The Arab Table by May S. Bsisu

October 8, 2009  • 

 

I bought this cookbook a few years back, intrigued by the title and the thickness of the book. I have used it many times and have a great appreciation for it. It is written with a lot of care and one feels the love of the author for her subject and Arabic culture in general.

What I like about the book:

  • The recipes are detailed and meticulously explained. For instance, the recipe for shredded pastry with cheese or kunafa bel-jibin, a traditional dessert, is explained over 5 pages of text. The author makes an effort to reach out to non-Arab readers who have absolutely no background in Arabic food. She also takes great pain in explaining cultural and religious  traditions. For example, she devotes nine full pages of text explaining Ramadan, its religious significance, customs, social greetings during Ramadan, fasting as well as Iftar and Suhur sample menus.
  • The recipes are traditional and are mainly from the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon) with a few sprinkled here and there from the Gulf and North Africa. She also indicates what the variations of a traditional recipe would look like in one region versus another. For example, how milk pudding or muhallabiya would be prepared in the Gulf States as opposed Lebanon or Syria or Morocco.
  • The book contains an introduction called The Arab Pantry which details most of the ingredients that are used in cooking Arab food, which is extremely useful for someone new to Arab cuisine.
  • A great number of the recipes contains little addendum that offer useful tips or techniques. For instance, her recipe for tahini sauce has an addendum on the best way to peel and mash  garlic cloves.
  • The book offers a listing of sources for Arabic staples with full addresses and websites throughout the United States.
  • The book contains 188 popular recipes including breakfast, salads, soups, main dishes, desserts and drinks.
  • The book contains 32  beautiful photos.
  • What personally touched me in this book was the enthusiasm of the author. She makes the reader feel like a friend!

What I did not like about the book:

  • For a book of this breadth, the photographs are insufficient. For example,although  there are  nine pages devoted to shredded pastry with cheese or kunafa bel-jeben, there is no photo of the actual dessert. As Arab cuisine is fairly unique and often time-consuming, it is a good idea to show the reader what he or she is aiming at.
  • Ms. Bsisu is Palestinian in origin. This fact has influenced her kibbe recipes; in other words, she adds a lot of bulgur to the mix! Whereas in Lebanon, the mix is 1 quantity meat to (at most) 3/4 bulgur, her recipes use the same volume of bulgur to meat and in the case of the chicken kibbe she triples the quantity of bulgur. So the taste will be mostly bulgur. I prefer the Lebanese proportions. Only a matter of taste.


Comments

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  1. Mona says:

    I am a big fan of this cookbook too. Very neatly explained recipes and a good collection of Arabic recipes.

  2. maninas says:

    This books sounds interesting.

    In general, what are your favourite Middle Eastern cookbooks? I’d be very interested to hear you recommendations.

    I have Claudia Roden’s Arabesque, which I love because it contains a lot of information about culture as well as food of Turkey, Morroco and Lebanon. I also have Arabian Flavours: Recipes and Tales of the Arab Life by Salah Jamal, which I love because of his stories of living in the Middle East.

    • Joumana says:

      I have not read the book by Salah Jamal; sounds interesting! I have many favorite cookbooks; the one I have used a lot is by Anissa Helou, and I have posted a review on it. It is because it reflects very faithfully the food I grew up eating in Beirut in the same time period. I also love Claudia Roden and read the book Arabesque but my favorite of hers is the first one The book of Middle Eastern Food which I was blown over by more than 30 years ago. Every time I travel to Lebanon, I bring back my stash of new cookbooks and lately I discovered one by Marlene Mattar, called Marlene’s Kitchen but I found it in Arabic only.

  3. Maninas says:

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. lisa says:

    I have made many recipes from the Arab Table and they have been delicious! Her book feels the most authenic and I like the layout and detail given to the recipes. However, as you pointed out, more pictures would have been nice.

  5. Carmine says:

    I have purchased this book a while ago. The title is inaccurate; most recipes are from the cuisine of the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan). As for the Kibbi, perhaps the kibbi included in this book is done the Palestinian way and not the Lebanese way, but this does not take away from the value of the Kibbi recipes because Kibbi is considered a Palestinian dish as well, perhaps with not as many varieties as in Lebanon and Syria.

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