Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Arab Table: Cookbook review


I'm embarrassed to say I don't know much about Ramadan. This year the Muslim holiday coincides with the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and day of atonement. Fortunately I just received The Arab Table a beautiful new cookbook that includes sections on major holidays, their significance, and culinary traditions. The book serves as a great introduction to Arab culture through food.

All 175 recipes are personally introduced, with the author telling you where the recipe came from, the background of the dish or something about the ingredients. The recipes are designed for American cooks and the techiques are not difficult, although some of the ingredients may seem exotic such as tahini, rose water, sumac, and freka (green wheat). The author shares lots of tips and stories making the book a joy to read. If you'd like to get a sneak peek, you can see some recipes here.

There are several recipes that are traditional for Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast during the day in an attempt to get closer to God. Muslims take their meals early before sunrise and again at sunset during the month. While the days are supposed to be focused on spiritual matters, the evenings are a time to celebrate with friends and enjoy meals together. The book offers up some sample menus to show you what typical meals look like.

What struck me the most in reading about the fasting (one of the Five Pillars of Islam) is that it serves very much the same purpose as the fast on Yom Kippur that Jews observe; it is to remind us that we are human, we all get hungry, we all get thirsty. We all feel the same things, no matter if we are rich or poor. The fast is a way to remind us of the suffering of others and to think about those less fortunate. It is also a time to focus on becoming a better person.

The author May Bsisu was raised in Lebanon and I am eager to try some of her recipes, especially some of the ones she recommends for the month of Ramadan. While I won't be fasting all month, I look forward to the opportunity to learn more about the traditions of my Muslim brothers and sisters. The first recipe I am planning to try will be Chicken and Rice with Creamy Yogurt or Fatet Dajaj. I'll let you know how it turns out. To my Muslim readers, Mabrook alaykum al Shahar, congratulations on the arrival of the month.