A STROLL DOWN THE HISTORY OF FOOD
Travel+Leisure India|November 2021
For millennia, the Middle East lay at the intersection of cultures and trade routes. Ruled by many empires, its regions and their culinary traditions are at the root of more modernday dishes than you’d think. ANOOTHI VISHAL goes on a gastronomic voyage through history.
ANOOTHI VISHAL

SITTING AT THE CORNICHE in Alexandria, the clear blue of the Mediterranean Sea sprawled in front and the entire hinterland of Nile Valley at your back, the vagaries of history and geography become at once clear. Here is this land that has connected the East and the West since the most ancient of times. Named by Alexander the Great, its famous library destroyed by Caesar, frequented by tradesmen, peopled by Egyptians, Arabs, French, English and many more, this may as well be the centre of the universe—crisscrossed by currents of trade, politics, wars, love affairs, decadence and more. In fact, Alexandria is not just a city, it is a metaphor—for the entire Middle East, of which it is a part.

Some of the best cuisines of the world come about when peoples, cultures, and trades mix, which is why the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region of today offers some unparalleled culinary traditions of the world. Historically, the Middle East has been not just the crucible of civilisation but also the controller of trade and travel between the two hemispheres. Its special position led to the development of diverse cuisines too.

From the ancient stews of the Nabateans, the maritime people who built Petra as well as AlUla, to the simple but fl avourful food of the Arab tribes of the desert, from the food of the Emiratis and the people of the Gulf, who controlled trade with India and south-east Asia, to the infl uential Persian Empire’s offerings, and the sophisticated modern gastronomy of the Ottomans, whose power extended well into the 20th century, every region of the Middle East—often talked about like a single bloc—is unique and deserves rediscovery. Today, of course, metropolises like Dubai boast the best of global cuisines and restaurants. Tourists fl y in specially to sample luxe offerings. But take a voyage through history and you will find a rewarding experience in the form of traditional fl avours and forgotten dishes.

Egypt and the Levantine

In Alexandria, for instance, there are nuanced fl avours at every step—from the delicate crab and clam broths of swish restaurants to street food. The Alexandrian falafel, for one, is regarded as the best in the world. A bite at legendary institutions such as Mohamed Ahmed tells you why. The falafel is a common item of the pan-Arabic mezze, but here it is made with fava beans, a type of broad beans thought to have been a favourite of the ancient Greeks till Pythagoras, the philosopher, decreed that they contained the souls of the dead. Thereafter, they were banned in ancient Greece, but not in ancient Egypt. It is this bean that is soaked, boiled, mashed into a creamy paste, and fashioned into dumplings that are perfectly crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. You could try the falafel anywhere in the world, but you’d mostly find it made of chickpeas, which is not quite the same.

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