Over the past several years, I’ve taught hundreds of students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE, and they were eager to share their native cuisine with me; we would frequently have Saudi coffee breaks with homemade pastries courtesy of their wives, or talk about the finer points of making kabsa or hunting for desert truffles. I was interested in learning more about these dishes, but found that most recent cookbooks on Middle Eastern cooking were focused more on Turkey, Morocco, Syria, or Iran with the exception of one or two recent releases like Cardamom and Lime: Recipes from the Arabian Gulf.
I own Habeeb Salooum’s excellent Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa, so I was very interested to see his “The Arabian Nights Cookbook.” “Arabian Nights” revisits and expands upon several Gulf favorites first introduced in his “Classic Vegetarian Cooking” and includes the many chicken, lamb and seafood dishes found in the Gulf, including kabsa, al-mandi, zurbian, laham (mini Saudi pizzas that are distinct from their Syrian cousins), and several Indian-inspired fish preparations including a Kuwaiti fish curry.
In “Arabian Nights,” you’ll find numerous suggestions from appetizers to Gulf-style coffee and beverages to round out your meal (although strangely there is no mention of Saudi coffee made with freshly roasted green coffee beans) and sweets including baklava, a heavenly cardamom-scented fruit salad, fritters and other fried desserts, and rosewater-scented custards and puddings. Most recipes here use at least ½ stick of butter or ¼ cup of oil for the rice dishes, and there are many fried dishes, but there are also a wide variety of fresh, delicious vegetable salads, pickled veggies, and yogurt-based dips and drinks represented, so you can assemble your own Arabian-inspired meal however you wish (including vegetarian, as there are many wonderful salads, soups, breads and rice dishes to choose from).
The book begins with a compact illustrated glossary of useful tools and implements (particularly related to brewing and serving Gulf-style coffee) and an illustrated list of essential Arabian ingredients that gives names in English and Arabic. Several basic recipes including pickled garlic, strained yogurt and tangy hot tomato sauce set the stage. You’ll find many familiar dishes that have migrated to the Gulf such as baba ghanouj, muhammara, hummus and tabbouleh, a lovely orange and olive salad originally from Morocco, and many imports by way of India: baqoura (pakoras), samboosak (samosas), curries, etc. Each recipe gives a brief history of the dish and its origins, along with preparation tips and hints.
I tried several of the recipes including Mung Beans and Rice with Almonds, Aromatic Rice with Almonds, Sweet Holiday Biscuits, Sweetened Vermicelli Omelet, Olive and Orange Salad, Zesty Tomato and Fresh Coriander Salad, and the Refreshing Green Salad. The first time I made the Mung Beans and Rice with Almonds, I followed the recipe exactly, and I found the cooking time FAR too long (25 minutes at a simmer followed by 30 minutes to steam off the heat): the rice had disintegrated into a glutinous paste rather than fluffy separate grains. I tossed out the first batch and started over, but this time I used the directions from the Aromatic Rice with Almonds, fusing the two recipes (I added raisins with the mung beans and used the larger quantity of almonds), which only has you cook the rice for 12 minutes before steaming for 30. This time, the rice was fluffy and perfectly cooked, so I would start with half the cooking time if you’re following the recipe for Mung Beans.
I also enjoyed learning to make Arabian breads like sweet holiday biscuits (khubz mohala), a yeasted dough sweetened with date syrup (I made my own using the instructions in the sidebar) that makes a lovely accompaniment to coffee and dates. The dessert section contains standards like baklava as well as a cardamom-scented fruit salad with a fabulous cardamom honey dressing that’s great on any kind of fruit.
The instructions are straightforward and most of the ingredients should be easy to find, although you may have to mail order some of the spices such as za’tar, sumac, date syrup and rose / orange blossom water depending on whether you have any Middle Eastern / Indian markets in your area. The book is gorgeous to look at as well; there are photos for nearly every recipe, as well as some step-by-step photos for the more difficult ones (stuffing lamb / veal). There is also a suggested resource guide arranged by geographic regions of the U.S. and Canada. The index includes English recipe titles only.
Mr. Salloum has created a wonderful, compact introduction to Gulf cooking that is accessible by all levels of home chefs; most importantly, his recipes are practical for home kitchens (my students used to regale me with tales of roasting a whole camel in a pit in the Saudi desert; luckily the largest thing in this cookbook is the roast leg of lamb!). “The Arabian Nights Cookbook” will infuse your kitchen with the captivating tastes and aromas of the Arabian Gulf and add a whole new layer of flavor to your repertoire!
(Review copy courtesy of Tuttle Publishing)