The past and present of Levantine cuisine

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

Franco-Syrian historian Farouk Mardam-Bey talks about food as representing the history and identity of the Levant to Dina Ezzat 

The past and present of Levantine cuisine
The past and present of Levantine cuisine

It has been many decades since Farouk Mardam-Bey moved from Damascus to Paris. In the French capital since the late 1960s, and now a French citizen and even chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, this Franco-Syrian historian, author, and editor is a passionate researcher and authority on Arab affairs.


Mardam-Bey’s books cover all aspects of Arab history, including politics, poetry, and cuisine. His edited volumes Jerusalem: the Sacred and the Political, The Right of Return: the Problem of Palestinian Refugees, In the Head of Bashar Al-Assad, Arab Poetry, and Ziryab: Authentic Arab Cuisine are only some of the books that display his multidisciplinary take on history and culture in the Arab world, especially the Levant with which he is closely associated both because of his origins and his affinity to the Palestinian cause.
It was in the early 1990s that Mardam-Bey started his early culinary writings, with a series of articles in Qantara, a magazine published both in Arabic and French by the Paris-based Arab World Institute. He chose a pseudonym for his articles — Ziryab, a musician from Baghdad whose real name was Abul-Hassan Ali bin Nafia and was known for being a connoisseur of delicacies.
For Mardam-Bey, the association of food and art is part of his wider definition of culture, especially in its Arab context. “Cooking is an integral part of Arab culture. This is a fact,” he said.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview, he said that it was curious that the history of cooking has not been the subject of adequate attention among Arab researchers, despite the fact that foreign researchers, essentially from Western countries, have dedicated considerable work to the history of food and cooking in the Arab world.
“This was not the case in the Middle Ages, when cooking was perceived for what it really is — an integral part of the culture,” he said.  
Like other food historians of the region, Mardam-Bey refers to manuscripts that date back to the 10th century and argues that perhaps there were older volumes that never made it to modern times.
He said that these volumes offer a lot more than just recipes, “significant as these are in revealing the evolution of cooking methods and the introduction of new crops that came to the part of the world that we call Al-Mashreq from countries further east, especially India.”
But the volumes “are also about the evolving nature of the Arab and Muslim culture(s) and their ability to grasp and accommodate and also to give and take, because ultimately there were so many currents going back and forth among the vast space of the [sequel of] Muslim Dynasties, with their many ethnicities and diversity, and of the countries that interacted, mostly through trade, with them.”
From the 13th century, Mardam-Bey refers to the Al-Wusla ila Al-Habib fi Wassf Al-Taibat wal-Tib (The Book of Association with a Friend on Delicious Plates and Agreeable Aromas) by Kamaleddin Ibn Al-Adim, a historian from Aleppo in Syria. This book, Mardam-Bey said, provides evidence of the diversity of Syrian cuisine in the Middle Ages, due to expanding diversity and trade and pilgrimage exchanges.
Recipes for couscous, originally a Maghreb (North African) dish, are included in the book, as they became part of the repertoire of Syrian cooks. It also has original recipes for Syrian desserts like loukmat al-kadi and kol wa eskhor. The book contains over 600 recipes, and like other mediaeval Arab cookery books, it comes with references to the way specific meals should be consumed in line with manners that meet requirements of decency and cleanliness.
At a later time, Mardam-Bey said, there was the important book of Sarkis Khalil, a 19th-century Lebanese culinary writer who worked on the recipes of what was then the Greater Levant. Today, he added, it is practically impossible for any Syrian, Lebanese, or for that matter Palestinian, to overlook the fact that most of the recipes included in the Khalil volume are part of their own daily meals.
He argued that this book, written while the Levant was under Ottoman rule, shows the continuation of recipes of Levantine origin as much as it shows influences from the wider Ottoman Empire.
There were, too, influences coming from the wider world. “One obvious example is the tomato. These were not used in Arab cuisine in general, including that of the Levant, before the 19th century, but when they arrived it only took a few years for them to become integrated in many recipes.”
Khalil’s volume, Mardam-Bey said, was one of the very first produced in the 19th century on Arab cuisine. “We have no books about Arab cuisine from the 15th to the 19th centuries,” he said.  

EXPANSION: There are no tomatoes in recipes from the Middle Ages since this fruit was brought back from the Americas in the 16th century.
There were no potatoes either for the same reason, though both this root vegetable and tomatoes were swiftly incorporated in the tables of the well-off. Aubergines (eggplant) have a similar story of fast and smooth integration into Arab cuisine.
“This is how I think we need to look at the history of our cuisine as part of our wider cultural history,” Mardam-Bey said.  
Trade allowed for the evolution of recipes and improvisation. Meanwhile, politics also had an impact on how people cooked and what they ate. The idea of three meals a day, eating out at restaurants, serving food in separate dishes for each person, and introducing tableware were all norms associated with European colonisation, he noted.
“These new norms took time to take over, and inevitably there are some who have chosen to stick to the more traditional way of eating from shared dishes,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no real discrepancy between the way the people ate and the way their rulers did.
“Unlike, for example, in the case of Egypt where there were specific royal recipes, for the palace in Syria this was not the case,” he said. “So, in Syria there is no equivalent of the cuisine of the Khedive Ismail where French and Italian recipes were integrated or where specific recipes were created, simply because there was no equivalent to the Egyptian royalty or aristocracy,” he added.
There is no Syrian equivalent of the Kitab Nasihạt Al-Anam fī Husn Al-Tạam (Advice on the Best of Food), the cookbook of the senior chef of the Khedive Ismail. The evolution of the ruling regime and classes in Syria did not allow for the prompt integration of European recipes. However, Ottoman rule prompted influences from Istanbul, including shawerma.
Islam, arriving in Syria in the middle decades of the seventh century, was also about new norms and regulations on how people cooked and what they ate. According to Mardam-Bey, things were not very different from how they were before Islam arrived because it took a long time for people to start declining alcohol, for example.
It was hard for lands known for their grapes to move towards abandoning the making of wine. “Alcohol continued to be made from apricots and lemons,” he said, adding that the caliphs would visit Levantine monasteries to consume alcohol made by the monks. Eventually, special avenues had to be set out for this purpose to avoid confusing “the spiritual with spirits”.
As for pork, which is prohibited in Islam, Mardam-Bey said this was already a taboo for Jews and it was not customary for Christians in Syria to eat pork hot even if they might eat it cold. Again, he said, culinary choices were influenced by availability. In the case of the Levant, it was always lamb over pork. “But of course, it cannot be denied that Islam was a factor in what people would eat and how they would eat,” he said.
Syria today is marked by the war that followed the 2011-2012 pro-democracy protests in the country. The rich still have lavish menus that feature kibbah, vegetable stew, stuffed grape leaves, hommous, and desserts, including kunafa and fruit, but this is not the case in the parts of Syria that have been involved in military confrontations between the regime and militant groups like Islamic State and Jabhat Al-Nusra.

In these areas, there is no room for traditional or modern Syrian cuisine. “There is simply poverty and at times famine as well,” Mardam-Bey said.
The war that has been devastating the country for years has taken its toll on agriculture. “For example, the famous Ghouta region that traditionally produced enormous amounts of fruit and vegetables has in part been simply destroyed,” he added.
The destruction and problems of supply in times of war have forced people to embrace untraditional food items. “In Syria, it is very unusual for people to eat rabbits. However, as a result of the war and scarcity and the high price of mutton some people have had to substitute rabbits; others have had no meat at all,” he added.
“Likewise, it has become quite something for some people to find enough bread to put on the table,” Mardam-Bey said. He added that while many families in the devastated parts of Syria have had to settle for basic staples, like hommous and beans along with bread, many others who have ended up as refugees eat hommous and beans as a reminder of the food they used to eat at home.
Meanwhile, the expansion of the number of Syrian refugees, especially in the Western countries, as a result of the war has allowed many more people to become acquainted with the cuisine of the Levant.
“Traditionally, people associated the food of the Levant with Lebanese cuisine, but now there is also Syrian cuisine,” he said. However, he hastened to add that Syrian cuisine is not about fast food or street food but about home-cooked recipes that have their origins in the cookbooks of the Middle Ages.
“Today, there are some high-end restaurants in Europe, especially in France and Germany, that serve dishes from the Syrian cuisine, but in the heart and mind of any Syrian, no matter how high-end the restaurant is, it does not really match the quality of a properly home-cooked meal.”
“This is why some of the best Syrian food comes from private catering businesses that cook to order.”
The current war in Syria is not the first political event to affect the way people eat in Syria. In the early 1960s, the rule of the Baathists in the country imposed harsh consumption regulations that made some Syrians opt for having food items brought over from nearby Lebanon.
“This was not just about some specific imported items but even about bread – because it was said at the time that the quality of wheat in Lebanon was better than that in Syria,” Mardam-Bey said.
He added that the monopoly of some officers over the import of specific kinds of fruit, including bananas, also made it difficult for people to purchase them. “This may sound very anecdotal, and it is possibly very anecdotal, but it is also very telling of how things happen and of why it is important to study the history of food and cooking in our countries,” he said.
Today, Mardam-Bey said, people are still collecting stories about how things have been changing during the decade-long war in Syria.
He said that it is hard to gauge the long-term impacts that the current war in Syria will leave on the country’s cuisine, given the many factors involved, including the million refugees who have gone to countries like Turkey or Germany.
These have taken influences with them that go back to the Middle Ages or even before to Byzantine rule in the Levant. It will be interesting to see what new forms of fusion may result from the current crisis.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: