I have many cookbooks. What I value at this point in my life and continuing education are books that can teach me something about food in context of the culture it springs from. Arabian Delights is such a book. Amy Riolo not only includes recipes from Arab lands, but also explains the regional differences in Arab cuisine, opening up a previously opaque part of the world to understanding through food.
An introductory section explains the differences in the cooking of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the Unite Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Geography and history combined produce fascinating divergences, both large and small, in neighboring countries’ traditions.
The recipes are grouped by occasions for which they might be prepared and enjoyed, including not only the expected events such as Ramadan meals (predawn and after dark feasts which must fortify those fasting during daylight for a month), but also those which are more obscure.
Many occasions are delightful to imagine. In the chapter “Children’s Pearl Diving Party,” we learn that “until the 1930’s, pearl diving was a common occupation among Bahrainis.” The recipes that follow are organized around seafood-themed party dishes. All the chapters include hints for planning the parties as well as recipes for each dish on the menu.
I was amazed to learn of the existence of Desert Truffles, mushrooms that grow, not in symbiosis with trees as truffles in colder climates do, but with a member of the rock rose family. Thus the chapter “Bedouin Desert Truffle Party” presents recipes for using them, should one ever be lucky enough to come into possession of any of these rare delicacies.
Amy Riolo maintains a home in Egypt and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East. In her Acknowledgments, she thanks King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for his hospitality. Despite circulating in such rarified society, the recipes are accessible for any cook eager to try new dishes and learn about relatively exotic cuisines.
Amy’s recipe for Red Lentil Puree with Za’atar Pita Chips is available on the Olney Farmers and Artists Market website.