BEIRUT: What lends cuisine an Arab flavor? This question drove Dutch writers Nadia Zerouali and Merjin Tol to travel across the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe. The results of their findings are featured in their cookbook “Under the Shade of Olive Trees,” launched last week.Their aim, to explore Arab influence in Mediterranean cuisine, was ambitious. It took them to over 12 countries, the fruits of their labor apparent on each tantalizing page.
The book distinguishes between the culinary traditions in three regions: the Maghreb, including Morocco and Algeria; the Levant, encompassing Lebanon, Syria and Palestine; and Mediterranean Europe, including southern Spain, Italy and parts of France.
“We travel to the countries, learn the traditional recipes from the local women – they are mostly women, rarely men. Only in Algeria were they men,” Zerouali explained. “Sometimes, we used the traditional recipe, other times, we gave them our twist.”
The impetus to write the book came from the fact that some traditional dishes have been popularized at the expense of the original recipe.
“In Europe, often recipes that come from abroad are being mixed in, and no one knows what the original one was. So we really tried to make clear what is traditional and what is ours,” she added.
Their delightful take on traditional recipes – at times, the simple addition of an ingredient, at others, a more complex mélange of flavors – is the cookbook’s greatest allure.
Their watermelon granita recipe, made with a hint of rose water, is a good example. “It’s too simple for words,” Zerouali said. “You don’t even need an ice cream maker, just a plastic box.”
Their embellishments to basic labneh are also satisfying and easy to follow for the novice in the kitchen. A sweetened version, topped with hazelnut and citrus, is a particularly divine concoction.
The culinary pair co-wrote two cookbooks previously on the same subject, both requiring extensive travel in the region. They also host a TV show in the Netherlands.
“In the third book, we explain the ingredients, where to buy them. ... We did it really because people didn’t really understand the products in the other books. They’d buy pomegranate molasses to make one dish, and then they didn’t know what else to do with it,” Zerouali said.
The cookbook is geared toward those not intimately acquainted with the region’s pantry staples. Nevertheless, locals can also benefit from the diversity of dishes included, ranging from Spain all the way to Syria.
To address the inexperience, and sometimes apprehension, of Europeans wishing to experiment with Arab cuisine, Zerouali and Tol have divided the recipes by the key pantry items they include, such as couscous, nuts, spices, preserved lemon and, of course, pomegranate molasses.
“There are other countries we still want to see,” Tol said.
“We haven’t been to Saudi Arabia or Egypt. And we haven’t gotten to go to Iran,” she added, saying the former was high on their wish list.
Though the cuisines featured in the cookbook come from a variety of backgrounds, there are united by common culinary values.
“There is a lot of Arab influence in Italy, even in the pesto. It’s something people don’t realize,” Tol said.
It’s not just in dishes, but also the character of the people and the pride they take in presenting food, Zeraouli added. “You eat food with your eyes too.”
While the items in the cookbook are too varied to numerate, both chefs place strong emphasis on anise, fennel, citrus and orange blossom water. But, they said, they go through phases with their ingredients.
“We have been in the anise period for a long time,” Tol said. “Before, it was coriander.”
The two seem to enjoy a symbiotic working relationship, or, as Zeraouli said, “we put the salt in each other’s food.”
“We are always interacting with the other about food, we annoy our colleagues. If you ask me who wrote which part of the book or who made which recipe, I honestly couldn’t tell you,” she added.