The Middle East and Alcohol

So it’s New Year’s Eve. Cheers! (Or Salamati! as they might say in Iran.)

Alcohol: delicate subject this. They invented the stuff, you see. At least, they’ve got a very strong case to support their claim that they did. The earliest evidence of viticulture has been found in 3000 year old amphorae in the Caucasus Mountains in Iran. Arab and Persian literature throngs with paeans to the virtues of wine. Gotta love Hafez: he was such a blatant lush:

Now that I have raised the glass of pure wine to my lips,
The nightingale starts to sing!

And there’s more:

It is not important whether we drink Gallo or Mouton Cadet: drink up!
And be happy, for whatever our Winebringer brings, it is the essence of grace.
(Hafez, translated by T. R. Crowe)

Furthermore, the Iraqis rival the ancient Egyptians as the inventors of beer (although once again the oldest chemical traces of beer have been found in the Zagros Mountains of Iran). There is even an ancient Mesopotamian song/prayer which suggests how to make the brew:

“It is you who pour the filtered beer out of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer out of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.” (inscription translated by Miguel Civil)

It probably was not the best beer in the world, but this is almost certainly the oldest recorded celebration of it.

And then there is arak (raki/ouzo – same difference), which is one of the oldest known forms of spirit. Literally the word means ‘sweat’ in Arabic (which obviously leads to some great fun on the translation front), and has come to comprise a range of anise flavoured, grape derived distillates (although it is also still used in Persian to refer to any sort of distillate, including rose water and various herbal remedies). A word of warning: arak is not for the uninitiated or faint-hearted and can lead to the mother of all hangovers.

Not only were a lot of recipes across the Middle East originally devised to incorporate alcohol, most interestingly many dishes were created to enhance, complement and in some cases negate the effects of alcohol. Roasted and salted seeds and nuts were the original companions of a glass or two in the Levant, whilst further North and East a number of yoghurt dishes were created to balance the effects of vodka.

The advent of Islam obviously put the kibosh on widespread alcohol use and abuse in the Middle East (although of course not all of Veggiestan is Muslim anyway) – and there were, um, serious dependency issues in the region at the time. But it didn’t make alcohol go away – it just led to greater creativity. It greatly affected Persian cuisine, for example: wine was replaced as a drink by sherberts and cordials, and in recipes by verjuice and dried lime. It is a fact often cited that when the Iranian revolution closed down the state breweries, thousands of micro (home) breweries were opened in their place. And just recently some very thirsty Iranians were caught trying to import vodka using petroleum pipelines…

In fact the only countries officially to ban all forms of alcohol use are Saudi Arabia (don’t even think about it), Iran (although there’s plenty of it around) and Libya (ditto Iran). Some of the other countries tolerate it without producing it – alcohol is available in the hotels and resorts of places as diverse as Yemen and Uzbekistan, although travellers should always show respect during Ramadan. But nations such as Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Georgia actively encourage and are justifiably proud of their wines.

All of which was to answer my husband’s raised eyebrow when he found me apparently ‘researching alcohol’ not so long ago. Yes, it does have a place in a book about Middle Eastern cuisine, vegetarian or otherwise.

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