Food shopping was (and is?) a laborious affair in the Middle East, with many stops to make and many heavy bags to carry home, but the enticing smell of spice and coffee, or a chance to nibble on fresh "pita" bread in the backseat of my father's marroon Opal Ascona, always brought me around.
Spice shops down winding, stone-flagged streets of the Old City of Jerusalem offered up bins of spices, and for a few shekels, hefty spoonfuls of spice could be measured out and captured into a plastic bag. Visits to the butcher were more traumatic. In Cairo, my young sister once mistook the rows of rabbits and chickens in crates outside of a butcher shop for a pet store, and while we admired and stroked the little animals, the butcher behind us slaughtered the chickens my mother had picked out. It was some time before my sister could manage to eat chicken after that. We bought produce from villagers, their cabbages, cousa, prickly pears spread on mats in front of their laps. Other times, my mother laughed and announced it was time to go to THE GARDEN OF EDEN, our loftily-named neighborhood produce market, where bins of grapefruit and eggplants waited for customers under dusty fans, and faded tropical wall art. Finally, we purchased our milk, eggs, mustard and coffee from our small neighborhood grocery store, Ja'fars. It had parking spots for five cars, and many times we would have to circle back, waiting for one of their five customers to leave. Its narrow aisles were stuffed with bottles and jars, packets and tins -- all expensive, I was told. We filled a little basket, and sometimes I would look at the imported foods with wonder - a cake mix! Look at that! But we usually shopped simply, for olives and nuts, butter and cheese.
Today, people would say that "we shopped local and in-season." But we didn't do this by choice, we did this by necessity. We built our menu around a basic list of available ingredients. Our food was predictable.
In many part of the world now, simplicity is not something that our culture gives us, but something we have to choose for ourselves. We have So. Many. Choices. We cook Italian pasta one night, Indian curry the other. We can cook classic French on Valentine's Day and classic American on Super Bowl Saturday. Grocery store aisles go on for days. Variety is the spice of life, we say. But that is sometimes the problem. In the face of Pinterest, food blogs (yikes!), recipes abound, but with so many choices, comes choice paralysis. And every week, you face the same questions, what to make, what to buy. And this takes time, time that you could be using to just make dinner.
In the face of so many choices, choosing to to centering your food purchases around one regional cuisine isn't just fun, it's smart. Stocking ingredients for one cuisine relieves your wallet and your cupboards, as they are no longer littered with half-used bottles, and forgotten ingredients. The ingredients just work together, so dishes suggest themselves. Lemon and lamb, rice and almonds, cucumbers with minted yogurt- these beckon from the kitchen. And so while my Garden of Eden days are behind me, I have learned that one of the best ways to keep my kitchen simple is to keep a kitchen stopped with basic ingredients for one cuisine.
If you want to center your kitchen provisions around Middle Eastern Dishes, here is what to do:
Without spice, you don't have Arabic food. But surprisingly, you probably already have most of these in your cupboard! A Middle Eastern or Indian grocer will also help you to locate some of the more obscure spices, such as lemony sumac or za'atar. Spices at international markets or in the international section of grocery stores are usually much more generously priced than what you will find in the baking aisle. Make your own Middle Eastern Curry and Shawarma Seasoning.
Step Two: Gather Produce
Lemons, garlic, onions and potatoes: these are easy to keep on hand. Add in whatever seasonal produce looks delicious that day, and a bunch of fresh herbs, if you don't have any growing in your garden. Your produce choices will drive your meals for the week. Cauliflower and eggplant may mean maqlouba or mnezzali, green beans, fassoulia.
Seasonal: eggplants, zucchini, green beans,
peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers,
avocados, cabbage, cauliflower
Herbs: mint, parsley, scallions
Step Three: Fill the Fridge
Keep a carton of plain whole yogurt (or make it!), a jar of oil-cured olives, and some white cheese in your fridge, and you will be in business. Add meats and broths, to braise tomorrow's Middle Eastern stews.
halloumi, feta, mozzarella, ricotta
Step Four: Ready the Pantry
Keep a large sack of rice, and a stash of lentils and chickpeas, for when you need a hummus fix or a simple dinner of mujjadara or lentil soup. Bulgar and freekeh are traditional Middle Eastern grains, but have recently enjoyed a resurgence in the West and are widely available.
Lentils, brown and red
Step Five: Final Flourishes
These are the distinctive touches of a Middle Eastern meal. Pomegranate molasses is our secret weapon, used as sweet-tart marinade, or to drizzle over dishes. A little splash of orange blossom water or rose water or a little dusting of pistachio, or almond, brings sweets back to their home in Palestine.
Orange blossom water
And to find a simple list of these ingredients, click here.