Friday, June 30, 2017

In My Kitchen, June 2017

Most of June, I was on the road, never in any kitchen at all. During the past week, however, I've been cooking and shopping again, and thinking a little bit about the history of a few of the foods that I have in my kitchen now. I frequently write about New World foods, but in this post, I'm concentrating on Old World produce.

Tabbouleh and Other Foods from the Middle East

I'll start with some middle eastern foods in my kitchen now that are now pretty standard in US supermarkets. Above is a photo of a tabbouleh salad I made this week, using bulgur "the traditional grain of the Levant" according to the package from Bob's Red Mill. "The Levant," as you probably know, is an older term for the eastern Mediterranean region, or middle east.

I prefer to make my own tabbouleh because the tomatoes and chopped herbs need to be fresh: in packaged tabbouleh, they're often kind of tired and tasteless. Obviously, the fact that this grain comes from Bob's Red Mill, a natural foods company in Oregon, shows that this is a pretty Americanized product! (The tomatoes and bell peppers you see in the salad illustrate how New World foods have been adapted by middle eastern cuisines.)

In my kitchen: Baba Ganoush and Hummus from Whole Foods.
Both can be made with tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds.

We ate the tabbouleh and also pita bread, baba ganoush, hummus, charcoal-grilled meat, and salad with olive oil for dinner one day this week. Other middle eastern foods now appearing on American tables including mine include olives, several sorts of cheese, falafel, lentil salads, stuffed vegetables, and more. Quite a few of these foodstuffs are mentioned in the Bible and other early works of literature from the Mediterranean region.

The history of the names of these foods (which often have multiple spellings) also points to their origin in the middle east. Tabbouleh is a word of Arab origin, meaning something like "seasoning." Hummus is the Arab word for chick peas, the primary ingredient of the dish. Sesame has its word roots in Arabic, Coptic, and early Egyptian languages. Tahini means crushed -- as in crushed sesame seeds. Baba Ganoush also comes from Arabic: baba can mean father or daddy and gannuj can mean coquettish or pampered (source).

In Israel, I've enjoyed these foods at a variety of places, especially the famous restaurant in the Arab-Israeli town of Abu Gosh, as well as in people's homes. A generation ago, they were pretty exotic in America, but now it's normal to find them in American supermarkets both packaged and in delis such as the Mediterranean counters at Whole Foods. People serve them all the time, bring them to potlucks, etc. So my kitchen isn't particularly unusual.

A refrigerator case full of hummus etc, in a small supermarket
near Tel Aviv, Israel. I think our markets are catching up with this selection.
-- (My photo from 2016)
A quick bit of history of two common ingredients:
  • Chick peas were among the "founder crops" of the fertile crescent, where Eurasian farming began. They began to be cultivated something like 11,000 years ago, so they have been a basic foodstuff throughout the history of the region and the places to which cultivation spread. (source)
  • Sesame seeds have been cultivated for at least 5000 years. In China sesame oil was used in making ink. In Africa sesame seeds have long been an important foodstuff. And in the middle east they have been used for cooking oil and in tahini and the candy halavah. 
"The earliest recorded use of a spice - sesame seed - comes from an Assyrian myth which claims that the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the earth." (source)


California Cherries in My Kitchen this month.
It's cherry season. Our first cherries, as usual, came from California, but this week at the farmers' market the first Michigan cherries appeared. Cherry trees in the Old Mission Peninsula of northern Michigan date to 1852, when a Presbyterian missionary named Peter Dougherty planted them -- this area has a micro climate good for growing fruit. Commercial production there began in the 1890s. We have visited there several times: a very beautiful place -- maybe some day we'll get there for the Cherry Festival! (source)

Cherry trees are native to Europe, Asia, and the middle east. They've been around so long that quite a few places claim them. Probably they were first cultivated in central Anatolia, but were known to the Greeks and Romans and highly valued in many parts of the world, including ancient China and Japan.

In My Kitchen: a magnet from the Washington, D.C.
Cherry Blossom Festival.
The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington celebrates trees that were a gift to the US from Japan a little over over 100 years ago. These trees, which surround the Tidal Basin near the major monuments of Washington, are very beautiful during their brief blooming season in early spring. Huge crowds enjoy the sight of the blossoming branches reflected in the water along with the Jefferson Memorial and other buildings. 

The Japanese cultivation of cherry trees began over 1300 years ago. Early cherry blossom viewing festivals were part of ancient Japanese nature worship: "every spring, the mountain deity traveled down to the fields on the falling petals of cherry blossoms and transformed into the deity of the rice paddies, a critical crop for Japanese agriculture and productivity." Each era refined and developed the meaning that the fleeting moment of cherry blossom time embodied. In the 19th century, cherry blossom viewing played a role in Japanese nationalism. (source)


I try to keep lemons in my kitchen all the time. They add
flavor to a wide variety of foods.
I've written a few previous posts about the history of citrus fruit, especially the book Hesperides by Samuel Tolkowsky which I wrote about here. According to Tolkowsky, citrus fruits were mentioned in China in a compendium dated around 500 BCE, and in a number of older works that refer to the fruit. Citrus fruits were known to the Jews in Israel as early as the time of the Maccabees (around 136 BCE). The word origins of lemon trace ultimately to east-Asian languages, as lemon cultivation began there and slowly spread through Persia, the middle east, North Africa, and Mediterranean Europe. (source)

Genetic scientists are still analyzing the exact ancestry of the many varieties of lemons, citrons, oranges, grapefruits, and other citrus fruits. According to an article in Science Daily published in 2011, bergamot and lemon species came from citron and sour orange. The article explained:
"Even with a documented history of cultivation spanning more than 4,000 years, the exact genetic origins of cultivated Citrus species such as sweet orange, lemon, and grapefruit have remained obscure. Chinese researchers used a combination of analyzed amplified fragment length polymorphism and Chloroplast DNA data to identify the exact genetic origin of cultivated citrus." (source)
Obviously I have many other foods in my kitchen, which no doubt have histories and word origins at least as complex and intriguing as these. However, I think this post about what's in my kitchen this month has gone on long enough. I'll be posting it with Sherry's Blog for the monthly In My Kitchen event where bloggers from many lands share their new and favorite kitchen things.

Kitchen wrap-up: The top shelf of my refrigerator.


Sherry Mackay said...

Thanks for joining in Mae. I love all the history you have shared with us here. Fascinating isn't it how foods have travelled around the world over many years? I adore hummus and lots of middle eastern foods. So tasty. I always have lemons 🍋 too. Cheers. X

Tina said...

We haven't been able to get baba ganoush in years. They used to carry it in several markets around here but stopped. I keep saying I will make my own. Love the tour of your kitchen. I think our tastes are similar.

Beth F said...

Fun post. My kitchen is also multinational. I grew up in an area with huge Lebanese population, so Mideast foods are familiar and comforting.

Nan said...

When I first became a vegetarian in 1971, hummus was one of my earliest meals. Having grown up in New England with a plate that had three things - meat, potato, and vegetable, hummus was the revelation of my life. Suddenly I fell in love with food. It is still one of my favorites, and my husband and children swear that our recipe is the best because it has a lot of garlic. I also make tabouli, and prefer my own because I don't care for cucumbers or onions in it. I have never made falafel but I love it, and if I lived near where it was sold I'd probably eat it every day! If there is any food I could eat every day and never, ever tire of, it would be a Middle Eastern diet. I didn't know hummus meant chickpeas. Thanks for a great post. And lemons are in both tabouli and hummus! And in my cosmo cocktail. ;<))

Anonymous said...

I hope this comment makes its way to your page as often it doesn't Mae. Love middle Eastern food, and here in Melbourne, we have plentiful supplies of these ingredients too. Like you, I always make my own Tabbouleh and Babaganouge. You can't beat the taste of charcoal burning the skin on a home made Baba. Lemons are such a handy ingredient too.

Sherry Mackay said...

Just to let you know Mae- liz from bizzy Lizzy says she can't add a comment to your post for some reason. Cheers.

Mae Travels said...

@Sherry Mackay -- I have changed one setting that I think will help. Thanks for letting me know... mae

Liz (Good Things) said...

Hi Mae, agree, you can't beat freshly made tabbouleh. And, snap! The cherries in Budapest have been so yummy too. Happy July to you. xx

Judee@gluten Free A-Z Blog said...

Tabbouleh is one of our favorite recipes and coincidently I blogged it this week as well , except of course despite being of Middle Eastern heritage, I had to substitute quinoa for the bulgur to make it gluten free so I can eat it too. I enjoyed reading about the history of the food and your travels.

Sandra (Ladyredspecs) said...

Hi Mae, I too have had issues leaving comments in past months so hopefully it's now resolved. We eats lots of food influenced by the traditional flavours of the Middle east too. Nothing is as good as home made. I an never without lemons either

Lavender and Lime ( said...

Wish it were cherry season here! It has been a long time since I took a photograph of my fridge.

Deb in Hawaii said...

I love tabbouleh and really any Middle Eastern foods and ingredients and try to stock up on them in my kitchen. Homemade is best for sure. ;-)

Liz said...

Our kitchens are getting more multi-national all the time aren't they? I love all the new ingredients that are now commonly available in a good grocery store. I am with you about any food item with herbs and tomatoes, they need to be freshly made to take advantage of the flavors.

Aida at Slice Of Torch Ginger said...

Hi Mae, Good on you stocking on Middle Eastern ingredients. I can't not having them IMK. Enjoyed reading the history bits too. Agree on lemon - I used to have a tree in my backyard.

Gretchen DALRYMPLE said...

I have the same package of bulgar in my kitchen now too! I too love many of the same middle eastern foods. Homemade is definitely best, allowing you to cater to your tastes and keeping it super fresh.