Arabic cuisine: a gateway to its culture

Ms Zeinab (far left) guiding participants as they roll date balls in pistachios, coconut and digestive biscuits

The Arab culture is rich and steeped in history, and one of its most important elements is its cuisine. Food is not merely sustenance, but is closely linked to the Arabs’ identity, values and beliefs, society, ethnic pride and even their politics. However, the Arab world — which spans 22 countries in four regions — is not homogenous. To access this complex and nuanced culture, the Middle East Institute (MEI) at NUS organised “Discovering Arabic Culture”, an intimate event that sought to explain Arabic culture through food.

Presented by Ms Zeinab Hendawi, an Arabic instructor at the Centre for Language Studies in NUS Arts and Social Sciences, the event commenced with a primer on Arabic greetings. Salutations of “Ahlan wa sahlan” (welcome) and “Masmuka?” (what’s your name) filled the air as the participants practiced their newfound skills with each other.


Participants identifying the spices in aromatic Arabic coffee

Diving into the discussion on Arabic cuisine, Ms Zeinab noted the Persian, Turkish and Indian influence from conflict, conquest and commerce. Food across the four Arabic regions — the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, the Nile Valley, and North Africa — share many similarities, but may differ slightly from place to place. This is due to differences in climate, geography and the availability of produce. For instance, grain is not commonly grown in the dry and arid Arabian Peninsula, which explains the prevalence of meat-based dishes in the region’s cuisine. This stands in contrast to the Levant region, which has bread as its staple food thanks to the abundance of grain.

A lot can be gleaned about the Arabs’ values and beliefs from their food and practices around eating, Ms Zeinab shared. The importance placed on halal food speaks to the primacy of Islam in the lives and culture of Arab people. Hospitality and generosity towards guests are important aspects of Arab culture and self-perception, and they display these traits best over food and meals. Traditionally, guests are given the seat of honour at the dining table and are offered second and third helpings of the feast that’s been prepared for them. As a display of politeness — another prized trait in Arabic culture — hosts and guests usually go back and forth offering and refusing food and drinks before the guests are served. Food is also usually shared to connote equality and acceptance between hosts and guests.

Additionally, for Arab refugees and migrants, food is inextricably linked to their memories of home and family, and form a vital link to their culture. Preserving traditions around their cuisine can be a form of resistance in times of loss and war.


Ms Zeinab demonstrating how to use Arabic bread to scoop up hummus the traditional way

Participants had opportunities to see, smell and taste some traditional elements of Arabic cuisine, as they sampled cinnamon- and cardamom-infused Arabic coffee, fragrant Moroccan mint green tea, tangy Egyptian ful medames and sweet jallab — a refreshing drink made from grape molasses, dates, rose water and pine nuts. Ms Zeinab also demonstrated how to make hummus and tamriyya — date balls rolled in pistachios, coconut or digestive biscuits.

“I’m very passionate about teaching Arabic, specifically the culture. Being away from my country, I really like to speak to people about my culture. I thought food is a very important subject because it has a very important role in the culture and it’s something we’re very proud of as Arabs,” said Ms Zeinab, who is Syrian.

The event on 11 June was part of MEI Salon, a series of casual and interactive events aimed at making Middle Eastern culture more accessible to everyone.