Cookbook review: A tapestry of tastes, from past to present

"The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World" by Reem Kassis (Phaidon, $39.95)
"The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World" by Reem Kassis (Phaidon, $39.95)

“The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World” by Reem Kassis (Phaidon, $39.95)

My favorite cookbooks tend to be ones that not only offer recipes I actually want to make, but tell me how they came about.

Consider the one for a simple sauteed flounder in Reem Kassis’ “The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World” (Phaidon, $39.95). It comes with a sauce made of green olives, pistachios and lemon, along with a sweeter variation featuring pomegranate jam, toasted walnuts, and spices.

The idea, she explains, comes from a medieval Arabic cookbook filled with elaborate fish preparations and suggestions for condiments to pair with it. A poem within it by an Abbassid prince describing one such dish caught her eye and inspired her 21st century interpretation.

A Jerusalem native who lived in London before settling with her family in Pennsylvania, Kassis is known for her ability to connect dots in her cooking — across continents, cultures, generations and even centuries. She left a career as a global business consultant some years ago to revive the classic dishes of her heritage so she could pass them on to her children. That research culminated in her 2017 debut cookbook, “The Palestinian Table,” which earned a James Beard nomination.

“The Arabesque Table” widens that lens to encompass the cuisine of the entire Arabic diaspora, from the first recorded recipe to the present. Chapters are organized by primary ingredients: Dairy + Eggs, Eggplants + Tomatoes, Za’atar + Sumac, and so on. Like the intricate patterns of arabesque tapestry, the recipes blend colorful threads from ancient history as well as from her own life story into something exciting and new.

Moroccan tagines inspire a seafood stew brightened with preserved lemon, apricots and olives. Peanut butter flavors an otherwise traditional Mediterranean salad of tomatoes and cucumbers in the spirit of Sudan. And crushed pistachios replace cocoa as the topping for tiramisu infused with Arabic cardamom coffee and dates.

Each recipe, she writes, is designed to remind us of “the wealth that comes from culinary diffusion, but only so long as we respect the historic origins of our food and their contribution to our cuisines today.”

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