What is Arabic cuisine? We like to take a broad view. For us, it encompasses all of the rich, ancient cuisines of the Middle East, ancient Persian-Arabic cuisine, ancient Ottoman and Turkish cuisine, the cuisines from the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (including the Arabic influences in Spain and Italy), the cuisines form the Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) and the influences they had elsewhere.
And just like the Arabic influence travelled with the Moors from Spain to the Netherlands in the form of almond paste-filled phyllo dough rolls, kruidnootjes (small cinnamon-nutmeg-gingerbread-like cookies), and hutspot (a Dutch carrot-potato stew), that influence is now visible everywhere, in the cities but also in smaller villages. Tahini and flat-leaf parsley are readily available in your Turkish and Moroccan groceries.
It’s commonly believed that Arabic cuisine is very complex and uses many ingredients in one recipe, but most dishes actually are simple and not expensive to prepare. And while the flavours are very rich (even more so because you often eat several dishes at the same time), almost all recipes are quite approachable for even the novice cook. The most important thing is to taste, taste, taste! We always use many spices and herbs, and a lot of olive oil and lemon juice. Don’t be afraid – just sample and then season to taste. What if you lack a certain ingredient? It’s not the end of the world; you can do it without it, or replace the ingredient with something else. No cilantro? Use parsley. No bulgur? Use small pasta. No almonds? Use hazelnuts or walnuts. You might come up with an interesting variation. We love to forget an ingredient: It forces us to improvise and that’s when delicious things start to happen.
At the Arabic table there’s always room for at least 10 people if necessary. No need to call at 5:30 p.m. to ask if they can prepare an extra serving. It wouldn’t occur to a cook in Arabia to prepare a measured amount of food. Leftovers? You’ll make your neighbours, friends and family happy. And you’ll make new friends. Once we were accused of making quantities that could feed an entire soccer team. Even when we cook for our Arabia pop-up restaurant, everybody leaves with doggy bags so they can enjoy the leftovers the next day. There is a famous Moroccan saying that when you divide a dish between two plates, it’s enough for two; if you serve the dish in a large bowl to share, then the same amount of food can feed 10. If you are making several dishes, be aware of the quantities: half the amount will suffice. Except when, just like us, you want to make everyone around you happy. In that case make enough or too much, allow everyone to take home containers, and become immortal.
Excerpt from Under the Shade of Olive Trees: Recipes from Jerusalem to Marrakech and Beyond (Stewart, Tabori & Chang).