Book review: The Arabesque Table, by Reem Kassis

18 March 2021 by
Book review: The Arabesque Table, by Reem Kassis

Having received critical acclaim – and a James Beard Foundation Award nomination – for her debut cookbook The Palestinian Table, Reem Kassis has broadened her horizons for the follow-up with a collection of recipes inspired by the Arab world.

The Arabesque Table is an ambitious compilation of 130 historically traced, contemporary recipes that capture the ever-evolving nature of the region's cuisine, seen through the prism of a modern Arab home kitchen.

Kassis calls on her experience growing up in Jerusalem, where she still has strong ties, and appreciation of Arab culture and cuisine to create a book that forms a useful reference for both Middle Eastern recipe inspiration and food history. Her take on the cultural and geographical attribution of recipes is as refreshing as the salads, dips and stews she details.

Addressing the attribution of dishes to particular countries, Kassis says: "The very idea of a national cuisine is a relatively recent construct, rising only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the rise of the nation state. At its core, food is a regional and ethnic artifact, often more closely tied to language and religion than it is to an arbitrary political boundary."

The book celebrates the commonality of cuisine in the region, with chapters organised by primary ingredients such as pomegranates and lemons, za'atar and sumac, and grains and pulses, introduced by their history and origins. Recipes are relatively straightforward but will provide the professional chef with inspiration through the more modern interpretations such as tahini cheesecake, caramelised butternut squash fatteh with za'atar, and grape-leaf braised short-ribs.

This book is as historically informative as it is useful for recipe inspiration. For example, who would have thought that the aubergine, now ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking, would havev been described as "the colours of a scorpion's abdomen, and a taste like its sting" before its common use around the ninth century? If hospitality is about creating memories and stories, there are enough tales in here to keep readers entertained and educated.

The Arabesque Table by Reem Kassis (Phaidon, £24.95)

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