Cuisine of the Levant in History and Today

Article excerpt

Sonia Uvezian remembers a time when her family picked vegetables from their own garden at a vacation home in rural Lebanon. They would bring in fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, bursting with flavor, and make salads and other traditional dishes.

The author shares those dishes with English-language readers in "Recipes and Remembrances from an Eastern Mediterranean Kitchen," a 400-page book with as much Middle Eastern history, both personal and cultural, as recipes.

To test-drive the book, I chose two simple recipes, unlike the more traditional dishes that focus on quantity and complexity.

The mixed vegetable salad with lemon dressing turned out tasty, with tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers. The Lebanese tomato omelet with cheese was likewise delish, if lacking in zing.

To make the frittata-like omelet, saute chopped scallions in a heavy skillet. Arrange tomato slices over the onions and simmer for 10 minutes. Sprinkle grated cheese and chopped basil or spearmint over the tomatoes. Pour beaten eggs over and cook until set. Then broil until the top of the eggs are browned.

The dish was clearly the choice of an American cook. Our culinary philosophy is get home, chop, cook, eat and be in front of the television by 8 p.m. The omelet alone might have allowed such a plan, but the salad lengthened the "chop" phase of the equation, pushing back the "cook" and "eat" phases. No "Friends" for me.

But that's just what the author is suggesting. In her cookbook, she harkens back to an earlier time in Middle Eastern history. Many of her recipes are updates of ancient dishes that emphasize time and exotic ingredients over efficient, one-serve modern meals.

Take the Mlukhiyya with Chicken, for example. Mlukhiyya is a plant whose green leaves have a sorrel or spinach-like flavor. In this recipe, which serves six, the leaves are simmered in chicken stock, which the author instructs should be homemade. They are served with a garlic and coriander mixture, also homemade; the meat from the chicken stock recipe (which takes an hour to make); marinated onions; rice; and toasted pita bread.

The first portion of the book is devoted to the culinary history of what are now known as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The author's narrative is instructive, discussing cultural background, climate and produce of the region. The first chapter is dominated by lists -types of food people during various eras ate and what the different social classes ate. It's highlighted by excerpts from writings by Arab authors and European visitors to the eastern Mediterranean. These anecdotes and meditations on food are sprinkled - much like a good spice - throughout the book.

"`Lies and spices are siblings. A lie can change even the blandest occurrence into a piquant dish. The truth and nothing but the truth is something only a judge wants to hear. But just like spices, lies should be used solely to add a little flavor. `Not too little, not too much,' thought Salim, `that's how they're best savored. …