinary Travelogue from an expert.
on December 12, 2006
`Arabesque' by the distinguished Egypto-English culinary journalist, Claudia Roden is a culinary travelogue that, according to the subtitle, gives us `A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon'. Ms. Roden states that the choice of these three cuisines was based on the fact that in each of the three countries, there has been something of a Renaissance of ancient culinary traditions and techniques, backed up by the fact that the culinary traditions of all three centers of Arab culture were outstanding to begin with, going back to the eighth century for Morocco and Lebanon and to the even more distinguished background of the Ottoman Turkish cuisines, both original and borrowed from the earlier Persian traditions.
There is no question that these three geographical centers are tied together by their Moslem heritage; however it may be just a bit of a stretch to consider them all to be based on Arab traditions, as Morocco had a strong native Berber influence, as well as more recent French influences and the Turks were, I believe not really Arab. But I will not quibble, as Arab influences, especially in their traditions of hospitality show up in all three culinary histories.
It is important to take Ms. Roden's subtitle seriously in that this book is more of a taste than it is a `full course meal'. This book is much more like the `culinary travelogue' books `Hot Sour Salty Sweet' and `Mangoes and Curry Leaves' of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid than it is like Roden's earlier works, `The Food of Italy' and `The New Book of Middle Eastern Food'. It is also certainly not like Paula Wolfert's excellent books of culinary anthropology such as `Couscous' and `The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean'.
And, this is not a book for the amateur tourist. I constantly run into obscure words or notions that are not explained, since the author seems to believe that we are revisiting some old haunts. If you have read your Wolfert and the earlier Roden books, you will know that `medina' is an Arab market and that souk is a center for spice dealers. If you are a hiker or camper, you will probably also know that a Primus stove is a light small single burner device which burns white gas. Oddly, I really sort of enjoyed being treated like a fellow insider for whom Ms. Roden didn't have to explain every little detail. Madame C. was much more interested in giving us a personal tour of her recent first hand experiences in Fez, Beirut, and Istanbul.
Consistent with the travelogue theme, the culinary explorations simply do not go very deep. While we are treated to three different methods for making the Moroccan specialty, salt preserved lemons, no time at all is spent on the details of making couscous or warka, the pastry used to make the other Moroccan national dish, bstilla. All recipes are made with pre-cooked couscous or commercially available fillo dough respectively. Ms. Roden doesn't even spend much time on cooking with a tagine. It turns out my suspicion about this cooking device was correct. It is simply too small, typically, to do a dish in a restaurant or for entertaining more than four people at a time. All tagine recipes are simply done as braises in much the same way that the French would do it in a low, broad braising dish or Dutch Oven.
Ms. Roden makes no excuse for the fact that many of the recipes in this book have appeared in her earlier books, and many of the recipes such as hummus, tabbouleh, shish kebabs, and pilafs may seem to be old hat to lovers of Middle Eastern cuisines. But Ms. Roden's new bottle cures much ennui.
If someone needed one strong reason to buy this book, it would be the wealth of recipes for lamb. They far outnumber the poultry and beef recipes, and it should be no surprise that there are no pork recipes to be found, as the Arabs share with the Jews a prohibition against eating pig. What's even better, most of the recipes use the less expensive, but more flavorful shoulder meat rather than the leg of lamb. Here is where a good relationship with your butcher will reward you. As someone who has wrestled with a bone-in lamb shoulder, I assure you that having your butcher fillet the shoulder (after he measures the bone in weight on which the price is computed) is far more satisfying than doing it yourself.
Of the three countries, Morocco gets the largest amount of space and recipes, followed by Turkey and Lebanon. This is fine, since there is far more overlap of ingredients and technique between Turkey and Lebanon than there is with Morocco. You will find no yogurt and little spinach or eggplant in Moroccan dishes. It is not surprising to find olives and olive oil in common between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. What may be surprising is the universality of lemons. If you notion of Mediterranean cooking is heavily flavored by France and Italy, one can easily discount the importance of lemons. But, a quick overview of both Greece and the lands of the Madgreb (North Africa) reveal that this is almost as important as olive oil (I wonder if this is due to the prohibition against wine, and therefore the lesser access to vinegar?).
The book shares with those of Alford and Duguid a distinct charm based on a true love of these lands. Ms. Roden improves on Alford and Duguid in that the volume is less expensive and less ponderous on the gut as you read it late at night.
Needless to say, publisher Knopf has done the usually excellent job in designing the book. This is a great read and introduction to these cuisines.