The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions, By May S. Bsisu, William Morrow, 372 pp., $34.95
It's a curious thing about Middle Eastern cooking. Like Southern French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Israeli, and North African cooking, it's one of the Mediterranean cuisines. But even after decades of enthusiasm over these sunny dishes, somehow the region has mainly come to signify French and Italian.
In ''The Arab Table," May S. Bsisu has set out to change that, pull Mediterranean attention to the east, and stake a claim to an underserved cuisine. The book's ambition is to be comprehensive, pan-Arabic, inspiring, and generally accessible when transplanted to an American setting. In these goals it largely succeeds.
Bsisu, a Cincinnati-based writer of Palestinian heritage, details at some length the cultural tradition of hospitality in the Arab world, where guests are customarily greeted with an open larder and a laden table. This praiseworthy habit makes for a warm social life. But when you look at the recipes up close, what you see are hours of dedication in the kitchen. Whatever may be the philosophical underpinnings of the hospitality tradition, the unspoken truth is that generations of patient women have chopped, peeled, soaked, blanched, and fried their days away. How this must feel in the summer, in a desert nation, I'm not sure I can imagine.
Nevertheless, the bright tastes and varied textures are reward enough, even if you're not feeling motivated to entertain in the traditional style. The smaller, less time-consuming starters were especially satisfying. Easy, cooling, and mint-flecked, cucumber and yogurt proved addictive eaten with a bit of toasted pita. Beet salad was bright and bracing in its white-vinegar dressing. Orange lentil soup contained only the lentils, broth, onions, and seasonings (the soup has no citrus flavors; it's made with orange-colored lentils), yet the flavor was rounded and a spoonful of lemon yogurt gave it an invigorating finish.
Two dishes that might have been subtitled ''some assembly required" produced substantial, rounded meals. Baked kafta with tahini married thin-sliced potatoes with ground lamb and a tahini sauce so garlicky-delicious, some of us were licking it out of the bowl. Chickpeas with yogurt turned out to involve interesting layers of toasted pita, yogurt, chickpeas, fried pine nuts, and parsley. ''Serves 8 to 10," writes Bsisu. Make that ''4."
Shrimp with garlic and cilantro looked promisingly simple, but that was because all the work was embedded in the ingredients list. Kuwaiti spice mix had to be made first; dill and cilantro rinsed, picked, and chopped; shrimp peeled and deveined. Then ''2 pounds onion, finely chopped" cost a tearful half hour. When I turned to the mouthwatering color photograph of the dish, there were scarcely any onions to be seen. The shrimp was delicious, but I am still resenting those onions.
Less challenging, if also less interesting, was the ''quintessential family dish," ground beef with zucchini. One instruction: ''Cook [the beef] until it is dark -- almost black -- and fragrant, about 5 minutes" made no sense at all. I can't think of a technique short of a stovetop inferno that would turn ground beef from red to black in 5 minutes. Nevertheless, the flavors were agreeable, the family sated.
Two instances were enough to establish the famous Arab sweet tooth. Sweet rice -- a recommended accompaniment to the tear-inducing shrimp -- called for 2 cups of sugar, plus saffron, and rosewater. The result might have been tolerable as a dessert. As it was, it set almost everyone's teeth on edge with its domineering sweetness.
Semolina cake, which was actually intended as a sweet, again called for 2 cups of sugar (not to mention 2 cups of simple syrup, which Bsisu graciously allowed might be safely forgone). But its blend of cornmeal-like semolina, tahini, and coconut was irresistible. Decorated with blanched almonds and scored into diamonds, it was handsome enough for a gift. In the end, though, it stayed home, diminishing by the hour.
Taken as a whole, ''The Arab Table" is a timely reminder that whatever our cultural differences, they can be happily set aside at the table. For anyone willing to stock up on onions and free time (read the ingredients list carefully!) Bsisu's book offers a host of delicious surprises. And whatever else may be the case, you can be sure of a good appetite by the time dinner's ready. There is no better seasoning.