Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Middle East

The Middle East is an area rich in culture and history. A few of the countries in the region are Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Territories. Geography includes mountains, deserts, fertile plains and seacoasts. The oil industry and modernization have led to increases in population and movement from rural to urban areas.

The Middle East is the birthplace of agriculture, alphabets, civilization, and the major monotheistic religions. Most came out of Ancient Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Components of the Ancient Mesopotamian diet included grains and leavened breads, alcohol, animal products, and vegetables and fruits. Dates were especially important as seen in careful bookkeeping accounts found in ancient writing. Most foods were permissible, and specific prohibitions came as religions developed.

Religion plays an important role in the region, and the majority of individuals in the area practice Islam. Food is viewed as a gift from God in Islam and is characterized as halal (acceptable) or haram (forbidden). The Islamic year is marked with periods of fasting and feasting. Modern day foods include flatbreads and grains. Spices play an important role as well as vegetables (eggplant the most distinctive) and pulses (fava beans and chickpeas).

Geography and religion influenced Middle Eastern cuisine. Foods and recipes from the State of Israel, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Lebanon share commonalities with Greek and African cuisine evident by the incorporation of baklava, moussaka, and couscous. Tropical summers and mild winters promote cultivation of pomelos, apricots, beets, legumes, and chives which are among the plentiful fruits and vegetables that characterize the majority of Middle Eastern dishes. Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish cuisine differs in ingredients and flavors due to influences of Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Morocco which created a broad range of tastes among the Middle East. More specifically, within the Jewish religion, dietary laws and restrictions known as kashrut, translated as “kosher” are adhered to and determine which foods are suitable for consumption. These laws vary in detail among conservative and Orthodox Jewish people; however the key restrictions forbid consumption of pork and specific types of seafood. Jewish celebrations also incorporate the kosher dietary restrictions. The Shabbat observed before sundown on Friday and until after nightfall on Saturday and commemorates the redemption of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt as well as God’s creation of the universe is a holy day of rest. Meal preparation for the Shabbat is done in advance and foods prepared for this day such as gefilte fish and challah bread, which can be eaten without violating rules against selecting and choosing. Religious tradition, agriculture, and surrounding countries have provided a substantial amount of influence of Middle Eastern foods.

The Saudi Arabian Kingdom is called "the land of the two holy mosques", a reference to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina. Mecca is the birthplace of Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Saudi makes up most of the Arabian Peninsula and is surrounded by the Red Sea, Gulf of Aqaba, and the Persian Gulf. The western coast is mountainous and the east is mostly desert land, only about 2% is suitable for cultivation. Saudi has abundant reserves for oil and natural gas. The exportation of oil makes up about 75% of the governments revenues. Saudi began commercial agriculture around 1970 and international trade is the main route of food today. Sacrificial slaughter of sheep, goat, or camel is conducted for meals in honor of Islamic feasts, and other special occasions. Older males eat first and then younger men, females eat separately. Traditional staples include; dates, ghee, bread, barley, beans, onions, mint, coriander, cumin, mutton, goat, camel, and fish. Pork and alcohol are forbidden by Islam. Restaurants in the past were looked at as improper, but are now more common and excepted. U.S. food products are considered to be high-quality products by Saudi consumers. The most popular food chains in Saudi Arabia are McDonalds, KFC, and Dominos.

The cuisine of Iran is very diverse, with each province featuring distinct dishes, culinary traditions and styles. Some common dishes in Iran include: kabab (various meats cooked on a skewer); khoresht (a stew served with white Basmati or Persian rice); aash (a thick soup); kookoo (meat and/or vegetable pies); polow (white rice alone or with addition of meat and/or vegetables and herbs). Common themes in Iranian cuisine include: herbs and spices (curry is very important, as are saffron, diced limes, cinnamon, and parsley); various fruits (plums, pomegranates, quince, prunes, apricots, and raisins). Main Persian dishes are generally combinations of rice with meat, chicken or fish, as well as garlic, onion, vegetables, nuts, and herbs.

Iraqi cuisine has many roots, including tent cookery. Nomadic tribes could use only transportable foods such as bread and dates, or ambulatory stock like sheep and camels in their recipes. The cuisine has also been influenced by ancient civilizations, such as the Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians (who were in turn influenced by Greek and Persian cuisines). Muslims from Africa, India, China, Indonesia also gave Iraq new varieties to its food. Ottoman rule of Iraq brought influences of Turkish cuisine, while trade also brought various Mediterranean flavors. Main components of Iraqi food include wheat, barley, rice, vegetables, eggplant, okra, potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas, lentils, dates (Iraq is one of world’s largest producers of dates), and meats (lamb, beef, fish, poultry). Soups and stews are also key components of Iraqui cuisine.

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