Meal 128: Pakistan

Pakistan was, until 1947, part of India. While the intention was to create a new country for Muslims, the dividing line was in many ways arbitrary, ill-informed, or simply doomed, given that religious communities intermixed plenty. In particular, the huge state of Punjab was split in two. Then, millions of people moved across the lines in both directions (or died in the attempt) to the country that reflected their religion. Both of these factors explain why Pakistani food seems so similar to the North Indian food we know: they were once the same country — in fact, much of the Indian food in the US is Punjabi style — and many immigrants brought foods from other parts of what's now the Republic of India.

This meal fell during Ramadan, which posed both an opportunity and a challenge. I was excited to have a guiding principle, since the food after the fast is often ritualized. But the challenge was the risk of offense by indulging in all the post-fast treats without observing the fast itself. Several Muslims assured me not to worry, and in fact a Pakistani member of the US Embassy's staff in Islamabad graciously gave me plenty of advice on what to prepare. (Thank you Erin for the connection!) In addition to the below recipes, we began the meal with the traditional fast-breaking food: dates.

Our guest of honor was Kal, a previous Nosher, who was born in Afghanistan but spent a decade as a refugee in Pakistan before coming to the US. We also had Katherine, Carlo, Marsha, Robert, Chie, Lyall, Eileen, and friends.

Rooh Afza | Sweet drink

This is the fast-breaking drink of Pakistan. It's a commercial syrup that's mixed with water — what's known in British English as a squash — and much improved with lime. (Some mix it with milk.) It's was a completely unfamiliar flavor sensation, a blend of all sorts of fruits, herbs, and spices with the most recognizable note being rose. It wasn't really my thing but I can see this sugary drink being extremely quenching after a hot day with nothing touching your lips after sunrise.

Fruit chaat | Spiced fruit salad | Recipe

Some cultures have figured out that bold spices are a fantastic complement for fruit. A shake of Tajín, a Mexican blend of chili, dried lime juice and salt, perks up mango, pineapple, and just about any other fruit or raw vegetable. In Morocco, they often serve orange slices with cinnamon. And now we here have Pakistan's contribution to the genre. The blend is more complex than the others I've seen before, with elements of sour, salty, pungent, and minerally. It would certainly perk up less-than-perfect fruit, but when it's really good and in season like here, it's pretty tasty and addictive and a failsafe appetite stimulant. 

Dahi bhallay | Black gram fritters in yogurt sauce | Recipe

From a Western perspective, what's curious about this dish is how the fritters are soaked in water after frying. Why let all that great crisp go? So they can absorb the yogurt and tamarind dressing that makes them oh so tasty. This dish is quite a bit of effort with the frying, so it's not the sort of thing I'd just go about making on a weeknight, but it was a flavorsome treat.

Sai bhaji | Spinach and legume stew | Recipe

This straightforward curry is a staple of Sindh, the province of southeastern Pakistan. It's pretty straightforward to make, a stew of greens, tomatoes, a mild amount of spice, and lentils or split chickpeas. Unfortunately, I felt like what came out was kind of what went in: it was perfectly edible, but just not terribly exciting, and it's unclear to me if I did something wrong or it's simply meant to be that way. There's no doubt, however, that this is one of the most nutritious dishes I have cooked for a Nosh!

Karahi gosht | Goat simmered in tomato sauce | Recipe

This recipe calls for mutton, and in the Subcontinent, mutton means goat. (Not the meat of mature sheep, as in the UK.) I like goat, and good goat can be hard to find, so I ended up buying an entire goat from a small-scale butcher. I used two legs for this meal; the rest is in the chest freezer.

Now, to the dish. This one was a winner! A really straightforward, low effort technique — simmer the meat until it's cooked, then put in sauce stuff and let it cook until tasty. You don't even have to toast spices or do any other tedious prep, just dump and simmer. Even though it ended up more liquidy than pasty like it should have (was my yogurt too runny, or tomatoes too watery?), the flavors were excellent and bright and I oughtta make this one again.

Mutton nihari | Goat stew | Recipe

I couldn't decide which goat dish to cook, so I made both. If you're only cooking one, choose the other. The nihari was totally fine, but despite all the spices, turned out sorta plain, which was a disappointment after cooking for half a day. As with the saibhaji, I'm not sure if there was an error along the way, or that's just how it's meant to be.

Chicken sajji | Slow-roasted chicken with spiced rice | Recipe

This recipe represents Balochistan, a mostly arid province bordering Afghanistan and Iran. This dish is a whole lot more like what I know of Gulf cuisine, with the animal roasted rather than cooked in a sauce. What's more, the rice is parboiled, which is a technique I associate with Persian food. (A stickler will note that rice in biryani, a pinnacle of Indian cuisine, is similarly boiled hard until nearly done. I will rejoinder that, in fact. biryani is of Persian origin.) Anyway, I loved this. Cardamom, vinegar, dried pomegranate, and even dates all feature, and make for one scrumptious whole.

Meal 105: Mali

Mali sits squarely in the Sahel, the semi-arid band between the Sahara Desert and the more tropical West African coast. It's the original home of the peanut sauce stew found all over West Africa, while in the north you'll find influences from across the desert.

Our guests were Linda, David, Caitlin, Zoie, Amy, Nicole, David, Stephanie, and friend. Nicole and Stephanie did Peace Corps in Mali, as well as my friend Emily who was a huge help with the menu.

Salade malienne | Green salad with fried plantains and potatoes

Emily says that a salad in Mali is a basic green salad — lettuce, onion, tomato, etc. — with two notable additions. One is that the dressing is made with a salt-and-MSG-laden Maggi bouillon cube. The other is fried plantain and french fries. I left out the potato part, but did the plantains and Maggi-cube dressing, and wow that was a fun, tasty, and probably not-very-good-for-you salad.

Widjila | Beef stew with dumplings | Recipe

This dish comes from the north of Mali, the area around Timbuktu, abutting the southern edge of the Sahara. This dish clearly has a very strong influence from the other side of the desert, with rich spices like cinnamon, and a slow, gentle braise evoking North African tastes and styles. The yeasted wheat dumpling is curious, as it looks much more like something from Eastern Europe than anything I've found in African cuisine. As you'd expect, this dish was equally tasty and filling.

Mafé poisson | Fish in peanut sauce | Recipe

Peanut sauce is a classic West African preparation, and I chose to make this one with fish to reference the bounty of the Niger River. The sauce recipe is par for the course with what I've cooked from other nearby countries, however by this point I've learned my lesson, and I don't add much water to start — I've waited for an over-thin sauce to cook down too many times! You can always add more water.

We served this with fonio, a grain that's roughly the size and fluffiness of couscous, but with a nutritional value in the ballpark of quinoa. Back when we cooked the Guinea meal I estimated that it might become the next quinoa; since then, The Guardian wrote an article about a chef in New York who's trying to make it happen. It's still tough to find; our friend Anna made the effort to send it to me from a store in Brooklyn.

Dégué fonio | Milky pudding | Recipe

A dessert common to this part of the world involves various sorts of soured dairy mixed with grain. Given that I had fonio on hand, that's what I used. Whether or not you like this dish depends entirely on how much you like your dairy tangy, and whether creamy-mushy is your thing. (It is for me.)

Meal 93: Lebanon

As I caught myself grumbling about having to clean my two food processors and the mixer with a meat-grinder attachment, I realized how it’s unlikely I’d take on this project without the aid of electric appliances. I shudder to think of how long it would have taken to mash the hummus, emulsify the garlic sauce, and grind or chop the meat with only the power of my arms. I wouldn’t have cooked nearly as many dishes if I’d had to do that!

Lebanese food is an incredibly popular cuisine. In fact, many of these dishes are extremely common throughout the Middle East, and it’s taken a lot of restraint not to make hummus and tabbouli for just about every Arab country’s meal. I was eager to throw in some variety, to explore Lebanese dishes that aren’t as familiar to our palate, but in talking with our dear friend Kate and our new friend Melia about what their Lebanese families would cook, it kept coming back to the classics. Authenticity isn't just what you make, but how much and how it's served, so we had a whole messload of mezze, sharable platters, to create a sense of abundance and a variety of flavors. (One might argue that authenticity also involves the cooking techniques, which my Cuisinart and I acknowledge but, frankly, often ignore.)

In addition to Melia, who was very generous with her time both in helping to plan the meal and also in cooking, we had her boyfriend Zef, as well as Laura, Laura (pronounced the Italian way!), Andrew, John, Alicia, Iris, Alley, Ana, Miguel, and Will.

Note: for dishes where recipes aren't linked, they were taken from a cookbook called Alice's Kitchen

Kabees | Pickles | Recipes: turnip, mixed

From what I read on multiple sites, the annual process of preserving the summertime abundance of fruits and vegetables in Lebanon, mouneh, is a cherished tradition. Naturally, then, pickled foods are commonplace on the Lebanese table, and I tried out two different recipes.

The one I was most eager to make was for turnips, stained pink by beets in the bottom of the jar, and kept crisp because rather than boiling to sterilize, I simply moved them to the fridge once they’d sat out for about a week in their vinegar brine. Sour, slightly sweet, slightly bitter, and with a dazzling color, I’d call these a big success, a great burst of flavor and crunch to accompany just about anything except dessert.

The other was a mixed quick pickle, featuring everything from cauliflower to green beans to carrots. I thought this one turned out okay, though to my taste there was too much sugar. Maybe I should have also left it on the counter to age for a few days rather than throwing it straight into the fridge.

Moutabal | Mashed eggplant dip | Recipe

Sometimes I find connections between faraway cuisines in the funniest way. While I was planning this eggplant dip, the chunkier and less creamy cousin of baba ghannoush, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I did an eggplant dip for the previous meal, Laos. But when I looked around the kitchen for a suitable vessel for mashing up the dish and logically arrived at my oversized African mortar and pestle, I realized that I’d used the exact same vessel for making an eggplant dip a few weeks prior.

Anyway, if you can get over the fact that the scraped-out innards of roasted eggplant have the appearance and texture of alien brains, you might enjoy this one as a more rustic alternative. It’s pretty simple ingredient-wise, though it does take some time to let the juice drain out of the roasted vegetable. Skip the food processor for this one, both because you don’t want a purée, and also because if you’re cooking other Lebanese dishes, that appliance is probably being put into service for another dish too.

Hummus | Chickpea-yogurt dip | Recipe

I like the Lebanese version of hummus: lower on the garlic, higher on the tahini, and a hefty dollop of yogurt to make things nice and creamy. I cooked the chickpeas from scratch, which is really very little work and just requires some advanced planning, and tastes so much better and makes an incomparably better texture, both smoother and fluffier, than if using canned. The one tweak I made to the recipe was one I learned for the Israel meal, using a bit of reserved cooking water instead of the plain warm water.


I was thinking of skipping this dish, as it’s really well known and I was trying to make a point of getting in some variety, but then I read that Lebanon takes its National Tabbouli Day really seriously, and Melia shared her family’s handwritten recipe.


A true Lebanese tabbouli should be mostly parsley, with just enough fine fine burghul wheat to hold things together, flecks of tomato for color and contrast, and oil and lemon to make it sing. A lovely, fresh contrast to all that dairy. Thanks to John for all that chopping!

Lebneh | Thickened yogurt | Recipe 

Lebneh, the simple yet incredibly addictive strained yogurt, came so close to taking off in the US. For a good while, Trader Joe’s stocked it, but unfortunately they gave it the unromantic name of “yogurt cheese.” With a name that makes it sound more like a health food than an the exotic, versatile food-with-a-story that it is, TJ’s dropped it a few years back in favor of the Greek yogurt craze that swept the nation like a very thick, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth wave.

Fortunately, lebneh is easy to make, but yet again takes some foresight: just take some thicker yogurt (Nancy’s works great, a pourable Bulgarian won’t) and strain it in cheesecloth. How long to strain is a matter of how you plan to use it: 2-8 hours to make a dip of varying thickness, or 24+ hours if you’re going to make intense, oil-preserved balls with a distinctive cheesy heft. I made both!

The dip, anointed with a pool of olive oil and a generous shower of za’atar spice blend, is just heavenly, simply scooped up with pita. Or use it as a spread in your sandwich. The balls were really thick, dry and dense enough that you could pick it up with your fingers — and remember, it’s nothing more than strained yogurt! — and hence would make for a great piece on a finger-food platter.

Toum | Garlic sauce | Recipe

If you’ve gotten kebab at a Middle Eastern restaurant, chances are it was accompanied by a pungent, unctuous snow-white sauce. It’s toum, a very close relative of mayonnaise, except instead of eggs, it’s garlic that holds oil and garlic in spreadable, well-blended suspension. So long as you’ve got a food processor, the hardest part of making this versatile, long-storing condiment is peeling all those cloves of garlic! I ended up making this with about 2/3 less oil than called for, so it was extremely strong, but still had the right texture.

Man’oushe | Za'atar flatbread | Recipe

Most spices you use a little pinch here, a dab there. Za’atar is best as a healthy dousing. This blend of thyme, sumac (a tart dried berry, apparently) and sesame seeds has a musty flavor and a fun little grit in the mouth that’s somehow excellent in large doses. There’s so many uses for it, but the most reverent presentation is mixed with olive oil as the sole topping for a flatbread.

I thought this recipe turned out great. It was quite sticky as warned, but as I kneaded and rolled, little dustings of flour helped keep everything from gluing to my work surface. I got a pizza stone and my big cast iron griddle really hot in the oven, and by gum, these things turned out just beautifully: a lightly browned crust, and a soft, dry, mild, toothsome interior providing just the right contrast to the oily, gritty, and bold topping.


I’m glad this wasn't the only bread I made, because I wasn’t too happy with these. Despite the evident care that went into a technique for using foil to get the right puffiness and avoid crisping, in the end my pita were, well, crispy and flat. It probably has something to do with the fact that a home oven just can’t achieve the blistering heat and correct humidity to make a bread that cooks almost instantly and puffs up before it can brown to make that lusciously soft, big pita like you get at a Lebanese restaurant. What I made wasn’t bad, it was just more cracker-like than a pita ought to be.

Kibbeh bil sanieh | Bulgur meat casserole | Recipe

The classic kibbeh is a torpedo-shaped ball of bulgur wheat stuffed with meat and typically fried, though many variations abound. For our Iraq meal we make a kibbeh with a shell of rice; you can also stuff it with squash, or serve it raw similar to a tartare, or, as we did, make a casserole. I chose this variation for two reasons: I’ve never had it before, and it’s way easier to bake and keep warm than batches of fried balls.

Good thing I have a meat grinder attachment for my Kitchenaid, because the beef needed to be ground several times to be super fine. Some of that beef was then ground up further in the Cuisinart, with the soaked bulgur. That’s right, both the filling and the “crust” have meat in them! If you don’t have a grinder, make sure to go to a butcher who can do the extra grinding for you. It makes an important difference in the texture.

I thought this was really tasty, though if I do this dish again I’ll be a little more generous with the spices — this one was light and delicate, but if there’s spices in my meat, I prefer them to be bold!

Warak inab | Stuffed chard leaves

Surely you’ve heard of stuffed grape leaves, a bundle of green filled with rice, herbs, etc. But what do you do when it’s winter and the vines are bare? Well, you can either use leaves that you pickled or froze, but like an idiot, I didn’t do that even though we have a great grape vine in our new back yard. (Yes, I could buy them, but what’s the fun in that?) Or, you can substitute with a more seasonable vegetable, like chard.

What a pleasant surprise! Earthy, bitter chard, slightly toothy even after a long simmer, balances the soft, bright, lemony filling so well. Give it a shot, just prepare for it to take longer than the recipe suggests.

Shourbat adas | Lentil soup

This was nice enough, and easy to make, but didn’t quite have the sort of rich, satisfying flavor I’ve enjoyed in some lentil soups I’ve had before. Maybe it’s that it’s a vegetarian recipe, or maybe it doesn’t have enough spice (definitely could have used more cumin). Not bad, but you can probably find a better recipe somewhere. Note the dollop of garlic sauce in the foreground — that sure helped!

Sfouf | Turmeric-anise yellow cake | Recipe

How exotic and beautiful, right? Spices we rarely encounter in dessert, with rich ingredients. and a fanciful name to boot. Well, sorry to say, this was a dense, bland disappointment. More sugar and spices would have helped, but I’d also look for a recipe with a bit more leavening. Unless this is just how it’s supposed to be, and I just wasn’t in the right mainframe or something.

Muhallabieh | Rosewater pudding

Now this was a winner in my book. I love the exotic fragrance of orange blossom and rose waters, and just a little goes a long way on a bright-white canvas of milk simply thickened with cornstarch. It’s super easy to make, so long as you do it enough ahead of time to let it cool, and you don’t need much per person since just a little dish is quite satisfying.

Arak | Anise liqueur

If you like ouzo, sambuca, raki, pastis, or any of those other anise liqueurs, you might like arak. If not, you won't. Incidentally, we've got about 3/4 of a bottle of arak on hand in case anyone wants some.

Meal 90: Kuwait

When I asked my parents if we could host the Kuwait nosh at their house while visiting over Thanksgiving, I had no idea that their new neighbor across the street, Amira, had grown up in Kuwait! The happy coincidence made planning and cooking this meal a dream, especially because Amira's father Al, now living in northern Wisconsin, was more than happy to dictate his family recipe for a chicken-and-rice dish with a great deal of precise advice.

Amira taught me a fascinating perspective on recipes: in Kuwaiti cuisine, what defines a dish isn't so much what kind of meat or vegetable is used, but rather the blend of spices. Hence, a machboos could be chicken, or lamb, or something else, but if the spices are about the same, then it's all under the same name. And if we were going super-authentic, we'd all be eating cross-legged on the floor with our hands, but that didn't quite feel comfortable with over a dozen people two days after Thanksgiving, so we stuck to a table.

This may look like a small menu, with only two dishes plus dessert, but trust me that there was plenty of variety to be had. The machboos is essentially three dishes in one, and we also had an assortment of pickles and olives on the table, plus copious lemons and parsley to freshen up each dish at will.

It was a full house at my parents' place: Chris, my Aunt Jody, Uncle Guy, Amira and her husband Grant, Chris, Terry, Albert, Karen (another neighbor!) and Betty (who wrote a story on us in 2013); my cousin Bryan and his wife Shilpi joined soon after Laura snapped the photo.

Vimto | Berry-flavored drink

Alcohol is completely illegal in Kuwait; not even foreigners can bring it in or enjoy it at a hotel bar as in Dubai. One favorite beverage in Kuwait and several other Arab countries is this cordial from a British company. I thought it tasted one step above cough syrup, but many around the table took more than just polite sips, particularly appreciating the dash of rosewater. Although most of us were enjoying wine with our meal, Amira stuck with Vimto, declaring that even though she has a drink now and then, it just felt too strange to have alcohol with Kuwaiti food!

Laban | Yogurt drink

Another, more traditional, beverage is kefir or yogurt mixed with an equal amount of seltzer, plus a pinch of salt. From Turkey to Afghanistan, this is a very popular and healthy beverage in a hot part of the world. While yogurt has finally cemented its position in the American kitchen, it rarely makes it into our beverages. I happen to love it (particularly with the slight improvement of a crumble of dried mint), but this pitcher just didn't get passed around as much.

Machboos | Chicken with spiced tomato sauce and split peas over rice | Recipe at end of post

I've never done so much to chicken in one dish: you first boil it, then sear it, then braise it, then finally bake it. All this work is to lend flavor to the rice and the sauce, and also serves to make the meat simply fall off the bone by the end. None of the individual steps in this dish is particularly difficult, but the combination, especially when tripling as we did, makes for a whole lot of chopping, stirring, and monitoring. Making the spice blend from scratch also added to the effort.

The peas also took more attention than expected, particularly because it took them longer to soften up than expected when simmering with the raisins and onion. It was worth it, 'cause they ended up tasting so nice! I'd never considered that split peas could marry well with sweet, but it sure did, and that gentle sweetness was a good contrast to the thoroughly meaty chicken.

If you've got a few hours for a weekend cooking project, the effort will pay off. Even an hour before dinner, the enchanting smells of freshly ground spices, earthy chicken, and tangy tomato got us all really hungry. And the final result, of cinnamon-encrusted chicken on top of all that rice and sauce, was just fantastic. The split peas, with that improbable studding of raisins, also exceeded expectations — just a great dish overall, and easy to see why Amira's family cooks it time and again.

Zubaidi | Stuffed fish over rice | Recipe

What with so many people coming over, and knowing that Kuwait has a long and storied maritime history, I wanted to try out a fish dish. As with many meals from far-off countries, I had to substitute the fish, as silver pomfret is a few oceans away from the West Coast, and went with snapper. The dish came out okay, with some of the haunting tang of the dried lime playing off the sweetish white flesh, but it just couldn't hold a candle to the fantastic chicken. It felt to me like the ham on the Thanksgiving table: it has to know from the start that it's just playing second fiddle to the turkey.

Gers ogely | Cardamom saffron sponge cake | Recipe

While Amira suggested we cook lugaimat, a seasoned doughnut rolled in honey, I passed because of the "don't deep-fry in other people's kitchens" rule we codified early on in the project. It was probably a kind gesture to our full stomachs to give them something lighter, in the form of this fragrant sponge cake. With bold but not overpowering spices, a little went a long way: a single cake fed the whole crowd. Which is good, because Mom's first attempt at making a double batch failed. Turns out some recipes simply can't be scaled, such as those leveraging the complex and delicate physics required to make a sponge cake.

We ate the cake with sweet, strong black tea with cardamom, in classic Kuwaiti style. Unfortunately, being unused to a late-night caffeine jolt, many of us stayed awake into the wee hours! The occupational hazards of experiencing other cultures!

Thanks again to Amira and Al for all the help, and to everyone who came and gave generously to our new non-profit cause, Mercy Corps!


Recipe for Machboos from Al, Amira's dad

Serves four, but if you're going through all this effort, consider doubling it and inviting friends over or freezing it.

Basmati rice, according to how hungry your crowd will be (maybe 1/2 cup per person) 1 chicken, cut in half, or in pieces; or four leg quarters A few cloves Vegetable oil 2 onions, chopped 2 cloves of garlic, minced Small can of tomato paste Arab spice blend: look for “bezar” or “chicken spices” at an Arab market, or make the fantastic blend from this recipe (and use the leftovers for barbecuing) 1/2 pound yellow split peas 1/2 cup golden raisins Ground cinnamon Pinch of saffron

Thoroughly wash the rice, then leave to soak as you prepare the rest of the dish.

Heat water, cloves and a pinch of salt in a pot to boiling, reduce the heat to medium, and cook the chicken just until the flesh turns white, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Save the flavorful broth for cooking the rice. Note that some recipes call for adding other spices to the boiling water: cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, and whatnot.

Heat a skillet on medium heat. Sauté half the onion and garlic with vegetable oil until soft. Add the chicken, and nestle it in so as much flesh as possible is touching the pan, skin-side-down. Once the first side is seared, flip and sear the other side. Add the tomato paste, a generous dose of the spice blend, and enough water to let the chicken braise. Add some salt, too. Stir to break up the tomato paste into the water, and once things starts bubbling, turn down the heat. Cook until the chicken is soft and the sauce tastes amazing, maybe a half hour. Remove the chicken to a baking dish, which you can optionally line with foil for easier clean-up.

While the chicken’s simmering, get the split peas going. Cover them with water in a small pot, bring to a boil, and simmer until tender but not mushy. Drain and set the peas aside for a moment. In the same pot, sauté the remaining onion and garlic, plus the raisins, with oil until the onion is soft. Add the peas back in with a splash of water if it, add salt and your favorite seasonings (to keep it simple just use a pinch of cinnamon, or you could add allspice or whatever other spices strike your fancy). Simmer gently until it’s all nicely soft.

You can cook everything up to this point well in advance if that suits your schedule better.

45 minutes before you want to serve, start heating the oven to 350, Sprinkle a healthy dose of ground cinnamon all over the chicken on both sides, if it’s too hot use tongs to flip. Bake skin-side-up until the smell is unbearable.

About a half-hour before it’s time to serve, drain the rice and put it in a pot or a rice cooker. Add enough of the chicken-clove broth to cover the rice by the length from your fingertip to your first knuckle, somewhere between a half an inch and an inch. (Don’t throw out the remaining water just yet, you may need a splash at the end if you didn’t use enough water.) Crumble some saffron in your fingers and sprinkle it over the water. If using a rice cooker just set it going; if on the stovetop, bring the water to a boil, then reduce to a very low simmer and cover tightly for about 20 minutes. Fluff.

Serve on a large platter, with the rice in the center, the split peas on the edge, and the chicken and tomato sauce in the center. Whether to put the tomato sauce under or over the chicken is a matter of your aesthetics. (Ours was actually on the side to accommodate allergies.) Serve alongside abundant parsley and limes.


Meal 86: Jordan

When you think of Middle Eastern food, you probably imagine hummus, tabbouli, falafel. While those foods are indeed popular throughout the region, they come from the Levant, essentially the region between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates which contains modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, plus pieces of Iraq, Israel, and Palestine. (Incidentally, confusion about how to translate the Arabic word for this region, ash-Sham, is why the terrorist organization based in Syria is sometimes translated ISIS (where the second S is "Syria") or ISIL (for "Levant"). One of the goals for this project is to highlight what's distinctive about a country, meaning in part what you can find there that's nowhere else. In this case, some of the core parts of the Levantine diet are so pervasive I couldn't avoid them, but rather integrated them in a distinctive way — with hummus as a part of a bigger dip, for instance, and particular local variations of regional favorites like baba ghannoush and mujaddara.

Fortunately, this type of meal scales well. For our very last meal as New Yorkers, we returned to the fantastic Hostelling International on the Upper West Side for two reasons: we wanted to host many more folks than could fit in our apartment, and even if we'd wanted to host there, almost everything was packed up or given away! It was a pleasure to host several dozen people on a beautiful night, and cook with friends old and new in the very ample basement kitchen.

Tremendous thanks to Najeeb, a colleague of mine from Jordan living in Dubai, who summoned the famous Jordanian hospitality I'd read so much about in an amazing and unexpected way — he insisted on paying for the tickets for some people to come and enjoy his country's food! Thanks to Najeeb, everyone who volunteered to cook was able to enjoy the meal at no cost. (And, of course, hundreds of people received meals from the World Food Program.)

Fattet hummus | Hummus dip | Recipe

You know that random mixed-up mess you have left on your plate after trying a bunch of dishes at a Middle Eastern restaurant? This dish is kinda like that, just pre-mushed-up for you, with chickpeas two ways — plain and as hummus — plus yogurt, tahini, pita, olive oil, pine nuts, and parsley. It's like for Levantine food what seven-layer dip is for Tex-Mex, and a tasty way to feed a crowd. Big thanks to Jason for whipping up the hummus and then compiling the dish.

Moutabal | Roasted eggplant dip | Recipe

If this dish of roasted eggplant, tahini, garlic and lemon juice looks a whole lot like baba ghannoush, well, you're sort of right. That's what it's called in Egypt, as well as much of the Western world. But if you order baba ghannoush in several other Arab countries, including Jordan, you'll get something also based on roasted eggplant, but more like a mashed-up salad with tomatoes and onions rather than this creamy dip. Anyway, what the Jordanians call moutabal is the more common one there, so that's what we made. Really not very hard to make, and very easy to tweak the levels of pretty much all ingredients to your liking. Don't forget ample pita.

Mukhalal | Pickled turnips | Recipe

The same mustiness with a hint of sweetness that makes roasted turnip an mild yet intriguing flavor makes for a bigger punch when pickled. The deep, earthy tones play off the bright crisp of the vinegar, all of which is made cartoonishly pink thanks to a few beet pieces that have been thrown into the mix for show. With nothing more than a bay leaf and a bit of chili, and of course a week of sitting on the counter, these few elements interact to create a condiment that is, rightly, hugely popular, a nice palate-cleanser after a bite of lamb, or a texture-enhancer to an otherwise mushy bite of hummus.

Mansaf | Lamb and rice over flatbread with sauce of reconstituted buttermilk | Recipe

Sometimes it's excruciating to choose what to feature for a given country from among so many options, and sometimes you see a certain dish declared in every travel article and recipe collection as the undisputed National Dish. Jordan is the latter type of country, as this bountiful dish of meat over two types of starch bathed in a rich sauce is the sine qua non of that famed Jordanian hospitality.

Mansaf means "explosion" in Arabic, and this dish does indeed look like a bunch of settled debris. But it's all layered for maximum deliciousness and texture sensation, with lamb-infused buttermilk sauce layered amongst the flatbread, rice, and lamb for full tastiness.

The most important, and most challenging, part of the dish is the jameed, which is dried buttermilk. I couldn't find the proper hard balls that the recipe calls for, the best I had was the Lebanese version called kishk, which is similar but ground and mixed with wheat. The advantage is that the powder allowed us to skip the soaking part, but the flavor and texture both felt a little too thin and mealy. I probably put in too much water and didn't stir it enough. It definitely showed promise, with a sort of smoky-tart flavor and, in parts, a lovely creamy texture. It was definitely good enough to eat, thankfully, because I bought over 30 pounds of lamb!

Mudardara | Rice and lentils with caramelized onions | Recipe

I included this to make the meal vegetarian-friendly, but found it quite tasty all the same. As far as I can tell, it's the better-known mujaddara, except explicitly made with brown lentils and rice, whereas other versions of the dish can use green lentils, or even wheat in place of rice. Anyway, it's a hearty comfort food, and while it takes time and care to prepare, it's very inexpensive.

Knafeh | Cheese and shredded filo pastry | Recipe

Take a feta-like cheese out of its salty brine, soak in several changes of water, then simmer to make darn sure all the salt's gone. Tear open a package of shredded filo and fry in ghee until it's crispy. Layer a pan with filo, then that weird cheese, then more filo. Wait, this is dessert? Yup! Because after baking on one side, flipping over, and baking again to ensure even caramelization, you douse the whole thing in a ton of sweet syrup.

You know what? This thing was pretty darn awesome, the runaway success of the night. And congrats to Elly, pastry chef for the night, who followed the spirit of the recipe by "summoning the courage of her convictions" when flipping the trays, beautifully executed.

It was a lovely evening, mild by late-July New York standards, and many of us transitioned out to the hostel's lawn, enjoying last nibbles of sweets, including a whole box of dates I'd forgotten about in the rush. After lots of hugs goodbye and a team effort to clean up, we rushed home to pack — and a week later hit the road to move across the country!