In a conversation with one of our Syrian chefs Yusuf, during my first time volunteering in our chef training classes, we were talking about the components in the famous, Middle Eastern dish ‘Baba Gonoush’. He listed the ingredients, ‘aubergines, garlic, tahini…’. Then, from across the table, another chef overhearing our conversation corrected his list and assured him that the dish was from Yemen, and insisted it includes coriander and cumin. This friendly dispute points to the fact that you can enjoy variations of Baba Ganoush, as a national dish, from Iraq, Armenia, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Turkey. Likewise, the history of the falafel is also controversial. Some speculate it was invented in Egypt around 1000 years ago, which then migrated northwards to Persia whilst others propose it originated with the Arabs or Turks. These overlapping origins and slight variations on the same dishes, demonstrate the shared traditions of food across the Middle East and beyond.
The Middle East is made up of ‘The Levant’, which includes modern-day Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine. However, many of these foods spread far beyond ‘The Levant’ and are staple dishes throughout the rest of the Middle East which is made up of 22 countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And these are not exceptions, lovers of Middle Eastern cuisine will know that hummus, tabbouleh, halloumi and fattoush, although often with minor but crucial differences in preparation, can be enjoyed all over this huge area – which is almost twice the size of Europe. But why is this? This conversation led me to find out a little about why the chefs from two countries so geographically distant from each other both believed the baba ganoush to originate in their country.
The origins of Middle Eastern food and the shared traditions of spices, preparation and dishes can be traced back to as far as 1500BC, and is a reflection of the area’s history. The Middle East, also known as the fertile crescent, sits at a geographic crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe; a conduit between ancient Empires. The area with rich and fertile lands, sustained by three rivers, the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates, was one of the first to develop agriculture. At this crossroads the original rich flavours of coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, garlic and saffron mixed with European and Asian influences as the intercultural exchange gave birth to a huge range of food rich in flavour and ingredients.
These dishes were then distributed widely along trade routes between Assyria (northern Iraq) in the north and Egypt in the south, a process consolidated by the rise of Islam and the Persian Empire. This can be seen in the Middle Eastern spice ‘Baharat’ which contains spices including coriander, black pepper, paprika and cardamom, components drawn from across the geographical region. This spread of knowledge and dishes also reveals why there are local variations in the same dishes, as each region adapted the dish to fit their own access to ingredients and local influences. For example, take the famous middle eastern desert called ‘Kanafeh’, which is said to originate in the Palestinian city of Neblus in the 10th century, it is a sweet, syrupy desert pastry filled with cheese, popular especially in Lebanon and Syria. However, move across to Turkey and this pastry takes a different form and is topped with pistachios and walnuts.
This historic fluidity of exchange and culture across this region is also visible in the similarity of food names across the Middle East and at-home hospitality. Hosting traditions were drawn from the harshness of the geographical location surrounded by the desert, which meant that when you saw someone approaching from the horizon, your first instinct was to offer the exhausted traveller water and sustenance – an exchange of kindness which you still see today, as the more you eat the more you honour your host. This whole culture of food is hugely traditional to the region, rather than one specific culture or nationality. So in spite of recent history, with the involvement of the European imperialists who violently and ignorantly divided up the Middle East into smaller countries they could dominate and exploit, these culinary traditions have prevailed and remained intrinsic to the national identity of each country.
So, it is easy to understand why, when asking about the origins of baba ganoush and the falafel, it is unlikely you will ever get the same response twice, as these recipes, flavours and dishes are integral to the national identity of each country across the Middle East. The food culture also shows that these countries still share and are connected through these culinary traditions, exposing that modern borders impose a historically unnatural rigid divide between areas. This highlights the importance of food as a tool to unite and bring people together. Considering the recent history of the Middle East as an unstable and divided national and international war ground, food is a hugely important and visible tool to help remember the shared and collective history of this vast area.
Blog post written by Kirsty McKenzie (who completed a 3 month internship with Migrateful in 2019)
Photos by Federico Rivas