FOOD OF THE DESERT
Many of the finest dishes in Arab heritage are as ancient as the land that provide the produce. Arab poets were instrumental in telling us about the lavish banquets during the Middle Ages. From here it was noted that the Arab table evolved from an extraordinary culinary pool; part developed from the eastern, western, and inland traditions of the Peninsular Arabs themselves. For centuries Bedouin clung to the food of the desert and the oasis: milk, dates and meat. But when the Silk Road opened trade channels with South-East Asia, rice became an equally important stable in the diet of the region. A Bedouin always had milk — milk from his camels, drunk fresh, or milk from his goats, made into buttermilk and curds. He always had dates, abundant in the surrounding forests of palm trees. If he was a wealthy merchant he would also have rice, some flour, and even coffee. Should a visitor arrive, the Bedouin host is obliged to provide a banquet in honour of his guest. And a classic Arab feast includes trays heaped high with rice, succulent mutton, and flat rounds of freshly baked bread. In the homes of the most ancient Bedouin town of Najd, the feast would most likely be a kharuf mahshi: baby lamb stuffed with rice, nuts and raisins, rubbed outside with marinate and browned all over in bubbling butter, before roasting. And just as the Lebanese and Turks have their burghul, and North Africans have couscous, the Saudi Arabs have Jarish. The small wheat kernels, soaked, dried and crushed, are devoured in Najd and the eastern provinces as a rice substitute.
But, the common denominator of the Arab table is khubz Al Arabi. Depending on where you are it is known by many different names: aysh, khubz, ruqaq, and dibs. However, the best bread is usually made in charcoal-fired village ovens - hollow ready for stuffing, and soft and chewy, good for absorbing sauces. In the east of Saudi Arabia one could also find a speciality known as tamis. It is bigger, flatter, crustier, and punched with holes. While in the west of the country, shurayk which is golden, very light and soft, is more likely eaten. Ruqaq is a Ramadan speciality because it is time consuming to make. Starting with a ball of dough on one corner of a flat iron griddle, the cook works it all across the surface with fast little sweeps of the heel of the hand - a procedure requiring speed and skill for the bread, if properly made, should be the thickness of a tissue paper. Quickly, as the bread heats through, the cook checks over the surface, picking off any lumps that might mar the complexion of the finished sheet. Then, working fast, she loosens the crusty edges with a knife and turns the golden sheet free with a flip. The bread is crisp and fragile when cooled, but while hot it is soft and easily folded. Small portions of hot ruqaq are sometimes made into little filled packets. Alternatively, it could also be used like sheets of lasagna; layered between helpings of cooked ground meat before soaked with thin soup and baked in an oven. Then there is mutabbaq, a filled, hot savory more likely to be made by a housewife in Hijaz, where it originated. Unlike samosa it has several layers of tissue-thin pastry, all folded around a filling of ground meat, chopped onions, garlic, parsley and beaten eggs. In the end, there might be slight cultural variations in Arab heritage, here and there, but one thing remains constant. Genuine, authentic Arabic food relate the story of family life where the preparation, the cooking and the eating almost always involve an intense social get together.