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  • Print publication year: 2000
  • Online publication date: March 2008

V.B.1 - The Middle East and South Asia

from V.B - The History and Culture of Food and Drink in Asia

Although the regions we call the Middle East and South Asia constitute a very wide area, their collective culture has been shaped by a shared history from the conquest of Alexander the Great to the Islamic empires. The precepts of Islam have been adopted in most of the countries in the area under scrutiny, if not always by the majority, as in India. There are, therefore, many similarities in their cultures and especially in their preparation of foods. Each country, region, and town has its own cooking traditions, but it is easy to spy the similarities behind the differences.

This region of the world is socially traditional; therefore, women stay at home most of the time and are in charge of the kitchen. Food is often prepared in the company of other women in Muslim houses, which makes it a time for socializing. Professional cooks (always male) are employed for special occasions in wealthier homes.

The cooking is done mostly on a stove. The process is very long and slow, resulting in a very tender meat or vegetable, literally ready to disintegrate. The people of the Middle East and South Asia have no liking for red meat (even pieces of meat or kebabs for roasting are cooked previously or at least marinated).

Food is almost never cooked in water alone. Rather, it is first fried, then simmered or boiled, and finally enriched with fat. There is also a wide consumption of street food, fried or grilled. Savory pastries, such as borek, samossa, and brik, are popular.

Meat is an important item of the diet for those (except for the vegetarians) who can afford it, and it is used as often as possible, even as part of a stuffing or in a broth. Lamb is the favorite meat, although the less expensive chicken dominates in poorer houses. Because of the Islamic influence, pork is avoided, except by minorities, such as the Goanese Christians, for example.

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The Cambridge World History of Food
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