Celebrate summer tomatoes, corn, squash and eggplant with recipes from the Arab kitchen
By Reem Kassis
August 4, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. EDT
From a distance, it looks like paint palettes spread across tables as far as the eye can see, and as I inch closer, I see mounds of fresh produce in myriad shades and textures. Whatever rain shortage the summer season brings, the rainbows spread across farmers market tables more than make up for it. From deep-hued eggplants and blueberries to sunny apricots and red-flushed tomatoes, the colorful collection gives rise to a bubbling burst of happiness in my chest, not only for the beauty that surrounds me and my proximity to nature, but for the endless possibilities these fruits and vegetables afford.
Yet the excitement fades when I start thinking about what I can make with this gorgeous bounty. I search for advice from the farmers behind the tables. “They must know something I don’t aboutcoaxing the most out of produce,” I tell myself. The responses are surprisingly similar across the winding path through the market: raw or in salads, sauteed with olive oil with maybe onion or garlic and, at its most elaborate, a pasta sauce with all the ingredients and herbs thrown in.
Simplicity can’t be beat, it’s true. And when vegetables are this fresh and tasty, you don’t need much to get the best out of them. But sometimes I crave something a little more exciting, flavors that are as bright as the colors in front of me. So in an effort to come up with easy and delicious recipes that are not your standard salad or saute, I journeyed through the Arab kitchen, to some of the oldest cookbooks on record and to my own childhood in Jerusalem, where many of the Arab world’s culinary traditions have converged.
I thought back to the days of waking up to the smells wafting from my mother’s kitchen, such as garlic splashing into stews and pastries baked fresh in a taboon oven. I remembered my grandmothers’ dining tables, where every dish appeared studded with jewels, from bursting pomegranate seeds to shiny fried nuts and bright green herbs. The dishes may have been simple, but it was the juxtaposition of unexpected ingredients and the combination of contrasting flavors and textures that kept you coming back for more.
The recipes I came up with draw inspiration from those dishes, and from the exciting and unusual history of the four vegetables highlighted, although three of them — tomato, eggplant and squash — are botanically fruits and the other, corn, is technically a grass. So approach these recipes as a map for what to do with the season’s bounty, then let the beauty of what you find fresh guide you.
Yet tomatoes did not arrive in Italy until the 16th century, and it wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that staple tomato dishes began to emerge. If you ever imagined Julius Caesar, Marco Polo or Michelangelo swirling silken strands of pasta in a luscious red sauce, rest assured they did not.
It wasn’t until the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire that tomatoes traversed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in Europe. Even so, they were still regarded with skepticism and fear because botanists recognized them as relatives of the poisonous nightshade, belladonna. Their beauty trumped this fear only enough to have them cultivated as ornamentals. Unique varieties developed over time, however, eventually allowed the tomato to reign supreme in many Mediterranean cuisines.
Having made their way to the Middle East sometime between the 16th and 19th centuries, tomatoes are now a staple in the Arabic kitchen, as well. The Arabic word banadura, similar to the Italian word pomodoro, hints at one possible route — from Italy to Egypt. Their arrival brought a fundamental change to Arab cooking: Stews, the staple Arab dish, started to use tomato as a key ingredient for thickening, souring and color in place of nuts, juices and saffron, respectively. The Middle Eastern cuisine we know today, where tomatoes play a dominant role, looks very different from that of a few centuries ago.
Although tomatoes are popular in stews and salads across the Arab world, the recipes here bring you loads of flavor while keeping the very beauty that made people grow tomatoes as flowers still noticeable.
A vegetable described by medieval Arabs as “the color of a scorpion’s abdomen with a taste like its sting,” according to “The Culinary Crescent” by Peter Heine, is certainly not one I would rush to consume, especially if it’s also thought to induce madness, depression and blood inflammation. But that is — or was — the eggplant in the medieval Arab world. It might be hard to fathom that this vegetable (technically a fruit), which today boasts a recipe list more numerous than the seeds in its belly, was so described at one point in history.
Originating somewhere in South and East Asia, the eggplant was cultivated for thousands of years before its journey westward into the Arab world. But rather than embracing the eggplant upon arrival, the Arabs shunned it, fearing its looks, which resembled varieties of poisonous nightshade, and loathing its spongy texture and bitter taste. Though appreciated in Southeast Asia, as the eggplant moved farther west, that bitterness hindered its popularity.
Then, at a lavish December feast in A.D. 825, at which a beautiful woman nicknamed Buran was married off to Caliph al-Ma’mun, the eggplant’s fate began to change. On the occasion of the wedding, one of the most magnificent feasts Baghdad ever witnessed, the palace served an eggplant dish purportedly invented by Buran herself. Although today we know it simply consisted of eggplants that had been salted and rinsed before being fried, the dish was extraordinary for its time. It is likely from there on that people understood how to rid eggplant of bitterness, leading to a surge in its popularity. It’s also why many eggplant dishes are referred to as Burraniyat today. Suddenly, the scorpion faded into oblivion and the eggplant became, as described by Arab poet Abu al-Fath (Khushajim), “a pearl in a black gown with an emerald set.”
In Europe, acceptance was slower. It is only in 13th-century Spain that interest in the eggplant began to rise. In Italy, it wasn’t until the 15th century that eggplant was commonly eaten as a Lenten food. In France, even by the 18th century, it was known only in the south. If much of this hesitance was caused by myths, at least a portion was attributable to a lack of good recipes.
The recipes here capitalize on eggplant’s meaty texture and sweet smokiness as a great conduit for other ingredients and flavors. Today, eggplants are bred to not have much of the bitterness they held historically, so salting is no longer required. Although some people will argue that it affects the texture and oil absorption, I find the difference so marginal that it doesn’t merit the time and effort.
If the name confuses you, it’s for good reason. Summer squash are probably some of the most misunderstood types of produce, and even the Oxford Companion to Food acknowledges, “there is no fully effective way to sort out the confusion.” Summer squash belong to the genus cucurbita, which is part of a large family that includes watermelon, cucumber and chayote. Even within the genus, there are several varieties — summer squash, winter squash, gourd and pumpkin — with a lot of overlap. The entire genus is of American origin, and the group that includes summer squash is the largest and oldest: Archaeologists have discovered remains of its rind and seeds in Mexico dating to at least 7000 B.C.
Given this long history, you might be surprised to learn that the summer squash we know today, of which zucchini is the most recognized member, only became prominent in European, Mediterranean and Arab cuisines in the 19th and 20th centuries. Squash made their way from the Americas to Europe during the Columbian exchange in the 16th century, but the varieties that arrived were almost certainly different from what we recognize today. For starters, they would have been comparatively enormous. In fact, zucchini was marketed in, and later developed to be, its smaller size in Italy only in the 19th century.
If the history and nomenclature weren’t confusing enough, the botany adds another layer. Zucchini and their summer cousins — such as cousa, zephyr, yellow squash and crookneck — are all technically fruit, and the part we eat is nothing more than the swollen ovary of the flower, the female of the plant. The male flowers are attached to a long stem instead of being attached to a fruit.
Science and history aside, summer squash is delicious. It’s mildly sweet, with a pleasant texture that pairs well with many flavors. The varieties available in the United States seem endless. In the Arab world, cousa is most commonly available, but what we lack in variety we more than make up for in application. While summer squash in the United States tend to be sauteed, grilled or fried, and possibly added into sauces and pasta, in the Middle East the uses range from pureed for dips and spreads to stuffed, braised, stewed and even used in fattehs, a class of dishes where toasted bread is topped with various proteins, vegetables and sauces. The recipes here feature a traditional rustic dish eaten across the Levant, as well as a more modern application, which allows the summer squash’s texture and flavor to shine alongside Arab flavors.
Corn, technically a grass, is one of the most important staple foods in the world. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find this crop, which can trace its roots back to Central and South America, on a regular basis in any Arab home. But distance is not the culprit. Most produce that made its way to Europe from the Americas following the Columbian exchange also took root in the Middle East via trade, travel and colonization. Potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, squash and chiles have all burrowed their way into Arab cuisine and feature heavily in our meals and snacks. Corn, somehow, is the exception. The reason, though, remains as elusive as those silken strands we struggle to remove from the cobs.
When and how corn made its way to Africa and Asia, where historical accounts are scarce or contradictory, is still not established. But its introduction into the Arab world likely happened at some point between the 17th and 19th centuries. The only way I ate corn growing up was on the cob, and it was a rare occurrence. The varieties available in Jerusalem were nowhere near as sweet as the ones I have come to know and love here in the United States.
If flavor alone wasn’t the reason for its less-than-stellar popularity, stigma might have been. Historically in the Levant, field corn was grown then dried and made into a coarse flour that was used to make breads called karadeesh. The use of this flour, however, was usually associated with poverty. So as people gained access to more options, these breads, along with corn flour, sunk into oblivion. Today, corn is still not a staple ingredient in any Arab cuisine, making an appearance only in salads every so often.
When cooking, I often find it is contrasts that make a dish sing. So fret not, for the sweetness of corn makes it a wonderful foil for many of the sharp and tangy flavors we love in Arab cuisine. So while the recipes here give you two suggestions for how to marry this quintessential American summer ingredient with Middle Eastern flavors, consider them a blueprint for how to blend sweet with sour and creamy with crunchy to create dishes that might seem simple, yet whose flavors are anything but.