The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean by Paula Wolfert

October 22, 2009  • 

My first encounter with Paula Wolfert’s work happened 20 years ago  when I bought her cookbook Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. That cookbook did not contain a single color photograph, yet it was engrossing because of the amount of research that went into it.  Mrs Wolfert had  lived in Morocco for five years and put that time into good use.  So when I saw  in 1994 a new  book bearing her name on Eastern Mediterranean cooking, my neck of the woods, I snatched it before I could blink.

What I liked about the book:

  • This is a cookbook from an intrepid traveller who will not hesitate to go off the beaten paths to discover authentic, folksy recipes. In this book, she crossed Macedonia, forward and backward, Georgia, south-east Turkey, eastern Syria and northern Lebanon, delivering 215 recipes in the process in roughly 400 pages.
  • The research is amazing. The author travelled to the most remote corners of the eastern mediterranean, meeting local folks and despite language barriers and such, extracting recipes that are undeniably authentic and proper to that particular region. For instance, she describes a series of Macedonian pies proper to the Vlach people. Frankly, I had never heard of them before that book! She went to a village in northern Macedonia, Nympheon, to learn from local womenfolk there how to make phyllo pies and pastries. She describes a charming village of 36 residents, meeting with the local instructor who took her on a hunt for wild greens. It is in this book that I first heard of nettles, a very nutritious wild green. She describes purslane, which is used in Lebanon in the fattoosh salad (among others), as an incredibly nutritious weed.
  • I believe Paula Wolfert is the first one to point out to the American public the importance of wild greens; apparently she discovered this during her tour of northern Greece, which she talks about in the book. Had she toured Lebanon, she would have seen how Lebanese mountain folks use wild herbs in very similar ways! So, to my mind, she is a visionary. I would like to let her loose in the Gobi desert and see what she comes up with!
  • In Damascus, she describes a recipe for borek in a tray. I had it in Beirut, made to order by  an Armenian lady, and I for one was so glad to find  in that book what I think is the technique (soaking the phyllo with a thin batter) that was used by this lady to make the phyllo tender like noodles.
  • The book describes recipes from regions in Georgia, such as khinkali, a type of dumpling similar to our Lebanese sheesh barak, and manti, the Turkish and Armenian dumpling, with four full-pages of explanations.
  • The book describes Kurdish, Aleppo and Georgian soups using lentils and beans.
  • A very useful part of the book is the appendix in which she gives detailed instructions on how to prepare spice mixes and pastes as well as addresses of purveyors of near-eastern products.
  • The most interesting part of the book to me was her chapter on kibbeh. She lists 50 different varieties (she claims she made them all) and describes in painstaking details how to make kibbeh, that she describes as a masterpiece of middle-eastern cuisine.
  • The book provides a few (seven in total) drawings etched in black ink to visually explain a recipe.
  • This book has a socio-cultural dimension; it is not just a collection of recipes. It describes people and their customs. Real, salt-of-the-earth, people.  She describes Aleppo in Syria as a culinary paradise.
  • Mrs Wolfert describes the concept of mezze and earmarks with an asterisk all the dishes suitable for mezze.
  • The recipes are clear and will work. My favorite was pumpkin kibbeh and stuffed cabbage.
  • She stresses in her introduction that in all her years of traveling and writing about food, she has never met such gracious and generous people as in the middle-east.
  • paula's drawings

What I did not like about the book:

  • Every chapter in the book you find a black and white thumbprint-sized photo representing local women of that region, in different positions; some are squatting on the floor making bread, others are kneading dough or making meatballs. I remember showing the book to my mother and she was so offended. She said ” this is how she wants to show us to the world”. Truthfully, the photos are not flattering! The women don’t look their best, and I am understating it! Now, it is my contention that in the middle-east you will find some of the most beautiful and stylish women in the world. These photos are not representative and, yes, can be interpreted like my mother did to show a condescending attitude on the part of the photographer.
  • This book is for the hard-core or the adventurous cook, who will not be put off by challenging recipes and exotic ingredients.
  • The book is sorely lacking in good photos and (or) more drawings.
  • I scrutinized her middle-eastern recipes, of course, and I was surprised by her comment on zaatar pie, our beloved manooshe. She almost denigrates it by saying, after describing it,” it is not to everyone’s taste! “ Now, I can assure Mrs Wolfert, that there are millions of people in the middle-east who love zaatar pie! It is very popular indeed!


Comments

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  1. Rosa says:

    An interesting book! I adore folksy recipe and that kind of food. I’m adding that book to my list…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. HistoryOf GreekFood says:

    Specifically regarding cookbooks on Mediterranean foods in the United States, there is a trend in which authors provide the ethnographic description of cultural “others ”. However, these cookbooks often articulate between the desire to present and preserve certain rural practices and the continuing elimination of these practices by urbanization. And they associate the authenticity of a recipe with the icon of the past.

  3. Sophie says:

    Indeed, this is an intersting book! Very useful too!

  4. Alépine says:

    I think I will buy this book (unfortunately it isn’t translated in France) maybe because she describes Aleppo as a culinary Paradise 😉

  5. Peter says:

    The crafting of pitas made with hand-made phyllo is an art and I’m proud to be born in a family that carries this tradition. The town of Nimfeon is very close to my parents’ town in northern Greece. There are as many pies as there are opinions in Greece. That is alot!

  6. maninas says:

    Thanks for the review. Both Wolfert books you mention sound great.

  7. tarzile says:

    Finally, I find a reference to Paula Wolfert in a blog. Thank you for the review.

  8. Adelina says:

    I agree on your points about this book and understand your mommy’s concern. I do have a copy of this book on my shelf and use it for reference when I want to explore middle eastern food and culture.

  9. Kristin Finne says:

    Loved all your reviews, and are putting these books on my Amazon wish list immediately. I learned to love the Lebanese and Syrian cuisines through travels in the Middle East, and the kitchens of those who invited us in. I have looked for a decent pumpkin kibbeh-recipe for years, so I will most certainly try that one. I still remember the taste of the ones we had in the Chouf mountains seven years ago. Thank you!

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