Much of The Culinary Crescent reads like an expatʹs dinner-party chatter, as when Heine writes, "Entertaining guests is now a firmly established feature of the Middle Eastern way of life." There are many such banalities, but my favourite is: "Young people find the malls an ideal place to socialise and a visit to a fast-food restaurant counts among the highlights of these trips."
The glossary, too, is packed with word bloat. Heine informs his reader – hitherto unaware – that mint is, "a widespread herb available in many different varieties" and raisins are "desiccated grapes, which need to be reflated in water before adding to sweet or savoury dishes." Pepper, weʹre told, is "a universally-used condiment available in several different varieties."
Muslims, theyʹre just weird like that
Throughout the bookʹs 233 pages, we wander across time, place and topic, often without knowing when or where we are. This leads to all manner of confusing generalisations about the Middle East, often placed in contrast with a fixed and stereotypical West.
Middle Eastern politicians win credibility, weʹre told, "through culinary expertise", with the proof that Aisha Gaddafi claimed to be a good cook. Heine goes on to tell us: "the contrast to Western politicians and other prominent figures, who like to stress their preference for plain cooking, is plain and striking."
There are a hundred moments in The Culinary Crescent that should have been fascinating: the history of coffee; the origin of blancmange; how Arab and Turkish recipes were presented in nineteenth-century British cookbooks. There are occasional fun quotes, as this one from Rumi: "ʹNo sooner is the pan hot than the chickpeas start jumping up in hundreds of manifestations of ecstasy.ʹ" But not a single topic is developed. Each gets only a page or two before Heine sweeps on to the next.
There is a wealth of new research about Middle Eastern food history, as well as excellent new translations of medieval cookbooks from Arabic, particularly by independent scholars like Nawal Nasrallah and Charles Perry. There are also well-researched regional food blogs, such as Nasrallahʹs "In My Iraqi Kitchen" and Anny Gaulʹs "Imik Simik: Cooking with Gaul".
By contrast, The Culinary Crescent, published in German in 2016 and in English this year, reads like a series of high-school research papers, bloated with exotic-sounding banalities in order to make a teacherʹs required word count.
Marcia Lynx Qualey
© Qantara.de 2018