Arak, The Middle East’s Favorite Tipple

image-arak-bottleArak – spirits flavored with anise seed. A seductive (and sustainable) drink loved all over the Middle East.

The waiter comes carrying a tray with a bottle, a small pitcher of water, ice, and lots of glasses. You pour the clear, anise-fragrant arak out of the bottle, only about one-third of the way up in the glass. Add as much water. Wallah! The liquid goes all milky. Dunk a couple of ice cubes in and let your drink sit a minute to chill. Sip, and savor.

You can find good commercial arak at popular prices everywhere in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries.  But the most appreciated arak comes from distilleries located in mountain villages where the recipe, like many traditional foods, passes down from father to son through generations. It takes yellow grapes grown organically and without irrigation, and the best-quality anise seed, to make the best arak.

It’s an aperitif to accompany many small dishes of savory mezze over a leisurely lunch– or do all those appetizers simply help you drink the arak? In any case, arak has other uses that many don’t know about.

Arak has medicinal properties.

Moroccan grandmothers massage arak onto the stomachs of children with indigestion. Works for grownups, too.

It’s hard to imagine right now, but on freezing winter nights, an arak massage gets you warm again. We heard from a local wise woman how she rescued a hypothermic baby using an arak massage. She poured a little straight arak onto her palms, massaged him quickly in a warm room, and immediately bundled him up in layers of cotton wool and then his clothing. Within seconds, the baby’s skin flushed with a healthy pink color and his breathing returned to normal.

Arak in the kitchen, not just on the liquor shelf.

Try marinating chicken kebabs in arak, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a little crushed garlic. Grill, and serve with salads and pita.

A delicious way to serve fresh figs: freeze your arak bottle for an hour, then pour the thick, semi-frozen arak over chilled, halved fresh figs. Even people who don’t like arak, like figs this way.

Make a geranium flower liqueur with arak. Pour off about a third of the arak from a bottle (drink some, of course) and stuff the empty space with the edible flowers of rose or lemon geranium. Keep adding flowers, pushing them down with a chopstick or the handle of a wooden spoon, till the bottle is almost full. Pour a little of the ark back in to cover the flowers. Cap the bottle and leave it alone in a dark place for 2 weeks. Then strain the liqueur out into a clean bottle, and enjoy this very fragrant, floral drink.

So what’s with all the little glasses? Many prefer a clean glass rather than topping up a used one, claiming that the milky emulsion produced by the contact of water with the anise essential oils looks dirty after a while. The small, un-labeled bottle in the picture below suggests a home-made arak.

image-arak-ice-glasses

More on spices and food from Green Prophet:

Miriam Kresh writes about food at www.israelikitchen.com.

Photo of vintage arak bottle by Cesarastudillo via Flickr; photo of arak and glasses by peteri sulonen via Flickr.

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