Baking powder is a leavening agent that is used to make dough rise. First used in the early 19th century c.e., baking powder comes in two forms: single-acting and double-acting. Single-acting baking powder contains acid salts such as cream of tartar, calcium phosphate, and citrate that react with alkalis (such as baking soda) at room temperature to produce carbon dioxide, a higher temperature, and an increase in the volume of the dough. Double-acting baking powder contains these salts and also contains acid salts such as calcium aluminum phosphate that react with alkalis at higher temperatures to create even more carbon dioxide and dough volume.
Many cake, muffin, and bread recipes that use all-purpose flour call for the addition of baking powder.
Though baking powder (as we know it) did not exist in biblical times, it performs many of the same functions as leaven, a term of frequent biblical usage.
Baking soda is also known as bicarbonate of soda, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium hydrogen carbonate. It is a crystalline alkali that combines with an acid (such as those in baking powder) to release carbon dioxide and water. When this reaction occurs in the mixing of doughs and batters, the carbon dioxide serves to increase the volume and raise the temperature of the mixture. Today, baking soda is essential to the success of Middle Eastern breads, desserts, gravies, and sauces.
Berry vinaigrette is a mixture of vinegar that has been flavored and aged with the addition of berries (for example, blueberries, raspberries), vegetable oils (such as olive oil or sunflower oil), herbs, and spices. Berry vinaigrette is delicious when used on lettuce salads, pastas, and chicken dishes.
Generally speaking, there are two types of bread: unleavened (flat) and leavened (raised).
The making of unleavened breads dates from prehistory, when early humans combined ground grain with water and cooked the mixture on hot stones. Flat breads like matzoh, tortillas, and chapatis are still quite popular today.
The ancient Egyptians invented leavened bread, perhaps by accident when wild yeasts somehow contaminated wheat dough and caused it to rise. Egyptian cooks learned to add a portion of dough from a risen batch to an unleavened dough to cause it to rise too. The Hebrews adopted the Egyptian techniques, and the Romans carried the making of leavened bread to all parts of their world. Though raised bread became commonplace, the process of leavening was not fully understood until quite recently. Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) discovered that yeast is alive and that it causes fermentation, and that this fermentation yields carbon dioxide that in turn makes dough rise.
Bread consists of three necessary ingredients and three optional ones. The necessary ingredients are:
- Flour, which is the main ingredient. For flat breads, any type of flour will work, from wheat to potato to corn to soybean. For raised breads, wheat flour is the best, then rye. Wheat flour contains proteins that combine with liquid to form gluten. The gluten, in combination with the yeast, creates a strong yet elastic cell network; the cells are able to expand during leavening but remain strong enough to trap the carbon dioxide produced by the action of the yeast. Gluten also traps starch, which solidifies during baking. Both the gluten and the starch provide the bread's texture.
- Liquid, which distributes the flour evenly. In raised breads, the liquid also dissolves and spreads the yeast throughout the dough; the formation of gluten and the solidification of starch also require a liquid. Different liquids produce different types of bread: for example, water yields a bread with a crispy, thick crust; milk, a bread with a thinner, tender crust. Fruit juice, potato juice, and even beer can be used as the liquid in bread-making.
- Yeast, which is necessary only for raised bread. Yeast ferments the carbohydrates present in wheat flour, yielding alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gluten present in the flour traps the carbon dioxide in the dough, and the dough increases in volume. The alcohol evaporates during cooking. Yeast also makes the dough more elastic and sticky and provides certain flavors and aromas.
The nonessential bread ingredients are:
- Salt, which strengthens the gluten and controls the multiplication of the yeast. It also adds flavor to the final product.
- Sugar, which serves as energy for the yeast at the beginning of the leavening process (though too much sugar will slow the action of the yeast).
- Fat, which increases the dough's elasticity and facilitates the leavening process. It also adds flavor (and calories).
Over the centuries, many different forms of leavened bread have been developed. Some of the more popular are English muffins, French baguettes, Italian bread, focaccia, pita, pumpernickel, rye, sandwich bread (white or whole wheat), multigrain breads, challah bread, cheese breads, raisin breads, potato breads, bagels, croissants, rolls, and sourdough.
Because there are so many different ways to make bread, the nutritional content of bread products will vary widely. In general, wheat breads are very high in phosphorus, thiamin, magnesium, niacin, iron, and folacin and very low in cholesterol, though they also tend to be very high in calories and sodium.
Bread is probably the most important part of the Middle Eastern meal and is usually broken to signify the start of the feast.
Chocolate is a substance made from the beans of the cacao (also known as cocoa) tree (Theobroma cacao), which is native to the tropical Americas. Christopher Columbus “discovered” cacao beans in 1502 and sent them back to Spain, but they were so bitter that no one was interested in eating them. In 1519, however, Herna´n Corte´s tasted chocolate prepared by the Aztecs and sent cacao beans and instructions to Spain. Mixed with cane sugar, newly introduced into Europe at about the same time, the cacao paste was a chocolate novelty that became popular throughout Europe. Spain kept the recipe a secret and maintained a monopoly on the production of chocolate for almost a hundred years, until expelling its Jewish citizens, who brought the recipes for chocolate-making to France. Chocolate made its way to England in the 17th century, and by about 1700 the English had added milk to chocolate. James Baker opened the first chocolate factory in North America, in Massachusetts, in 1765. The Swiss did not begin making chocolate until the mid-19th century; in 1876 they introduced milk chocolate on a commercial scale. World-Wide, more than 600,000 tons of cacao beans are now consumed annually.
The word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. They made a drink called xocoatl from cacao beans and often flavored it with vanilla, chili pepper, annatto, pimento, and other spices. The drink was supposed to help prevent fatigue; it was also associated with Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of fertility.
To make chocolate, the cacao beans are fermented, roasted, and ground. Most of the fat of the cacao bean (cocoa butter) is extracted, leaving cocoa liquor, paste, or powder, depending on the amount of dessication. In the process, a lot of the nutrients naturally found in the beans are eliminated. Sugar is usually added, as is vanilla; sometimes honey, coffee, almond extract, mint, cinnamon, and fruit extracts are also used to add interesting flavors.
There are several types of chocolate available:
- Bitter or unsweetened or baking chocolate, which is used in cooking, has no sugar added. With the addition of sugar, it becomes the basis for cakes, brownies, and cookies.
- Dark (also called plain or sweet) chocolate has sugar but no milk.
- Couverture chocolate, used by professional chefs and sold in specialty food stores, contains a high amount of chocolate liqueur and cocoa butter. Fluid when melted, these chocolates have exquisite flavors. Some common brands include Lindt, Guittard, and Valrhona.
- Milk chocolate is chocolate with milk powder or condensed milk added in.
- Semisweet chocolate, a dark chocolate, has a high sugar content and a low cocoa content; it is used for cooking.
- Bittersweet chocolate is made by adding sugar, cocoa butter, and vanilla to chocolate liqueur; it is not quite as sweet as semisweet chocolate.
- White chocolate is made from cocoa butter without any cocoa solids.
- Cocoa powder is made by grinding partially defatted chocolate liqueur to remove nearly all the cocoa butter; it is used in baking to react with baking soda and make the batter rise.
According to recent studies, dark chocolate contains antioxidants that promote cardiac health, help prevent cancer, and counteract mild hypertension. However, eating milk chocolate or white chocolate, or even drinking milk with dark chocolate, can negate any health benefits. Also, chocolate tends to be rich in calories, so too much chocolate can be the cause of other health problems, such as obesity and diabetes. The theobromine and caffeine found in chocolate can act as weak stimulants. There is no conclusive evidence that eating chocolate causes acne.
Cornstarch, sometimes called cornflour, is the starch of the corn grain. Used as a thickening or binding agent in puddings, sauces, and gravies, it also serves as an anticaking agent in powdered or confectioners' sugar. Cornstarch is an important additive in Middle Eastern candies, casseroles, and vegetable dishes.
Corn syrup is extracted from sweet corn for use in sweetening other prepared foods. It is a key ingredient found in Middle Eastern pastries, particularly baklava.
Crabapple jelly is made from the fruit of crabapple trees (Malus genus), which are native to the temperate regions of North America, Europe, and Asia (see apple). The fruit of crabapples is generally small and sour, often unpalatable. The addition of lots of sugar can counteract the bitterness of the crabapples. Although crabapple jelly is a relatively common homemade product, crabapple trees are generally cultivated for their lovely red, white, pink, or purplish spring blossoms, attractive shapes and foliage, and decorative fruit. Crabapple jelly is often found on modern Middle Eastern tables as a side dish to accompany turkey breast, tagines, and lamb casseroles.
Human beings have consumed eggs since time immemorial, though for most of prehistoric times the eggs were gathered from the nests of wild birds. Over the millennia, people have eaten the eggs of ducks, geese, peacocks, ostriches, plovers, partridges, quail, gulls, and chickens. (People have also enjoyed eating the eggs of various fishes like sturgeon, salmon, mullet, shad, and herring, as well as the eggs of certain turtles and crocodiles.) Today the three most important eggs commercially are those of the chicken, the duck, and the ostrich, in that order, but chicken eggs were very late in entering the kitchen. The people of India probably first ate chicken eggs when they domesticated wild jungle fowl about 2000 b.c.e. By 1400 b.c.e. the Chinese were artificially incubating eggs; these may have been duck eggs, but chicken eggs were certainly a part of Chinese cuisine by that time. Chickens did not appear in the Mediterranean region until sometime between 1100 and 700 b.c.e. It is possible that the peoples of the Bible had chickens and ate eggs, but the only certain mention of chicken eggs is in the New Testament (Luke 11:12), and it is difficult to know if the few references to eggs in the Old Testament and Hebrew scriptures apply to chicken eggs or to the eggs of other creatures (partridge in Jeremiah 17:11 [KJV]; swallows and sparrows in Psalm 84:3 [The Message]; owl in Isaiah 34:15 [NIV]). The ancient Greeks and Romans ate lots of chicken eggs (but initially little chicken, as the birds were probably too tough and thin for good eating; toward the end of the Roman Empire the people had learned how to raise plumper fowl). During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, eggs served as a staple and available source of protein, and chickens were kept for their egg-laying qualities and not for eating. While Christopher Columbus probably introduced chickens to the Caribbean, they did not appear in North America until imported by the settlers of Jamestown and Plymouth in the 17th century.
The consumption of chicken eggs today is enormous, and eggs are sometimes used as the standard against which other foods are measured to determine their nutritive value. Chicken eggs are an inexpensive source of high-quality protein; they are also rich in vitamins B12 and E, riboflavin, folacin, iron, and phosphorus. Indeed, eggs would be a near-perfect food were it not for the high cholesterol found in egg yolks. Yet based on recent studies, the American Heart Association has recommended that people with healthy cholesterol levels can eat as many as four whole eggs per week. Egg whites, which are almost pure protein, can be consumed without concern.
Because of the risk that even fresh eggs can carry salmonella bacteria, eggs should be cooked thoroughly before eating. There are numerous ways to cook eggs: boiling, frying, scrambling, poaching; making omelets and French toast; adding them to recipes for pancakes, waffles, cookies, cakes, pies, and other desserts; and using cooked eggs to garnish salads, vegetable dishes, and so on.
Many foods are artificially colored to make them more attractive to the consumer. Certain foods lose their natural coloring during transport and storage, under varying moisture, light, and temperature conditions. Some foods have natural color variations that make them unappealing. Sometimes food coloring can even protect the flavor and vitamin content of certain foods.
Much food coloring has natural origins. Light-brown coloring comes from caramelized sugar. A reddish-orange dye called annatto can be made from a tropical seed. Algae are the source of the green coloring known as chlorella. The red dye cochineal comes from cochineal insects. Other natural colorings come from beet juice, turmeric, saffron, and paprika and are common in Middle Eastern dishes, especially those with rice.
There are also artificial food colorings. These are known as either dyes or lakes. Dyes dissolve in water and can be used to color beverages, baked goods, dairy products, powdered mixes, and even pet foods. Lakes are made by combining dyes with an insoluble material. Ideal for adding color to foods containing fats and oils, such as chewing gums and hard candies, lakes are oil dispersible.
Some people have adverse reactions, such as hyperactivity, depression, and asthmatic symptoms, to certain artificial food colorings. FD&C Yellow No. 5 and FD&C Red No. 3 in particular, when consumed in large quantities, have been found to be potentially harmful to one's health.
The Bible mentions honey numerous times, and honey is associated with the stories of biblical heroes such as Moses, Samson, and Jonathan. The peoples of the Bible considered it a necessity, for it was the best or sometimes the only sweetener they had. Grape sugar, carob pods, date or fig syrup, even sugarcane were not always available and then not often equal to honey. Although keeping bees may date from as early as 2600 b.c.e. in Egypt, the Israelites were too nomadic to tend beehives. For a long time most of the Mediterranean peoples preferred wild honey to domesticated varieties anyway, but the ancient Romans were great practitioners of beekeeping and passed on their art to the peoples they conquered. During the Middle Ages, all feudal manors maintained beehives, and honey continued to be the principal source of sweetening right through the Renaissance, until cane sugar became plentiful enough, cheap enough, and palatable enough to replace honey. In the Americas, both the Aztecs and the Mayans raised bees for their honey. European settlers brought their own bees with them to the Americas, and swarming domesticated bees escaped into the wild and crossed the continent.
Honey bears the distinctive flavor of the flowers from which it is made. Some of the favorites over the centuries are honeys from thyme, acacia, apple blossom, orange blossom, heather, rosemary, clover, chaparral, and sage blossom. The flower nectar also determines the color of the honey: for example, rosemary honey may be almost pure white, while thyme honey is clear and golden.
Although consumed “raw,” honey is a processed food—processed, that is, by the bees themselves. When a bee eats nectar from a blossom, its digestive juices begin to transform the nectar into sugars. At the hive, the gatherer feeds these sugars to the youngest bees, who manipulate it in their mouths to evaporate the water content; their glandular secretions cause additional changes too. The young bees then transfer the fluid to the honeycomb, where it undergoes further concentration in the high temperatures maintained inside the hive. After a time, the honey is ready. When the honeycomb is removed from the high temperatures of the hive and the honey removed from the comb, it may crystallize; placing it in warm water will return the crystals to liquid form.
Honey has little nutritive value aside from providing sugar to the diet. Many cooks prefer to substitute honey in dessert recipes calling for processed sugar, but other adjustments to the recipes often need to be made. Honey can also be used in fish dishes and sauces, in salad dressings, as a garnish on nuts, and even to sweeten wine. Honey is everpresent in the Middle Eastern kitchen.
Also known as tomato sauce in the United Kingdom and catsup elsewhere, ketchup is a condiment made from tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, and sometimes onions, celery, and other vegetables.
The term “catchup” was first used as early as 1690 to denote an East Indian sauce. Up until the end of the 19th century, ketchup was any sauce made with vinegar. In the early days, ketchup was made from mushrooms and fish brine with herbs and spices. Other popular ketchup recipes included anchovies, oysters, lobster, walnuts, beans, cucumbers, cranberries, lemons, and grapes. In fact, tomatoes were a late addition to ketchup, as many people of the early 19th century believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Yet a few tomato ketchup recipes from the early 1800s have been found, including one by Thomas Jefferson's cousin Mary Randolph.
The H. J. Heinz Company introduced the first commercial ketchup, and it was a radical departure from previous ketchups. To avoid the use of benzoate as a preservative, the safety of which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had called into question, Heinz used pickled ripe tomatoes, which had a long shelflife; previously, unpickled unripe tomatoes had been used, and the ketchups were less vinegary and more bitter and salty. Heinz's recipe made ketchup simultaneously more sour and pungent and sweeter. His innovations influenced the recipes of all modern ketchups, and ketchup has become the premier condiment in use in the United States.
Ketchup is generally high in vitamin C and lycopene, but it is also loaded with sodium and calories. In the Middle East, ketchup is used particularly as a sidedish with falafel, rice, beans, roasted meats, and bread salads.
Lemon sorbet (also known as sorbetto or sorbeto) is a frozen dessert made from iced lemon pure´e. Sorbets contain no milk and are generally served between the appetizer course and the main course of a meal, in order to cleanse the palate. According to legend, the Roman emperor Nero had snow mixed with honey and wine, creating the first sorbet. However, the Chinese had been mixing snow, fruit juice, and fruit pulp as a refreshment for hundreds of years before. Food historians believe that Catherine de” Medici brought frozen desserts to France in the 16th century c.e.; by the end of the 17th century, the people of Paris could buy sorbets from street vendors, and sorbets had become popular in England and throughout Europe. Sorbets, made from any number of fruit juices, are a delicious nonfat (or low-fat) dessert. Sorbets are often on the dessert menu of Middle Eastern restaurants and eateries.
Mayonnaise is a sauce made from vegetable oils, egg yolk, vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and spices, often mustards. Usually white or light yellow, it is used as a sandwich spread, a condiment for French fries, and a base for chilled sauces and salad dressings such as
- Aioli, which is olive oil, mayonnaise, and garlic
- Tartar sauce, which is made by adding capers and pickles to mayonnaise
- Russian dressing, which is a combination of mayonnaise and tomato sauce (or ketchup)
- Thousand Island dressing, which is Russian dressing with pickles and herbs added
The first use of the word mayonnaise occurred in an English cookbook in 1841.
Today, mayonnaise is used in Middle Eastern recipes that feature fish, rice or potatoes, salads, dips, spreads, and vegetarian fare.
Mint jelly is made from the leaves of any number of mint species in the Mentha genus. To make the jelly, the leaves (and sometimes the stems) are boiled; then the water is strained and combined with lemon juice and sugar. The mixture is boiled again, and fruit pectin is added. After further boiling, the mixture (now a hot jelly) is poured into jars for canning. Variations on this basic recipe would add apples or gooseberries, or lime juice instead of lemon juice, or other herbs like basil and parsley. Mint jelly is often served as a sauce or complement to lamb or mutton dishes or with steak or eggplants.
Molasses, sometimes called treacle, is a thick sugary liquid extract of either the sugarcane plant (Saccharum genus) or the sugar beet.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, molasses was very popular because it was much less expensive than refined sugar. England's American colonies imported great quantities of molasses from the Caribbean, and in 1733 Parliament passed the Molasses Act, which levied a tariff on molasses produced in lands not under British control. This act was one of the first causes of colonial unrest that eventually led to the American Revolution.
Sugarcane molasses is available in three types:
- Unsulphured, the finest quality, is made from the juice of cane that has ripened in the sun; the juice is then clarified and concentrated.
- Sulphured is made from unripe sugarcane and treated with sulphur fumes as the sugar is extracted.
- Blackstrap is the result of multiple rounds of processing and boiling of the cane juice. The result of the primary round is called first molasses, which has the most sugar. Second molasses is the result of a secondary round of boiling and processing, and it is slightly bitter. Additional rounds yield blackstrap molasses, which is considered to be the most nutritious of all.
Sugar beet molasses is the result of the final crystallization stage of the sugar beet juice; intermediate stages yield high-green and low-green juice. Sugar beet molasses is very sweet, about 50 percent sugar, but it is not very palatable and is generally used as livestock feed.
Molasses of either type can be fermented to make rum.
Today's largest producers of molasses are the United States, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Brazil, and India.
Blackstrap molasses comes from sugarcane (Saccharum genus) and is the result of multiple rounds of processing and boiling of the cane juice. Most of the sugar has been removed, but blackstrap molasses is still an energizing mineral-rich sweetener, very high in iron, manganese, copper, potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and selenium. It is sold in most health-food stores. It is also used to flavor baked beans, gingerbread, cookies, cakes, and turkey and chicken dishes. Blackstrap molasses is considered the premier type of molasses.
Orange marmalade is a sweet jam-like spread made from oranges, usually large sour oranges from Seville, with orange peel, sugar, and a gelling agent. It is most often spread on toast, muffins, bagels, and other bread products.
Marmalades were probably first made by the ancient Greeks, who slow-cooked quince with honey to make a thick, sweet-and-tart spread. The ancient Romans learned from the Greeks and added new wine to produce a particular Roman marmalade. The English learned about marmalades from the French by the 15th century c.e., and in the 17th century, when England began to import a plentiful supply of citrus fruit, marmalade began to be made with oranges and lemons. As a result of Britain's world-wide empire, marmalade is now popular around the globe, and is quite popular in the foods of Middle Eastern kitchens.
Salt, also known as table salt and edible salt, is basically sodium chloride, with other trace minerals. Essential for regulating the body's fluid balance, salt is available in crystalline form in rock deposits or dissolved in sea water. Salt is also a superb food preservative.
The use of salt predates the historic record, and the earliest humans ingested salt when consuming foods (especiallymeats) and beverages (like milk) that are naturally salty. With the advent of herding and then of agriculture came the need to provide seasonings for food—both to improve the flavor of vegetables and to obtain the necessary amountsof salt. The invention of cooking pots made the need for added salt evenmore imperative, as the natural salt content of meats,which is conserved during roasting, leaches during boiling. Neolithic humans obtained some salt from the ash left by burning salty plants, but it was not enough, and other sources were needed. Discovering that certain earths, such as former seabeds, were rich sources of salt, people began to mine rock salt. Some of the oldest salt mines are in Austria, though Asia, Africa, and the Americas have many salt plains where rock salt is plentiful. At the same time, some coastal peoples began to obtain salt by evaporating sea water. But quantities of salt were extremely difficult to obtain in some regions, and salt became one of the earliest and most highly valued trading commodities, carried over the deserts by camel caravans, over the oceans by convoys of sailing vessels, and over roads built especially for the transportation of salt by ox- and donkey- and horsedrawn wagons. At times, salt was so precious that it was traded for an equivalent weight of gold: hence the saying “worth itsweight in gold.” Conflicts arising over the salt trade caused wars and brought about the rise and fall of governments.
All of the ancient peoples knew the importance of salt, and salt figures importantly in the Bible stories: the ancient Israelites even included salt in their sacrificial offerings to God. Salt also played a role in the religious rituals of the ancient Aryans, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Among the Semitic peoples, an offer of salt was an offer of hospitality, with its accompanying obligations of protection, but casting salt across the threshold of a house or tent was a warning that strangers were not welcome. This custom was perhaps the beginning of the superstition that spilling salt brings bad luck—though because salt was so expensive, wasting it would certainly not have been looked upon favorably. One of the most prominent representations of this superstition is Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper, which depicts Judas overturning his salt container. The Christian Church embraced the belief in salt's sanctity and spread the idea that salt was a protection against the devil and other lesser demons.
Perhaps the first to do so, Chinese governments taxed salt as long ago as 2200 b.c.e. Ancient Roman soldiers received their pay in quantities of salt, and the Romans established salt roads through much of Europe for the safe transportation (and taxation) of this precious commodity. Cities, states, dukedoms, and nations have imposed salt duties and taxes right up till the present, the best known being the salt tax that sent Mahatma Gandhi on a march to the sea in 1930 (see sea salt). Salt even influenced the location of cities: Timbuktu was an enormous salt market, and Liverpool became a large port to accommodate exports of salt mined nearby. At the end of the 19th century, mechanization made the mining of salt much easier, and the price of salt became more reasonable. The addition of iodine to salt also made it better for one's health.
The main types of salt include:
- Unrefined salt (also called sea salt).
- Refined salt, mainly sodium chloride, is today prepared primarily from rock salt (mineral deposits that contain large quantities of edible salt), formed centuries or millennia ago by the evaporation of salt lakes. Rock salt is often mined, but water may also be injected into the ground to dissolve the salt, and the brine solution can then be pumped to the surface for the removal of the salt. The salt is then purified through a process of recrystallization, multiple evaporations, and kiln drying. Anticaking agents (such as potassium iodide, tricalcium phosphate, and magnesium oxide) are added, to absorb humidity and prevent the salt crystals from sticking together. Refined salt is sold primarily for commercial purposes.
- Table salt is about 95 percent sodium chloride and is usually iodized by the addition of potassium iodide. Iodized table salt has helped prevent hypothyroidism, goiter, cretinism, and myxedema by enabling the thyroid to produce the hormones necessary to keep the body functioning properly. Table salt is used in cooking and as a seasoning.
Over the centuries, salt has been used to preserve fish and meats for long storage because bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that might cause decomposition or disease cannot live in a highly salty environment. During times of religious fasting, fish was the only permitted “meat,” and salting it was the only way to transport and preserve it. Pickling is another form of salting, using brine (salt water) instead of dry salt. Today, certain meats (ham, bacon, sausage), cheeses, and fish are still salted for taste.
Just as the lack of salt can cause health problems by disrupting the body's electrolyte balance, the excessive consumption of salt can cause high blood pressure. Persons with high blood pressure are often required to follow a low- or no-salt diet, and salt substitutes (such as products containing potassium chloride) are readily available at the grocery store.
Unlike common table salt, kosher salt contains no additives. Salt is called kosher not because of the way it is produced (which is exactly the same as table salt is produced) but because it is used to make meats kosher: when meats are coated in large-grained kosher salt, the salt does not dissolve, and the blood is allowed to leach out of the meat, rendering it kosher.
When sea water evaporates, the residue that is left is called sea salt. Often used in cooking and sometimes used in making cosmetics, sea salt is not pure sodium chloride like table salt but contains other minerals that impart a slightly different taste. France (fleur de sel), Ireland, Hawaii, and Cape Cod are four places that continue to specialize in producing sea salt, though in the past sea salt was the only source of salt for many peoples. Sea salt has also played an important role in political history: for example, in 1930 Mahatma Gandhi led thousands of people on a march to the sea to collect salt rather than pay the British government's salt tax, a protest that came to be known as the Salt Satyagraha.
Though some gourmets believe that sea salt is superior to table salt, particularly in taste, most sea salt is only about 20 percent sodium chloride by weight. Additionally, sea salt contains much less iodine than iodized table salt, and the thyroid gland needs iodine to function properly.
Many Middle Eastern recipes call for sea salt to enhance delicate flavors.
Soy sauce (also known as soya sauce) is a sauce made by fermenting a mixture of soybean (Glycine max) juice, roasted grain, water, and salt (or sea salt). Alcohol is usually added during bottling as a preservative. This salty brown sauce originated in China, but its use has spread throughout Asia. However, Chinese soy sauces are not the same as Japanese: Chinese soy sauces are made primarily from soybeans and have only small amounts of other grains, while Japanese soy sauces are made primarily from wheat and are slightly sweet. One type should not be substituted for another.
Because soy sauces are salty (even low-salt brands), persons on low- or no-salt diets should avoid them. Additionally, soy sauce contains naturally occurring MSG (monosodium glutamate), so lactose-intolerant persons may not be able to digest it.
Soy sauce is used to flavor beef, pork, fish, and chicken dishes, vegetables, noodles, rice, sushi, soups, and numerous other foods.
Soy sauce is now appearing often in Middle Eastern restaurants and at takeout stands.
Sugar (sucrose) is an extract of certain plants, such as sugarcane (Saccharum genus), sugar beets (Beta vulgaris), the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), sorghum (Sorghum vulgare), and the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). The vast majority of the world's sugar comes from sugarcane or sugar beets.
Sugarcane no longer exists in its wild state, so its exact origins are unclear. Many botanists believe that it is native to New Guinea; others, to the Indian subcontinent. It seems to have spread rapidly into Malaysia, Indonesia, Indochina, and southern China. The first record of sugarcane cultivation dates from the 8th century b.c.e. in China, but it is likely that cultivation and even processing had begun at a much earlier date. It probably reached Persia by the 5th century b.c.e., and Alexander the Great's army brought news of sugarcane back to the Mediterranean region with them—but did not bring any plants, sugar, or cane juice. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans sweetened their food or sought the source of the stories of sugarcane. Sugar finally made its way to Europe, but the time and source are, again, obscure; either the Crusaders carried it back with them from the Holy Land, or the Arabs began a trade in sugar products. What is certain is that by the 13th century c.e. Venice had established a sugar monopoly, at first importing processed sugar from Alexandria in Egypt, and by the 15th century purchasing sugarcane and refining it within its own boundaries. The Italian aristocracy went crazy over sugar, adding it to almost every dish, as did the French nobles in the 14th century. But sugar remained a medicinal, used to treat various ailments from melancholy to fever, and did not become common in the kitchen until the 15th century, when Italian cooks began to follow the Arab example of making desserts that relied heavily on sugar. The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama ended the Venetian monopoly in sugar trading when he reached India in 1498, and Lisbon became Europe's sugar capital; the Portuguese planted sugarcane in the Cape Verde Islands and even the Canaries.
The colonization of the Americas, and the early establishment of sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean, changed history. Christopher Columbus first planted sugarcane in the West Indies in 1494; within a few years, the Spanish had planted sugarcane in Hispan?ola, Cuba, and Mexico, the Portuguese in Brazil, the Dutch in their island and mainland holdings, the English in Barbados, and the French in Martinique. The demand for sugar became insatiable, driving planters to establish huge cane farms. By the 17th century, sugar was worth its weight in gold. Sugarcane cultivation is extremely labor-intensive, and abundant, cheap labor was needed—and at that time in history, cheap labor meant slavery. At first, the native peoples were enslaved to work the plantations, but the working conditions, along with exposure to diseases like smallpox against which they had no immunities, decimated their numbers. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English began to import African slaves, who were resistant to malaria and yellow fever. From the Caribbean, slavery spread north and south; and slavery became an established institution in North America, transferring its work force to cotton and tobacco plantations. The New England colonies exported salt cod to the West Indies to feed the slaves; in return, the plantations sent molasses to New England and sugar to England. New Englanders soon had a surplus of molasses, so it was fermented into rum and loaded aboard ships bound for Africa, where the rum was traded for slaves.
Originally, sugar was extracted from sugarcane by means of chewing. Early refining processes involved grinding or pounding the cane to extract the juice, then boiling the juice (or drying it in the sun) to produce gravelly sugar crystals. The improvement of the sugar press in the 1390s permitted the expansion of sugarcane refining. By the mid-16th century the Portuguese had built hundreds of sugar mills in Brazil, and the Spanish, Dutch, French, and English had many of their own. By the beginning of the 18th century, the supply of sugar could not keep up with the demand generated by the European consumption of jams, candies, teas, and coffees, and the price of sugar reached astronomical levels.
In 1747 a German chemist named Andreas Marggraf discovered that beets are a rich source of sugar. The sugar beet thrives in cooler climates, in northern and eastern Europe (as well as parts of northern Asia, northern Japan, and parts of North America), so the beet was quite common in Europe. A sugar beet processing factory was constructed in Prussia, and sugarcane's monopoly of the sugar industry was breached. To remove sugar from beets, the vegetables were washed, sliced, and pressed; the juice was filtered and concentrated by evaporation; sugar was extracted by crystallization. Small refinements to the process have been made since then. The sugar beet became even more important as a source of sugar during the Napoleonic wars, when the British blockade kept sugarcane sugar out of continental Europe. Sugar processed from sugarcane is indistinguishable from sugar processed from beets, and since the 19th century the beet sugar industry has grown to equal the cane sugar industry.
As a result of the growth of sugar beet processing in the 19th century, sugar started to become available to people of all economic classes. The invention of the Mason jar and the canning process in 1858 increased the demand for sugar— white sugar, that is, as neither brown sugar nor molasses is suitable for home canning. Since then, the availability and price of sugar has risen and fallen according to world economic conditions, sugar becoming scarce and expensive in wartime and common and less expensive at other times. Today, sugar is part of nearly every processed food, but the supply, about 134 million metric tons annually, manages to keep up with the demand. At present, sugarcane is cultivated primarily in Australia, Brazil, Cuba, and Thailand, and sugar beets primarily in northern Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, and the United States.
Sugar can be divided into the following categories:
- Raw sugars, yellow to brown in color, are made from clarified cane juice reduced to a crystalline solid; minimal chemical processing is involved.
- Mill white sugar (also known as plantation white sugar, crystal sugar, and superior sugar) is raw sugar that has been bleached white; the impurities have not been removed, and discoloration and clumping tend to occur.
- Blanco directo is made from cane juice that has had many impurities removed through chemical treatment.
- White refined sugar is made by purifying raw cane sugar, then decolorizing it by filtration methods. Beet sugar refineries usually produce white refined sugar directly. White refined sugar is commonly sold in granulated form, dried to prevent clumping, in different crystal sizes:
- coarse-grained, for decorating desserts
- normal-grained, for table use
- finer grades, such as caster (used in baking) and superfine (used to sweeten drinks)
- finest grades, such as powdered sugar, confectioners' sugar, and icing sugar, which are ground to a powdery consistency
- sugar cubes, for standard convenience
- Brown sugar is made by removing the sugar before it has been bleached free of molasses or by introducing cane molasses syrup into white refined sugar.
Sugar is usually classified as a carbohydrate, and it generally contains no vitamins, minerals, or fiber but does contain loads of calories. In modern times, the overconsumption of sugar has been linked to increasing rates of diabetes and obesity. All sugars are used extensively in Middle Eastern cooking.
Brown sugar is often used in baking. It results when sugar is removed from the refining process before all the color has been bleached out. It can also be made by coating the granules of white refined sugar with cane molasses syrup.
Confectioners' sugar is among the finest grades of white refined sugar. It is made when white refined sugar is ground to a powdery consistency. Confectioners' sugar is used in making candies, frosting, and other dessert items.
Quite simply, vinegar is wine that, left undisturbed, has gone sour. Vinegar was probably discovered by accident more than 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists believe that the ancient Babylonians used vinegar as a preservative (once they learned that it slows or stops the spoiling of food) and as a cleaning solution. In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was said to have bathed in vinegar. The Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed vinegar for many ailments. Legend has it that Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, dissolved a string of pearls in vinegar, having wagered that she could consume a fortune in a single meal. According to stories, General Hannibal, when crossing the Alps to invade Rome, poured vinegar on heated boulders to crack them apart and remove them from the path of his elephants. Roman soldiers subsisted on cheapwine, whichwas probably vinegar in all but its name. The peoples of the Bible certainly relied upon vinegar; it is referred to as a drink (Numbers 6:3) and as a condiment (Ruth 2:14), though it is usually mentioned as a retribution or punishment for bad deeds (Psalm 69:21 and Proverbs 10:26), or as a way of mocking crucified prisoners (Matthew 27:34 and 48; Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 19:29–30). The Talmud mentions vinegar as an ingredient for haroset.
During the 14th-century Black Death (Plague), desperate people tried to protect themselves by washing in vinegar. In the 17th century, vinegar served as a deodorant, scenting sponges that the aristocracy held to their noses to mask the odor of sewage in the streets. Naval crews used vinegar both as a preservative and as a cleaning agent for the decks of their ships. It is still a very effective and environmentally friendly household agent, used for cleaning windows, clearing drains (when mixed with baking soda), and softening fabrics during laundering, though today seldom used in this way. Doctors used vinegar to treat battlefield wounds during World War I, and white vinegar is still a good antiseptic treatment for rashes and insect bites. And vinegar will not go bad—it has an indefinite shelf-life and so is a ready topical medicine and a perfect preservative.
Usually 3–5 percent acetic acid by volume, vinegar can also contain tartaric acid, citric acid, and other acids. Vinegar is generally classified by its source:
- Malt vinegar is made by malting barley, turning the starch to sugar, brewing an ale from the sugar, then allowing the ale to turn into vinegar. Malt vinegar is the favorite condiment for fish and chips.
- Wine vinegar is made from allowing red or white wine to turn into vinegar. Special wine vinegars include those made from champagne and sherry.
- Apple vinegar (also called cider vinegar) is made from cider or apple must.
- White vinegar may be a simple solution of acetic acid in water, or it may be oxidized from distilled alcohol.
- Balsamic vinegar is a special, flavorful vinegar originally from Italy.
- Rice vinegar is made from rice wine. It may be red, black, or white, and is much used in Japan and China.
- Coconut vinegar comes from the sap of the coconut palm tree. It is popular in southeastern Asia and India.
- Cane vinegar is made from sugarcane juice, though it is not sweet at all.
- Raisin vinegar, made from raisins, is often called for in Middle Eastern recipes.
- Beer vinegar varies in flavor depending on the type of beer it is made from. It is popular in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.
- Honey vinegar, made from honey, is a rarity, produced mostly in Italy and France.
- Flavored vinegars are made by adding fruits, herbs, or spices to vinegar, usually white vinegar. Some common additives include raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, thyme, oregano, tarragon, rosemary, basil, shallots, and onions.
In the kitchen, vinegar is an essential ingredient of vinaigrettes and most salad dressings. Pickling recipes, marinades, barbecue sauces, gelatin, and even meringue call upon vinegar. Condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, and salsa all contain vinegar.
Balsamic vinegar is a special dark-colored vinegar that was first produced in Modena, Italy, in the Middle Ages. Made from the concentrated juice (must) of white (often trebbiano) grapes, it has a complex flavor that is both rich and sweet, the result of years of aging in casks made from oak, mulberry, ash, chestnut, cherry, and juniper. Lower-quality Balsamic vinegar is aged for at least three years; the best-quality (tradizionale) may be aged for as long as twenty-five years and may sell for as much as $400 per bottle. There is also commercial-quality Balsamic vinegar, which has no legal aging requirements.
The best Balsamic vinegars are sometimes consumed alone or as a topping for strawberries and other fruits. The commercial-quality and lower-quality Balsamics are most often used in salad dressings, sauces, gravies, and marinades.
Worcestershire sauce (also called Worcester sauce) is a fermented mixture of vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, water, chili peppers, soy sauce, pepper, tamarinds, anchovies, onions, shallots, cloves, and garlic. Created in the 19th century by the British during their rule of India, Worcestershire sauce became a commercial success when branded and marketed by Lea & Perrins in 1838.
Worcestershire sauce is used to flavor fish, beef, and pork, as a marinade or a cooking sauce; it is also an ingredient in the dressing for Caesar salad and in the Bloody Mary cocktail, as well as many Middle Eastern dishes.
The dozens of species of yams (Dioscorea genus) are believed to have originated in western Africa, where they still grow wild, and were probably first cultivated by 8000 b.c.e. The first written mention of yams occurs in a 3rd century b.c.e. Chinese poem. In between, the cultivation of yams spread eastward along the trade routes. Yams are now found around the world; because they can be stored for four to six months without refrigeration, they are still a food staple in large portions of Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Though yams are not mentioned in the Bible, they are very common in contemporary Middle Eastern cooking.
Yams usually have yellow or white flesh, though the outsides can be brown, white, yellow, or red. Generally, a yam will weigh between 2 and 8 pounds when harvested, though yam tubers of up to 150 pounds have been recorded.
Yams are high in vitamins A, B6, and C as well as calcium, potassium, and iron, and they are a good source of fiber. They can be baked and eaten plain or used in breads and other baked goods or in combination with chicken or other meat and vegetable dishes.
It is important to note that yams are not the same thing as sweet potatoes, which belong to the Ipomoea genus; that's why we put them at the end of the book—so you wouldn't get confused!
Yeast is a general name for single-cell fungi that have the capability of multiplying extremely rapidly under certain conditions. Most yeasts are strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It is important in the making of leavened (risen) bread and other baked goods. Yeast ferments the carbohydrates present in wheat flour, yielding alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gluten present in the flour traps the carbon dioxide in the dough, and the dough increases in volume. The alcohol evaporates during cooking. Yeast also makes the dough more elastic and sticky and creates unique flavors and aromas.
Though many Middle Eastern religious practices prescribe bread-making without yeast, it is a key ingredient of most Middle Eastern breads today.