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The Culinary Crescent

The Culinary Crescent


A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine

by Peter Heine

translated by Peter Lewis



September 2020
ISBN: 9781909942424


Published: October 2018
Pages: 235

Buy EPUB | Kindle | PDF


The Fertile Crescent region—the swathe of land comprising a vast portion of today’s Middle East—has long been regarded as pivotal to the rise of civilisation. Alongside the story of human development, innovation, and progress, there is a culinary tradition of equal richness and importance. In The Culinary Crescent: A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine, Peter Heine combines years of scholarship with a personal passion: his knowledge of the cookery traditions of the Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal courts is matched only by his love for the tastes and smells produced by the contemporary cooking of these areas today. In addition to offering a fascinating history, Heine presents more than seventy recipes—from the modest to the extravagant—with dishes ranging from those created by the celebrity chefs of the bygone Mughal era, up to gastronomically complex presentations of modern times. Beautifully produced, and designed for both reading and cooking, The Culinary Crescent is sure to provide a delectable window onto the history of food in the Middle East.

Peter Heine taught at the University of Münster and Bonn and was Professor for Islamic Studies at the Humboldt-University in Berlin until 2009.




No Pork, no Alcohol

Why no pork?
Ritual slaughter
The proscription against alcohol
Yet more rules
Preferred dishes
The culinary promises of Paradise
Rules for fasting and meals for religious festivals

Secular festivals
Religious minorities in Islamic societies

A Thousand and One Saucepans – Cooking Among the High and Mighty

The Umayyads
The Abbasids
The Ottomans
The Safavids
The Mughal emperors

Cookbooks and Kitchen Practices

Professional chefs

Modern professional chefs

Amateur cooks


Arab cuisine

Ottoman cuisine

Persian cuisine

Mughal cuisine

Modern cookbooks

Itinerant Ingredients – The Flow of Commodities to and from the East

From the Far East and the West to the Islamic world


Sugar cane

Citrus fruits Bananas
Water melons Spinach


From the Middle East to Europe







Tomatoes and Peppers – Western Influences on Middle Eastern Cooking

Shifts in international trade
American plants in the cuisines of the East


Maize (Sweetcorn)
Jerusalem artichokes


Doner Kebabs and Falafels – Middle Eastern Cuisine in Europe

Doners and falafels 151 Poultry

Traces of Middle Eastern cuisine in British food
The growth in popularity of Middle Eastern food in Britain


Old and New – Modern Middle Eastern Cuisine 172

Practical and technical innovations in households large and small

Eating at table
Modern preservation techniques Changes in gastronomy

First restaurants

Modern restaurants

Your Food – Our Food: The Role of Politics and Economics

Politics and economics

Culinary identities
Dolma in Iraq
The dispute over hummus and falafel

Chefs for Peace

Other conflicts over the origins of foods

New forms of gardening
Halāl as an economic factor
New halāl concepts

Foodstuffs among strictly conservative Muslims in the diaspora

Index of Recipes and Metric Conversions

Glossary of Ingredients


Itinerant Ingredients – The Flow of Commodities to and from the East

Even in the pre-Islamic period, various types of grain, vegetables and fruits had already been brought to the Near and Middle East from India, the islands comprising what is now Indonesia and from China. The later systematic improvement of transport and trade routes leading into the Islamic heartland, above all during the reign of the Abbasids, brought about a significant increase in the import of agricultural crops. Many new crops appeared in markets in areas that were under Abbasid control. From there they were taken to the Muslim-run regions of North Africa, Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, even reaching as far as the Islamic states south of the Sahara in West Africa and the East African coast. It has even been shown that imports from the Islamic world, particularly from Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, also reached the Balkan region via the moribund but still extant Byzantine Empire. And it was along such routes that they finally reached the mercantile centres of Western and Central Europe. We owe our knowledge of the network of trade routes from India and Southeast Asia primarily to the accounts written by Arab geographers and universal historians of the period. These reports have been substantiated by archaeological discoveries which have yielded important in- formation about the spread of the different crops.

From the Far East and the West to the Islamic world


In both the classical and modern cookbooks hailing from regions of the Far East, three staple crops stand out: wheat, millet and rice. Millet and common wheat (Triticum aestivum), which were almost certainly first known in areas of what is now Afghanistan, had been cultivated in the Near and Middle East since time immemorial. Durum wheat (Triticum durum) and rice (Oryza sativa), on the other hand, are grain varieties that first had to be imported to the region. The systematic cultivation of rice was conducted on a large scale in India, Burma, Thailand and China. From there, it was taken to the Philippines and to the Southeast Asian island world of modern Indonesia. According to the ancient geographer Strabo, rice was already a familiar crop in Iran, Mesopotamia and the Jordan Valley by the 2nd century BC. It is also reputed to have been imported in small quantities for medicinal purposes to the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, but not to have been cultivated there. Under Islamic rule, rice cultivation became widely established in all places where there was sufficient availability of fresh water, which is essential for rice crops to grow and flourish. From this period onwards, rice production was intensified in the easternmost parts of the Islamic heartland such as Iran and Mesopotamia.

Farmers began to cultivate rice in the region around the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, where a complex systems of irrigation canals was built, as well as along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. Other cultivation areas arose subsequently around the city of Herat in the west of present-day Afghanistan, in the province of Sind in modern Pakistan and even in the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia. The harvests from the Jordan Valley supplied the whole of Palestine with rice. It was also said to have been grown in Yemen. There were rice paddies along the Nile and in the Faiyum Oasis, where it is no longer cultivated. In North Africa however, aside from a few sites in the south of Morocco, rice growing was not possible due to the lack of water. By contrast, in Muslim-controlled Sicily, large acreages of paddy fields were established. Above all rice cultivation became widespread in Spain following the Muslim conquest. The historical sources tell of a region around Valencia that was the centre of Iberian rice production. Surprisingly, one even reads of rice being cultivated on the Balearic island of Majorca. Furthermore, the Ar- abs took rice cultivation to the most far-flung outposts of the Islamic world, like the Volga River valley in the north and East Africa in the south. By the 14th century rice had formed the staple diet of the population of Mogadishu in Somalia.

Its broad distribution across this region is believed to have begun as early as the 10th century. It may even be the case that the first forms of rice production date back to the pre-Islamic period. Besides, an African variety of rice (Oryza glaberrima) is reputed to have been in existence long before Arabs first appeared in West Africa. Yet nor can the possibility be excluded that it was the Arabs who introduced Asiatic strains of rice into this region. Both Arab and European travellers reported that the rice on offer in West Africa was of just as high a quality as the rice they were familiar with in their homelands.

In the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, rice was still not an everyday staple food, though it had already been planted in a few regions of the vast empire. Areas of rice cultivation were located in Rumelia, in Anatolia near the city of Sinope and around the shores of the Black Sea. By the second half of that century, however, it had already begun to appear on the bill of fare served in dervish monasteries. For instance, there is a report from Diyarbakir in this period that visitors to the dervish monastery there were being served a rice dish with melons that was spiced with cloves and cinnamon. Nonetheless the product remained somewhat exotic, which must have had an impact on its price. For its principal function continued to be as an additive to soups. A rice soup of this type was renowned for being especially fortifying and was fed to invalids and convalescents. Sometime after 1670, it is widely assumed that rice supplanted wheat bread as the most commonplace staple food in Turkey.

Durum wheat, which in the modern kitchen is especially beloved by fans of pasta, is a relatively new cereal crop. Food historians are of the opinion that it originated in Ethiopia or the Eastern Mediterranean (Levant) as the result of a mutation of the primitive wheat form emmer (Triticum dicoccum) and moreover at a relatively late stage; certainly, durum wheat was unknown in Classical Antiquity. The wheat that was shipped in large quantities to Rome was emmer. Even works on agriculture from the Hellenistic period make no mention of durum wheat. The first signs of its cultivation emerge from archaeological evidence, which points to its presence in Egypt immediately prior to the Islamic conquest of the country in 642. Yet thereafter it was the Arabs who were responsible for spreading this crop to all the regions that they either overran during their campaigns of military subjugation or with which they traded through their extensive mercantile network. Even so, the Arabic language has no special term for durum wheat; the word hinta simply means ‘wheat’ without any differentiation. One possible exception, though, may be the word burr, which was used in medieval Yemen and also denotes wheat. But Arab authors point to differences between this grain and hinta that strongly suggest it may have been durum. However, the term burr did not become established as the standard word for durum wheat. Even Arab historiographers, geographers and travellers note that it was especially highly prized in those areas of the Near and Middle East characterised by low levels of rainfall, because it was well suited to arid soils. Special local forms of durum wheat evolved in Spain, North Africa, Central Asia and Ethiopia. Another advantage of durum wheat proved to be its long storage life. The geographer al-‘Umari (1300–1384) reported that stocks of this variety of wheat were stored in grain silos in North Africa for eighty years, and that this long period in storage had even served to enhance its purity and quality. Meanwhile, the Algerian historiographer al-Maqqari (d. 1632) – who dedicated his principal work entitled The Breath of Perfume from the Branch of Green Andalusia to Moorish Spain (al-Andalus), since been lost by the Muslims to Christian reconquest – even went so far as to claim that the (durum) wheat in Zaragoza could stay fresh for a hundred years. The growing popularity of durum wheat as an important staple cereal crop is also attested by the development of new recipes utilising it from the 12th and 13th centuries onward.

By that time, people had worked out that the high gluten content of durum wheat made it ideal for the manufacture of semolina. This discovery gave rise to the well-known North African dish couscous, which can form the basis of both savouries and sweets. By the 13th century, couscous was a familiar sight not only in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but also in Spain and Egypt, and even as far afield as Mesopotamia.

Another way of using durum wheat is to make noodles from it. The Arabic word for noodles is itriyya. The term only began to appear in Arabic dictionaries in the 14th century, although it was already to be found in cookbooks and medical works in Arabic in the preceding century. We may safely assume that these noodles were made from durum wheat. Some form of noodles are thought to have been in use in Arab kitchens from as early as the 9th century, though it is impossible to say with any certainty whether these were made from durum wheat.

There has been much speculation about the origins of noodles. The old legend that it was Marco Polo who brought this method of using grain back to Europe has now been thoroughly debunked. There is also general agreement among scholars that the ancient classical world did not know about noodles. However, it is hard to determine exactly when noodles did finally fetch up in the cooking pots of the Near and Middle East. According to medieval Arabic cookbooks, there were two distinct types of noodle. On the one hand, long, thin, spaghetti-like noodles were referred to in cookbooks from Baghdad and Damascus, but also in Iran, as rishta. This same sort were called itriyya in Andalusian and North African cookbooks. The Catalan word for noodles, aletria, derives from this. In the northern Italian region of Liguria, they are known simply as tria. The second type comprises shorter, extremely thin noodles, which in the east of the Arabic-speaking world were given the name shariyya, from the Arabic word shar for hair. In the western Arabic region they are called fidaush, the root of the Spanish word fideos and the Italin fede- lini. The German cultural historian Peter Peter informs us that noodle makers in Genoa in 1574 referred to themselves as fidelari. Long before that, the Arab geographer al-Idrisi (1099–1161), in his work Nuzhat al-mushtaq (‘The Book of Pleasant Journeys into Faraway Lands’), which he devoted to King Roger II of Sicily (1095–1154), had written: ‘To the west of Termini there is a place by the name of Trabia. It is an enchanting place whereat to stop a while, with its constantly flowing water and many mills. There is a broad plain there with extensive estates, where they produce large amounts of ytria (from the Arabic itriyya) and export it far and wide.’

This adoption of Arabic words to denote various sorts of noodles certainly does hint at a direct Arabic provenance for this Italian staple foodstuff. Yet only few recipes for how to make or use noodles can be found in medieval Arabic cookbooks. Instead, they tend to appear mostly in the context of comparisons: for example, one recipe instructs the user to slice courgettes ‘as finely as rishta’. In modern Near and Middle Eastern cookbooks, the talk is chiefly of vermicelli; combinations of noodles and rice are especially popular in this region.


This culinary history of the Middle East satisfies the elusive criteria of being all things to all people: broad in scope, yet detailed in discussion, and encyclopedic in its organization, but like a work of narrative nonfiction in its execution.’
– Tom Verde, AramcoWorld

‘Heine’s absorbing narrative triumphs totally with the inclusion of more than 70 recipes translated and scattered throughout the volume accompanying discussion of each dish that has been carefully selected from the medieval corpus. There are many feasts to be enjoyed from this volume, intellectually and gastronomically suited for all tastes.’
– Professor David Waines

‘Heine’s book is so packed with fascinating information and anecdotes that if you are anything close to a food aficionado it would be very hard to put it down.’
– Asian Review of Books