What did shepherds like to eat?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Grinch gets the rap for stealing Christmas, but what about Charles Dickens?

A well-meaning heist, surely, but just the same. The manger and Bethlehem and anything to do with the region where the celebrated event actually occurred has long been overshadowed by A Christmas Carol's luscious steam of plum pudding, goose, candied fruit, chestnuts, mince pies, punch ...

You could go on this way for some time before you got to, say, tabbouleh or chickpeas.

Hanukkah is hardly different, absent Dickensian imperatives. Potato pancakes might have distant cousins somewhere near Jerusalem, where the Maccabees led the Jews in reclaiming the temple and famously lighted the oil lamp, but the fact is the latkes synonymous with this eight-day festival came from Eastern Europe. Had to - there were no potatoes in Jerusalem.

Traditions must travel well if they are to sustain and earn the name. Both of these holidays started their respective journeys into human experience from about the same place, but who would know that from the menu? A religious impulse seeks Christ in Christmas; an epicure might wonder what happened to the olives.

Shifting styles being what they are, it happens that much ancient foodstuff might strike the 2003 eye as trendy. Concern about cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins, fat and all of that recommends a two-word regimen: Eat biblical.

Your typical shepherd, fisherman or carpenter from around the year zero and earlier in the Middle East would have had some fish and meat but would have "subsisted chiefly on an assortment of fruits, vegetables and legumes - olives, onions, garlic, leeks, lentils, beans, cucumbers, melons, grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates and almonds," writes Kitty Morse in A Biblical Feast: Foods From the Holy Land (Ten Speed Press, 1998, $14.95).

In the recently published Feast From the Mideast: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes From the Land of the Bible (HarperCollins, 2003, $29.95), Faye Levy notes how very old things can seem new: "Like the Mediterranean diet, the Middle East manner of preparing food is perfect for our time and corresponds to contemporary nutritionists' guidelines for healthful dining."

Asked about Westernized holiday food traditions, Levy in an e-mail notes a parallel in Western art, in which Jesus invariably appears European. Sometimes he even has blue eyes, but he never looks Middle Eastern. Consider the most renowned supper in Western art history with its white tablecloth and nice china, as if this fateful meal had been taken at Marconi's.

Chances are the participants were sitting on the floor, perhaps on straw mats or rugs, and ate with their fingers and chunks of unleavened bread. If there was meat, it would probably not have been the main course at that supper, a Passover Seder.

The events celebrated at Hanukkah - a military victory of the Jews over Hellenist Syrians - took place in 165 B.C. The event celebrated at Christmas occurred sometime later.

The date of Christ's birth is hardly clear, but by most accounts it was not at the time at which the holiday is celebrated. The date Dec. 25 has less to do with a historical reference point and more to do with early Christian authorities adapting to popular nonreligious winter solstice celebrations.

Connecting with the culinary world surrounding these holidays draws one into the Bible, with its hundreds of references to food. Using the Old and New Testament as source material, along with her knowledge of Middle Eastern food, Morse compiled recipes to capture the ancient spirit: Millet With Saffron and Walnuts, Grilled Sardines With Fish Sauce, Barley Cakes, Dried Fruit, Cinnamon and Red Wine Compote.

Levy says Hanukkah has always been celebrated with foods fried in oil, as a commemoration of the temple lamp that seemed to have only enough oil for one day but burned for eight.

Her recipe for Garlic-Marinated Eggplant includes eggplant fried in olive oil. Her Chicken Pecan Bulgur Cakes With Cilantro Pesto calls for a ground chicken patty sauteed in olive oil.

The potato latke came from Russia, but absent the potato - which did not grow in the Middle East 2,000 years ago - there was probably a kind of fritter made with vegetables, eggs, flour and, of course, fried.

In Greece, Turkey and Egypt, Levy says Jews at Hanukkah might prepare a kind of jelly doughnut, a round puffy fried confection known variously as lokma, loukoumados, with sundry versions of the spelling. Whatever - so long as it's fried.

Beyond the oil, there's the Tangy Beet Salad, a Middle East holiday dish simply by virtue of the fact that beets are in season at that time of year. Of course, much of what is considered fitting holiday fare for Hanukkah or Christmas depends on where in the Middle East you're standing.

The Armenians who, like the Jews, could be standing almost anywhere in the Diaspora, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6 - the date of the observance before it was changed sometime after the fourth century - with an array of fragrant preparations.

Miriam Kazanjian, who is compiling a book of her grandmother's Armenian-Syrian recipes, has particular fondness for a preparation of stuffed squash and eggplant involving rice, ground lamb, tomato paste, garlic, mint, a seven-spice bouquet called deheh and a tamarind or pomegranate sauce.

"This is uniquely an Armenian-Syrian recipe and is absolutely exquisite," says Kazanjian, an international educational consultant who lives in North Bethesda.

The Armenian Christmas menu, says Kazanjian, might involve any number of rice pilafs, noodle dishes, eggplants stuffed with rice and tomato. She also highly recommends a traditional pudding, but not the one "like a speckled cannonball" that Mrs. Cratchit made in A Christmas Carol. She's thinking of an aromatic preparation of wheat berries, raisins, walnuts, fennel and cinnamon called Anoush Abour - Slee'a in Arabic.

Sundry grains and rice tend to play a big role in Middle Eastern holiday fare. Steve Joudi, a graduate student in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, Austin, has never spent Christmas in Syria, but is of Syrian Christian background and has family in the Middle East.

"There's always a platter of rice with pine nuts, ground beef and spices" on his family's Christmas table, he says. Note also a holiday variation on steak tartare: raw, lean ground beef with bulgur wheat, shaped and garnished with mint leaves, parsley and olive oil.

A goose steeped in sage onions with a side of mince pie it's not. But then, neither did the Wise Men ever set foot in London.

Red Rice With Yellow Vegetables

Makes 6 servings

6 to 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced (optional)

3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 medium onions, halved and cut into thin slices

1 1/2 cups long-grain rice

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or one 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained, or 3/4 cup chickpeas and 3/4 cup corn kernels

3 cups hot water (divided use)

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1 large tomato, diced ( 3/4 cup)

1 yellow bell pepper, halved, cored, seeded and diced (optional)

1/3 cup golden raisins, rinsed and drained

1/3 cup almonds, toasted

If using mushrooms, heat 1 tablespoon oil in large, deep saute pan or shallow stew pan.

Add mushrooms and saute over medium/high heat for 3 minutes, or until lightly browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl.

Add remaining oil to pan and heat it. Add onions and saute over medium heat for 12 minutes to 15 minutes, or until tender and deep-brown. Remove half of onions and reserve.

Add rice and paprika to pan and saute, stirring, for 2 minutes or until rice turns white. Add chickpeas, 2 3/4 cups hot water, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper to taste, and cayenne pepper.

Stir once and bring to a boil over high heat, without stirring, for 10 minutes. Mix tomato sauce with diced tomato and remaining 1/4 cup water. Add tomato mixture and yellow pepper to pan without stirring.

Cook, covered, over very low heat for 8 minutes to 10 minutes, or until rice is just tender. Add reserved onions, mushrooms and raisins without stirring.

Cover rice and let stand off heat for 5 minutes to 10 minutes.

Fluff rice lightly with a fork. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve topped with almonds.

-- "Feast From the Mideast: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes From the Land of the Bible," by Faye Levy (HarperCollins, 2003, $29.95)

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