This post comes from our partners over at the World Food Program USA, an arm of the UN’s hunger relief program. They’re really great and you should check out their site, which talks about their work helping people in disaster zones, reducing food insecurity worldwide, and even providing nourishment for future Olympic athletes.
Let’s talk kabsa. It’s hearty, warming, and dead-simple to make, and it’s (along with some variants) a staple of several Middle Eastern cultural cuisines. It is a version of a dish virtually all countries have: chicken with rice.
Chicken with rice is like the Rosetta stone of meals. You can translate a culture’s cuisine by looking at how it handles chicken and rice — which flavors it adds, how it prepares it, and how people sit down to eat it. Indians have biryani, Italians have cacciatore, and Latin American countries each have their own versions of arroz con pollo. It’s a touchstone, a way of understanding how people approach food.
In the same way, kabsa speaks for several cultures that span Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Qatar, and other Middle Eastern countries. Speaking to the region’s history as a trade route, the dish is often enhanced with several spices, including cardamom, black pepper, cloves, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay leaves, and nutmeg.
It’s also often cooked in a method traditional to the region — by digging a hole, filling it with coals, placing a covered cooking vessel inside, and burying it to keep the heat trapped and letting the dish cook low and slow for several hours. Through the dish, you can understand a lot about the nomadic history of some Middle Eastern cultures and better understand the flavors that make up their culinary palette.
World Food Program USA’s Cash and Vouchers program works to provide people around the world with the ingredients they need to prepare their favorite dishes. In their VoucherChef series, they show Najla, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey making the dish using the resources provided to her. This kind of culture-context relief is crucially important — people respond best to the foods they find familiar and comforting, and in situations of extreme duress or displacement, small comforts can have a huge psychological benefit.