Monday, January 27, 2014

The Delightful Similitude Connecting Indian and Middle Eastern Cuisine

Like Indian cuisine, Middle Eastern cuisine encompasses all the distinct flavors of different cultures and influences to which it has been exposed since ancient times. The culinary traditions of both the regions are a reflection of their rich cultural heritage. Being an Indian but settled in Kuwait for the last 7years, I have the opportunity to sample a wide variety of Middle Eastern cuisine. So, I’m writing this article to share with you my discoveries of Middle Eastern food, some of which is quite similar to Indian food.
Food is an influencing factor that binds countries and cultures together. Centuries of trade relations and cultural exchange resulted in a significant influence on each region's cuisines. Middle Eastern cuisine or West Asian cuisine is the cuisine of the various countries and peoples of the Middle East. The cuisine of the region is diverse while having a degree of homogeneity. The cuisine of India is characterized by sophisticated and subtle use of various spices, herbs and other vegetables grown in India. India's religious beliefs and culture have played an influential role in the evolution of its cuisine. However, India's cuisine also evolved with the subcontinent's cross-cultural interactions with the neighboring Middle East and Central Asia as well as the Mediterranean, making it a unique blend of various cuisines from across Asia.
The Gulf States have a similar cuisine due to the shared geography and history. Indian spices are widely used, due to the impact of the ancient traders who traveled from India carrying the spices through the Gulf States on their way to the Mediterranean states.
There is a strong emphasis on the following items in Arab/ Middle Eastern cuisine:
• Meat: lamb and chicken are the most used, with beef, goat, and camel used to a lesser degree. Other poultry is used in some regions, and fish is used in coastal areas. Pork is completely prohibited—for Muslim Arabs, being both a cultural taboo and prohibited under Islamic law; many Christian Arabs do eat and enjoy pork products, especially in Lebanon, where cold cuts of ham are frequently consumed in Christian neighbourhoods.
• Dairy products: dairy products are widely used, especially yogurt and white cheese. Butter and cream are also used extensively.
• Herbs and spices: mint and thyme (often in a mix called za'atar) are widely and almost universally used; spices are used much less than in Indian cuisine, but the amount and types generally varies from region to region. Some of the included herbs and spices are sesame, saffron, turmeric, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, and sumac. Spice mixtures include baharat.
• Beverages: hot beverages are used more than cold, coffee being on the top of the list, mostly in the Arab States of the Arabic Gulf. However, tea is also served in many Arab countries. In Egypt and Jordan, for instance, tea is a more important hot beverage than coffee.
• Grains: rice is the staple and is used for most dishes; wheat is the main source for bread. Bulgur and semolina are also used extensively.
• Legumes: lentils are widely used as well as fava beans and chickpeas (garbanzo beans).
• Fruits and vegetables: Arabic cuisine also favors vegetables such as cucumbers, eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgette), okra, onions, and fruits (primarily citrus), which are often used as seasonings for entrees. Olives as well as dates, figs, and pomegranates are also widely used. Dates are a particularly important staple in the Arab diet, often eaten with coffee.
• Nuts: almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts are often included.
• Greens: parsley and mint are popular as seasonings in many dishes, while spinach and mulukhiyah (leaves of plants of the Corchorus genus) are used in cooked dishes.
• Dressings and sauces: the most popular dressings include various combinations of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, and/or garlic, and tahini (sesame paste). Labaneh (thinned yogurt) is often seasoned with mint, onion, or garlic, and served as a sauce with various dishes.
Notably, many of the same spices used in Arab/Middle Eastern cuisine are also those emphasized in Indian cuisine. This is a result of heavy trading and historical ties between the two regions, and also because many South Asian expats live in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf.
Some of the basic similarities are the extensive use of olive oil, za'atar, and garlic, and common dishes include a wide array of mezze or bread dips, stuffings, and side dishes such as hummus, falafel, ful, tabouleh, labaneh, and baba ghanoush. It also includes copious amounts of garlic and olive oil, often seasoned with lemon juice — almost no meal goes by without including these ingredients. Most often foods are either grilled, baked, fried, or sautéed in olive oil; butter and cream are rarely used, other than in a few desserts. Vegetables are often eaten raw or pickled, as well as cooked. While the cuisine doesn't boast a multitude of sauces, it focuses on herbs, spices, and the freshness of ingredients.
Prominent among the meat preparations are grilled meats, or kebabs. Kebab also called kebap and kabob is a traditional dish of sliced meat originating in the Middle East and is equally liked and enjoyed in India. There are a wide variety of these grills, with many regional specialties and styles. The most common are the cubed cuts on skewers, known as shish kebab in most places. Chicken may also be grilled in the same fashion. Another common variety is kofta kebab, made from ground meat, sometimes mixed with onions and spices, shaped around the skewer like a long sausage and grilled. Kebabs are typically a street or restaurant food, served with bread, salad, and pickles. It is not usually prepared in domestic kitchens. In the Middle East, however, kebab refers to meat that is cooked over or next to flames; large or small cuts of meat, or even ground meat; it may be served on plates, in sandwiches, or in bowls. The traditional meat for kebab is lamb, but depending on local tastes and religious prohibitions, other meats may include beef, goat, chicken or pork. Kebabs in India are more or less similar to most other kebab preparations along with their distinct taste which can be credited to the spices native to the Indian subcontinent. Shish Taouk, the dish originates from the Middle East, namely Lebanese and Syrian cuisine. It consists of cubes of chicken that are marinated, then skewered and grilled. Common marinades are based upon yogurt and lemon juice or tomato puree, though there are many variations. Though originated in the Midddle East, but is made in kabab houses in many cities around the world including Indian cities. Tikka is of the same variety but is of Indian origin; is made of chicken cutlets in a marinade. The marinade used in the preparation of chicken tikka is made from a mixture of aromatic spices and yogurt. Paneer prepared in a tandoor is also known as paneer tikka. The Indian pulao is elevated by our mastery of spices. While the Middle East throws badam, kaju and kishmish into everything, our chefs use our spices to create more sophisticated flavours. So it is with kababs. The tawa kababs of Lucknowi cuisine depend on the sort of subtle spicing which is still alien to the Middle East. Modern-day kababs in India come out of the tandoor rather than the open fires of the Middle East. And our kind of biryani is totally unknown in the kaju-kishmish world of Arab cookery. The best way to look at the food of the Middle East is to see it as a very rough first draft of the cuisine of North India. When Arab traders brought these dishes to India, we grabbed them, applied our sophisticated cooking skills to them and elevated them to the haute cuisine classics that they now are. Jalebi is another item; you find it all over the region under different, but similar, names. Our version differs from the Middle East original in that it tends to be thinner, crisper and less sweet. We don’t use yeast which they tend to do in the Middle East. We often use other kinds of batter apart from maida (besan, rava, urad dal, or rice flour) either for binding or as part of the recipe. We are less dependent on honey and rose water (though we may use both) than the Turks. And our jalebis are not as sweet. But there is still nothing to beat the original jalebi, fried in much the same way as it has been for hundreds of years all over India. Its sophistication, texture and colour remind us of how quickly Indians can take dishes from other parts of the world and make them our own. Our ancestors instantly transformed the Middle Eastern zalabiya into something much more refined. And as their descendants, we have kept that tradition alive. Middle Eastern desserts are so sickly sweet that they make Bengali mithai seem teekha in comparison.
Halva or halawa or halvah or halava refers to many types of dense, sweet confections, served across the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, West Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Balkans, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Malta and the Jewish world. The term halva meaning "desserts" or "sweet", is used to describe two types of desserts:
• Flour-based – This type of halva is slightly gelatinous and made from grain flour, typically semolina. The primary ingredients are clarified butter, flour, and sugar.
• Nut-butter-based – This type of halva is crumbly and usually made from tahini (sesame paste) or other nut butters, such as sunflower seed butter. The primary ingredients are nut butter and sugar.
Halva may also be based on numerous other ingredients, including sunflower seeds, various nuts, beans, lentils, and vegetables such as carrots, pumpkins, yams and squashes. Halva can be kept at room temperature with little risk of spoilage. However, during hot summer months, it is better kept refrigerated, as it can turn runny after several days. This variety of halva, produced and served in India and surrounding countries (different versions of it are also found in Middle East ) is usually made with wheat semolina, sugar or honey, and butter or vegetable oil. Raisins, dates, other dried fruits, or nuts such as almonds or walnuts, are often added to semolina halva. In Bahrain, the most popular form of halva is a jelly-styled sweet also known as halwa Bahraini in neighboring countries. And it is not like the halva that in most countries is based on sesame paste and in Kuwait called rahash. Various types of halva from India are distinguished by the region and the ingredients from which they are prepared. The most famous include sooji (or suji) halva (semolina), aate ka halva (wheat), moong dal ka halva (mung bean halva), gajar halva(carrot), dudhi halva, chana daal halwa (chickpeas), and Satyanarayan halwa (variation of suji halwa, with the addition of detectable traces of banana), and kaju halva (cashew nut). Kashi halva, made from winter melon or ash gourd, is a famous and traditional sweet of Karnataka, and mainly makes a regular appearance in traditional Brahmin weddings.In the Indian state of Kerala, halva is known as haluva or aluva. Kozhikode (anglicized as Calicut) in Kerala, is famous for its unique and exotic halva, which is popularly known as Kozhikodan Halva. Significant Arab and Middle Eastern influence in this region, through ancient trade routes via the Arabian Sea and through Arab traders who settled here, contributed to the evolution of Kozhikodan Halva. Halawa in Kuwait is typically the sesame or tahini-based form, which can be flavoured in various ways, and may include pistachios, almonds or chocolate. A large quantity of halva is exported from Lebanon throughout the world.
The world is a small place and it is proved again and again that whichever corner of the earth you visit, you are sure to find some similarity in the food items.

(Published in IIK Republic Day Spcl )

No comments: