Hello and welcome back to Kitchen Castastrophes, I’m Jon O’Guin, and I’m still not certain this feature name isn’t going to get me put on some sort of watch-list. But, if you know me, you know that I commit to the bit, damn it, so watch away, feds. (Just, you know, don’t watch too closely at night. For both our sakes.) Today, we’re visiting the Levant, a place name that, if you’re like me, you’ve definitely HEARD before, but still makes you think of some kind of wizard business. So what culinary sorceries come from here? Let’s find out.
The Levant Lacks Levity, LIghten Up Lest Levi Leave
First, where is The Levant? Well…not to put TOO fine a point on it, but…remember that chunk of land we decided no one was using when we created Israel? Well, turns out that area already had a name!
Of course, it’s not solely Israel. “The Levant” is actually, while a fairly continuously and solidly used term, one that’s shifted over time. Like how “silly” used to mean “simple”, or how any term that implies mental ability below average becomes a generic insult. Literally: “cretin”, “idiot”, “moron”, “imbecile”, “retarded”, they were all medical terms. Well, technically, ‘cretin’ wasn’t, as it kind of pre-dated formal medical descriptions, but it was a term for the intellectually disabled. Specifically, and somewhat connected to a later point, it was French for “Christian”. This wasn’t a dig at Christianity, but rather that the poor souls were naturally innocent, like Christ. And/or it implied that, no matter their mental issues, they were still Christians, and therefore deserved respect. French is a complicated language, full of nuance. Which is why I can’t cancel a newsletter I started getting after giving a $5 donation following the Charlie Hebdo attacks: I don’t read French, so I can’t navigate their system to cancel the documents.
"Now with more weaklings?" That can't be right.
What was I saying? Oh, yeah, the Levant. Well, “The Levant” comes from the French Levant meaning “rising”…Because the word meant “All the lands on the Mediterranean east of Italy”. Why use the word for “rising” there? Because it turns out, just like our last raided pantry Japan, if you can’t think of a better thing to call somewhere, point out that it’s where the sun comes from.
Yes, The Levant was the original “land of the rising sun” for medieval Europe. Interestingly, the name also got translated: the Levant is known in Arabic as Mashriq, which also means “the sunrise place”…despite being historically the northern reaches of Arabian speech, not the Eastern (Though the expansion of Arab populations along the north African coast did sort it out over time.)
But, yeah, “the Levant”, once upon a time, referred to Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Syria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordan…heck, in the 1500’s or so, it included GREECE. (I said EVERYWHERE East of Italy) Since the 20th century, the phrase was used more rigorously to “Those lands on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean”, removing Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. In the Twenty FIRST century, the term was expanded by some groups to include all of Iraq. One of these groups was ISIS, so take that change as you see fit.
BUT ENOUGH OF ETYMOLOGIES. WE CAME HERE FOR THE CULINARY CURIOSITIES OF THE REGION.
Let’s Talk Turkey. And Syria. And Israel. And…
So, this region is a tight band of land right on the coast of the Mediterranean. And, acclaimed scholar of geography that you are, you protest: “Jon, I’ve only heard that word on The West Wing, what kind of culinary impact can it have had?” Well, I’m glad you asked, me of the past. Luckily, our Time-Traveling Interrogation will provide quite tremendous results.
Right now, without looking at a phone, or checking a book, I want you to name FIVE foods from the Middle East, if you can. If not, just get as many as you can. I just wanted five so my next point has some wiggle room: I bet you that at least three of them are on this list:
If you included Muhammara, stop trying to be a suck-up. I can’t hear your lists, I won’t be impressed. But, as you might have guessed: those are all Levantine foods. You know what else is Levantine? Shish Kebab, Halva, Baklava, Fattoush and Labneh.
Heck, you wanna know a Levantine influence? Tacos al Pastor. That’s right, baby, this shit is intercontinental! (In case you didn’t know: Tacos al pastor were invented by Lebanese or Syrian immigrants to Mexico, who, in essence, recreated Shawarma with pork, adobo, and pineapple in their new home.)
I mean, if you didn't know that was a pineapple on top, would YOU know whether this was Shawarma or Tacos al Pastor?
So, what ingredients unify the palate of the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean? Let’s investigate and learn!
The Usual Suspects
The first ingredient to be talked about is one that’s quite likely over-looked: the citrus, particularly lemon. Lemon juice is a super common flavoring and acid-bringing element in the cuisines of the Levant. The warm climate of the region, especially where the water from the Mediterranean can blow in, is perfect for most kinds of citrus, and you can even grow tropical fruits in right parts of Israel.
Of course, we had to talk about chickpeas when we discussed this region. A primary ingredient in Falafel, Hummus, and plenty more, the Levant is where chickpeas got to be so popular. From here, they spread across northern Africa, and up through turkey. Spanish and Portuguese sailors brought them back to Europe, as did Italians and Greeks. The Chickpea is to Levantine cuisine what the Pinto bean is to Tex-Mex.
This spice might be a little less well-known, and a little harder to find. Let me tell you, my family had a devil of a time hunting it down when I asked for some for Christmas…I wanna say eight years ago. (In case you’ve forgotten, I was on this food nerd train LONG before it was cool.) In any case, sumac is a very common seasoning in the area, found in many mixes and spice blends. It’s one of the defining flavors of Za’atar, a spice blend you can now pick up in most Fred Meyer’s or Safeways, which would have been nice eight years ago, let me tell you.
Would have saved my dear grandmother a lot of time wandering "ethnic food" isles in grocery stores that December.
Sumac itself is almost always red, and it has a tart and bitter flavor, almost lemon-like in quality. In fact, sumac-based drinks were popular among some Native American tribes. We even named one of the varieties of sumac in America “Lemonade sumac”. Hilariously, or perhaps tragically, lemonade sumac is one of the least safe varieties to make lemonade from, as it can be toxic.
In the Levant, they mostly just use it as a seasoning on meats, dips, or salads.
Sesame seeds were always going to be on this list, if for no other reason than tahini. Tahini is the core fat component to Hummus and Baba Ghanoush, and a primary component of Halvah, which I mentioned earlier, and is, in my opinion, a quite nice little treat. “Halva” is actually kind of a generic term for ‘dessert’ in Arabic, but typically refers to two types of candies: those made from flour, and those made with nut butters, like tahini. Tahini Halvah can sometimes be found in the deli cheese cases, and it’s a slightly grainy sweet, close to sweetened peanut butter in flavor. The kind I see most often is swirled with cocoa powder.
The texture's not for everyone, but I honestly made myself crave it just writing that paragraph.
I was talking about something before I let hunger distract me. YES, that’s right, sesame seeds. They’re used in plenty of other forms of Levantine cooking beside just tahini, for instance joining that Za’atar blend I mentioned earlier. They’re a pretty common topping for dips and other dishes as well.
If you don’t eat a lot of eggplant, it may surprise you just how popular it is in the Middle East. But, if you look at it from a genetic standpoint, it does make sense. Eggplants are a nightshade, just like tomatoes and potatoes, which are both New World crops: No one in Europe or Asia had a potato before somewhere around 1496. Eggplants, however, were being cultivated in China as far back as 554. Yeah, over a THOUSAND years before. From Asia, they spread to the Middle East, and where their true versatility was explored.
Once you know they're related to potatoes, it becomes kind of obvious.
"Oh, yeah, these look like weirdly colored sweet potatoes."
That’s not like, a dig at eggplants, by the way. Asian varieties are basically totally edible: flesh, skin, seeds. The only concern is if you eat TOO MUCH of the leaves or stems, you might die, since, again, this plant is like, the second cousin of a literal poison. And the Middle East cooks eggplant a ton of ways: grilled, slow roasted, simmered, fried, deep-fried, pickled… And, again, it makes sense. In many ways, an eggplant is, basically, the half-way point between a tomato and a potato, and it was around for a thousand years before either of them reached those markets. So of course it’s mashed up to make a puree, or cooked into sauces, sliced up and fried: it’s what they had.
This one is another sort of sleeper hit. In America, I don’t think I’m overstepping my bounds when I say most of the country doesn’t really think about the culinary properties of raisins. Raisins are treated as filler. They’re a healthy snack for kids, or they go in breakfast breads. Maybe a dessert or two. But in other parts of the world, the texture of raisins has been long exploited. They show up a lot in stews, where they absorb the broth over the long cooking time, and become soft sponges filled with the sauce. They’re also used to add subtle sweetness to lighten dishes otherwise too rich.
Dried fruit as a whole is popular in the region, with raisins serving as the masthead product. Like with the eggplant, it’s easy to see why: you’re so close to fields ripe for growing, and also so near miles and miles of desert, where long-lasting foods, resistant to heat, are needed. It’s an easy fix to simply dry out the fruits best suited for it, and bring along a taste of home as you travel.
Finally, one last contender that sums up, in many ways, the recurring themes of the last 3 entries: nuts. Rich in fatty oils, the climate is great for walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and almonds to grow. And the cuisine of the region takes full advantage. Diced or chopped nuts fill desserts like baklava, stud halvah and Turkish delights, top dips or braised foods, and fill hollowed out eggplants or other gourds.
Nuts are also used for their oils, like olives, to add body and richness to breads, dips, and stews, as well as subtle flavors to marinades and cooked meats.
Here is a nut stall from the area. Maybe. I don't read Arabic either, so for all I know those are tubs of mushrooms.
And there you have it. The cuisine of the Levant is rich with oils, seeds, nuts, and fruit. Vegetables and their purees are also common features in their dishes.. It’s worth remembering that the first recorded Vegan in history was an Arabic poet and philosopher who lived in Syria, Lebanon, and southern Turkey. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. There’s a reason I didn’t feature any meats in this post: The Levant is the birthplace of veganism! BOOM! How’s THAT for culinary impact, motherfuckers?!
What are you still reading for? Post’s done. Go home.
MONDAY: I GUESS WE’RE DOING CHOCOLATE MOUSSE, IN HONOR OF VALENTINE’S DAY. IT’S A REALLY SIMPLE DESSERT, THAT’S ALSO A TOTAL PAIN IN THE ASS. JUST LIKE THE HOLIDAY ITSELF.
THURSDAY: I’M STILL LEGITIMATELY SHOCKED I PULLED THAT TWIST ENDING OUT OF MY ASS IN THE LAST PARAGRAPH. I HAVE NO IDEA.I’LL FIGURE SOMETHING OUT.