Arabic Food and Arab Hospitality

 Aida Hassan

Arabic Food and Arab Hospitality   Arabic food and Arab hospitality can be somewhat of an overwhelming experience to first timers. My advice to anyone invited to a good old-fashioned Arabic meal is simply to wear loose fitting clothes. For, Arabic food is flavorful, diverse, and plentiful, but above all it will be offered to you relentlessly by your hosts. Even when there are no more buttons to unbutton, the offers to eat just a bit more keep coming. Regardless of how well or how little I knew my hosts, I have never been to an Arab home where I have not been kindly coerced into eating above and beyond what I am capable of eating. The very same occurred to guests at my own home when I was growing up. My mother followed the customs of her own mother - to feed your guests before you feed yourself, and to feed them well. My grandmother, I am told, had always stored food away that was to be offered to guests only. Yet this is not unique to my family. Great cooking, variety and abundance of food, and an insistence on good eating is found throughout the Arab world and in most Arab households. It is the Arab way of cooking and traditional hospitality.

Arab Hospitality Defined For Arabs, hospitality lies at the heart of who they are. How well one treats his guests is a direct measurement of what kind of a person she or he is. Hospitality is among the most highly admired of virtues. Indeed, families judge themselves and each other according to the amount of generosity they bestow upon their guests when they entertain. Whether one's guests are relatives, friends, neighbors, or relative strangers, they are welcomed into the home and to the dinner table with much the same kindness and generosity. Arabic meals are more often a festive, warm and casual experience than they are formal. The guests are made to feel right at home, and to sample everything offered. In fact, most Arab hosts feel that they are failing in their role as host if their guests have not only tried all courses of the meal, but have also eaten more than is normally comfortable. The importance of hospitality to guests is something a visitor to an Arab home must understand. For the visitor who does not overeat may be seen by the host as a guest who is not showing proper appreciation. Again, this would cause the cook and/or host to feel that he or she is not fulfilling their duty. A meal is usually ended with the word sahtayn which means two healths to you, and this again emphasizes the importance of plentiful and healthy eating to the Arab people.

Main Ingredients of Arabic Food

Arabic food has a lot of variety and its ingredients are far too many to name here. However, there are certain ingredients that make up many Arabic recipes. Wheat is the staple grain of Arabic cooking and it is used in bread, pastries, salads, and main dishes. Rice is another staple ingredient. In fact, rice is to the Arab what potato is to the Irishman as it is used often in Arabic recipes. It is most often cooked with vegetables, chicken, lamb or beef. Vegetables and beans are also found often in Arabic recipes. Compared to Western cooking, Arabic cooking contains a large variety of vegetables including eggplant, cauliflower, zucchini, and spinach. Beans such as garbanzo and fava beans are used often in dips such as hummus. Olive oil is a favorite as well. The basic dressing used for salads is olive oil, garlic and lemon. Olive oil is also used in bean, yogurt and vegetable sauces and dips. Lamb and mutton are the most common meats used throughout the Arab world. It is common on festive or religious occasions to serve dishes with lamb. For centuries, Arabs have served stuffed lamb on their most special occasions and to their most honored guests. In fact, T.E. Lawrence, known to most as Lawrence of Arabia, described in detail a feast of stuffed lamb in his memoirs Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Finally, most Arabic desserts, which are an important part of Arabic meals, consists of very thin pastries stuffed with dates or nuts, spices and butter and covered in a syrup of honey or sugar. Popular Arabic Dishes Arabic food, it seems, is only just becoming familiar to the Western world, particularly in the United States. Most cities are only recently seeing an increase in restaurants serving Arabic food. However, there are a few Arabic foods that most people have already tried or at least heard of. Hummus, a dip made of garbanzo beans, sesame seed paste, lemon garlic and sometimes olive oil, is already sold at most major deli and grocery stores. Arabic bread, known to most people as pita bread is eaten with most Arabic meals. Falafel, a veggie burger-like food made from chick peas, onion, potato and flour, among other ingredients, is also relatively well known to non-Arabs, as is shawirma which is also called gyros by the Greeks. Shawirma is a sandwich of rotisserie lamb or beef, wrapped in pita bread. Another popular Arabic recipe that can also be found in a deli is taboula which is a finely chopped salad of tomatoes, parsley, fresh mint, and crushed wheat. Stuffed grapevine leaves, called warak dawali, is another relatively well known Arabic food. The Greek version of this recipe is called dolmas. The Arabic recipe contains rice with beef or lamb, and lemon wrapped in grapevine leaves and cooked. Grapevine leaves used in this recipe can be found in speciality food stores. Unusual as this recipe may sound, this dish is especially flavorful. One last Arabic food that is popular to Arabs and non-Arabs alike is the pastry baklawa. No self-respecting host would forget to offer a tray of a variety of pastries to their guests with piping hot Arabic coffee or mint tea. Baklawa, the quintessential Arab pastry, is almost always among the pastries Arabs prefer. Baklawa is made from walnuts or pistachios, cinnamon, and orange blossom wrapped in a thin pastry shell and soaked in syrup. According to one cook book (From the Lands of Figs and Olives), it used to be said that in the Arab East, no young lady would make a good wife unless she could make baklawa dough. Today, that dough or pastry shell used in the recipe can be found in many grocery and speciality stores.

With the variety, robust flavor and exoticness of Arabic cooking, it is a shame that it is still relatively unknown to the majority of people. Good Arabic food, combined with traditional Arab hospitality, can be a wonderful dining experience. (Some information was borrowed from the following three cook books: A Taste of Lebanon, by Mary Salloum; Lebanese Cuisine, by Madelain Farah; and From the Lands of Figs and Olives, by Habeeb Salloum and James Peters which I highly recommend.)