Abundant food - GulfToday

Abundant food

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Hummus has been eaten in Egypt since the 13th century.

During a recent lecture in Nicosia a prominent archaeologist spoke about the need for his colleagues to collaborate with professionals in a wide range of fields to create a full image of life in the Mediterranean during bygone eras. Among specialists he suggested were historians, geographers, photographers, collectors of data, and drone flyers. After the lecture, I asked him why he had not included those who study food. He dismissed my query by saying that the ancients did not have tomatoes and peppers and lived on chickpeas and grain. Which is far from the truth. They had a wide-ranging cuisine of both simple and sophisicated dishes, some of which we enjoy today.

Foods found in the New World prior to 1492, when mariner Christopher Columbus, landed in the Bahamas included potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, chili, cacao, and vanilla, the “magic eight,” according to food historian Lois Ellen Frank. She said they dramatically changed consumption in the Old World. As this transformation took until the 16th and 17th centuries, peoples living around the Mediterranean ands its hinterland carried on happily with foods they had in abundance.

From the beginning of recorded history to the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, there were masses of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, fish, and seafood available in the Mediterranean basin. Apples, bananas, some varieties of beans, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, various cheeses, cherries, chickpeas, cinnamon, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, ginger, grapes, honey, lemons, lettuce, limes, mangos, olives, figs, oats, onions, and okra were among the foods ooriginating in the Old World. Beef, lamb and mutton, pork, chicken, and eggs were also eaten. Old World consumers benefitted from trade with India for black pepper and spices, China for rice and pasta.

Old World Europe transferred to the New World horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens and introduced wheat, rice, barley, oats, coffee, sugar cane, citrus fruits, and melons. Livestock and grain were of existential importance in the development of both North and South America.

Which Mediterranean foods have survived from the ancient world to the modern world? Here are some of the many examples:

Olive use began about 19,000 years ago with the pressing of oil from wild oleasters which were domesticated in Turkey, Palestine, Greece, Cyprus, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Corsica, Spain, and France. Brining of the bitter olive, a major technological advance, began on the Palestinian coast in the Haifa area some 6,600 years ago.

Middle Eastern and oriental communities sun dried foods as early as 12,000 BC. Raisins dried from grapes and dates and figs have remained key Mediterranean foods.

Bread was invented about 8,000 BC in Egypt. Grain was crushed and made into flat rounds similar to Indian chapatis. Nomadic peoples were compelled by grain cultivation to settle and take up farming. Flat loaves of bread are still consumed in many Mediterranean countries.

Lentils were domesticated around 8,000 BC on the banks of the Euphrates in northern Syria.Two millennia later lentils reached Greece where lentils were considered food for the poor. By 2,400 BC lentils had been adopted by Egyptians who made lentil soup, a staple of the Mediterranean and the Arab World.

The earliest known pickles were made of cucumbers around 2030 BC in Mesopotamia, when cucumber seeds were brought from northern India to the Tigris valley. Pickles, called “mooli” in Arabic have for millennia been popular in the region and the Mediterranean as a whole as a means of preserving vegetables and fruits for the winter. During a recent visit to a village near Damascus, a proud woman showed me her collection of mooli and her preparations for pickling small eggplants stuffed with garlic cloves.

While cooked chickpeas were eaten whole and as a paste by the Romans, the modern dish of hummus, crushed chickpeas flavoured with garlic, lemon, and olive oil, has been eaten in Egypt since the 13th century. Falafel seems to have originated in Egypt. While made from chickpeas or fava beans or both, a fava bean version was said to be eaten in Lent by fasting Coptic Christians in the 4th century during the Roman era. However, the earliest written references to falafel from Egyptian sources date to the 19th century.

Mulukhiyah is a prime example of a survivor. While its origins are in ancient Egypt, the leaf became the main ingredient a well-known dish in that country and throughout the Arab world. It was and is also eaten in Greece but not according to the Egyptian, Lebanese or Syrian recipes.

Archaeologists believe that a form of pasta originated in Central Asia and travelled to the Middle East where it was made with Durum wheat. Pasta was transformed, refined, and dried for storage at a time there was no refrigeration. Eventually it became rooted in Italian culture.

Archaeologists also found evidence that that other staple of Italian food, pizza was made without tomatoes in the city of Pompeii which, along with Herculaneum, was destroyed in 79 AD by the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples, the city regarded as the home of pizza.

Other common Mediterranean dishes have later origins. Kebabs are thought to have been invented in Turkey by soldiers who Skewered on their swords and grilled chunks of meat from hunted animals over open fires. Turkish writer Kyssa-I Yusuf mentioned Kebabs in a 1377 manuscript, which is claimed to make the first mention of the kebab.

Investigations into Mediterranean food culture are complex as they have to embrace social and communal bodies and a wide range of actors and activities. Food involves growing and gathering foods; making vessels for storing, cooking, and eating; manufacturing implements; and providing fuel for cooking. Food preparations depend not only on ingredients but also on the status of cooks and consumers, and the work of slaves and women. Many of the dishes which have survived and are eaten by all social classes were in ancient and medieval times foods which sustained the poor. These days the Mediterranean diet is considered the heathiest and both simple and complex Mediterranean foods and dishes are consumed globally.

Photo: TNS

Related articles