30 Jan 2015

Deconstructing the Theoretical Currents in Middle Eastern* Food

Deconstructing the Theoretical Currents in Middle Eastern* Food

*By which we mean the food of the Levant**, but we said Middle Eastern to draw you in.

**It’s really Lebanese food that we are talking about, but we don’t want to alienate Syrians and Palestinians.

There could be no doubt that Levantine cuisine is the greatest in the world, but few people know that it is the product of centuries of ideological conflict, philosophical debates and conceptual disagreements that have often pitted brother against brother and mother against daughter. Before it crystallised into its current form we all love and enjoy, it went through epochs of internecine struggles that the field of food theory has never witnessed the likes off before or since. Here is the fascinating story of how the beloved tabbouleh acquired its current form and why kibbeh looks like a rugby ball.

Much like any Lebanese meal, it all begins with hummus. If you don’t know what hummus is, it’s a dish made of chickpeas… hang on, if you don’t know what hummus is, what are you doing reading this? At the end of the third millennium BC a revolution in the consumption of chickpeas occurred in Mesopotamia, in the Akkadian empire to be specific. For centuries people were used to eating chickpeas whole, until someone thought to mash them and add some olive oil.

This simple innovation caused huge controversy in Akkadian food circles. Commoners took to the new dish with gusto, and it became very popular in cities like Uruk and Mari. But the aristocracy felt threatened and the clerics in particular despised this attack on the integrity of the spherical chickpea. As the priest Gummar of Ur put it: ‘This barbarous mashing of the perfect chickpea is nothing short of blasphemy’. (From a clay tablet found in Tall Kayf.)

This debate was to rage on for centuries, and the legacy of the anti-hummus camp still survives in the form of the hummus-balila abomination, which is nothing more than chickpeas in a plate with no mashing or chopping involved. But in the triumph of the hummus we see the first serious challenge to the authority of the clerics and the aristocracy in the Middle East. It was to be a victory for commoners against the puritanism and stuffiness of the rulers. (Stuffing food will become a subject of controversy centuries later as we shall see.)
 The hummus-balila abomination

Our second course, if you excuse the pun, is the tabbouleh, the ‘princess of all salads’ as renowned Lebanese al-Nahda thinker Jameel al-Bustani called it. Tabbouleh was crucial to the formation of a new Levantine identity under Ottoman rule, exploiting the Ottomans’ weakness when it came to salads despite their otherwise impeccable culinary achievements. To this day, Turkish salads remain half-hearted attempts at mixing vegetables unconvincingly. But I digress.


The rise of tabbouleh coincided with the rise of fattoush, but this in fact was no coincidence. The two Levantine salads were the products of two different schools of thought that revolved around the philosophical question of how fine one should chop ingredients in a salad. The nationalist modernisers, intent on social and ethnic integration favoured the tabbouleh as a symbol of social cohesion, whereas rationalists preferred a salad like fattoush in which ‘each ingredient retained its identity.’ (An expression still common among Lebanese politicians until today.)

The conflict raged on for centuries and has not been resolved until today. One of the most difficult questions to answer in a Lebanese restaurant is ‘tabbouleh or fattoush?’ Whichever one chooses, the legacy of the historic conflict is always there. Attempts at reconciliation by ordering both are considered bad form.

However, the major food conflict in the 18th century was sparked off by Napoleon’s campaigns in the Levant. The rationalist emperor was incensed by the locals’ way of serving mezzeh dishes haphazardly with no clear order or sequence. As he wrote in one of his letters to his wife: “sometimes the hummus comes first, sometimes the tabbouleh, and one is lost for he does not know what to expect. I miss you very much.” The chaotic way of serving food as it became ready was an affront to the Emperor’s Enlightenment values, and he thought that his attempt to modernise the Levant had to start with altering this non-linear way of serving food.

Napoleon recruited his chief food theorist Vincent Mangetout to wage his battle against the randomness of mezzeh. Mangetout set out to work, writing a pamphlet lambasting this practice and attributing the backwardness of the people of the Levant to this non-sequential way of serving food. “Much like night follows day, it is the natural order of things to have a definite rhythm. The three-course French meal is the purest representation of this rational order, man stamping his authority on the world through reason and discipline.”

The pamphlet enraged locals from Syria to Lebanon to Palestine. Local circles were formed to organise opposition to Napoleon’s draconian reforms, and civic disobedience followed. Extremists took to eating their dessert first but they were criticised for being unnecessarily dramatic. Amidst the turmoil, a group of Lebanese thinkers influenced by European ideas yet keen to emphasise their own identity, found a compromise. The meal would begin with the mezzeh, but then progress to the main course and later fruits and desserts. As a result, people eating Lebanese food to this day still find that they are too full when the main course, usually grilled meat, arrives, but they are too shy to admit it so they try to force down a few morsels.

And much like any decent Levantine meal, we end with the dessert. It is here that the legacy of the different cultures and peoples that have inhabited the Levant come together in a superb display of mastering the art of satisfying the sweet tooth. But even here the field is not without its own history of controversy. The main conflict is between the epicureans and conservative religious puritans who objected on principle to Arab sweetened pastries as ‘the ultimate form of temptation’.

The leading critic of Arab desserts was the scholar al-Maryouffi who saw Arab pastry as a symbol of the decadence of the royal courts and the subsequent decline of Islamic culture. He also waged a war against the ‘unnecessary euphemisms’ implied by the names of desserts such as znoud el sett (the forearms of the lady), which to his mind clearly indicated their role as instruments of temptation, mixing gluttony with sexual desire.
Znoud el Sett

“The way the layers of pastry crush against the cream filling, oozing the rosewater sugar over one’s tongue… is nothing short of a sin. Many a man of weak-faith says ‘this is heavenly’, adding blasphemy to this excess, this temptation should be resisted by every good believer.” Al-Maryouffi said in a famous text on the subject.

Reformers hit back against al-Maryouffi and his rigid interpretation of religion and the strength of human will. The conflict escalated into a full philosophical confrontation that drew in wide circles of scholars and philosophers, and putting the question of dessert at the heart of the theological battle over human will. The continuing popularity of Arab desserts suggests that the majority of people were convinced by the reformers in a definite philosophical victory.

Al-Maryouffi himself was fond of eating those pastries however, and despite his efforts to conceal his secret indulgence he was spotted by people from the other camp who were quick to denounce his hypocrisy in public. Not one to lose an intellectual argument easily he rebutted their attack, arguing that he only ate pastries because they were a good way to strengthen one’s faith by testing it to its limit. He famously said: “I do not take any earthly pleasure out of this, it is reprehensible. Yumyumyum.”

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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