While many innovations from the Arabian peninsula dominate our lives today, from the numbers we use to the politics we hear, food originating in the Middle East has also found its way to dinner plates worldwide. While knowledge of Middle Eastern food tends to be limited to shish kebab, or kofta kebab, and other popular street food like falafel, Mediterranean cuisine has many more complex and delicious flavours to offer.
From rose water deserts to lemony stews, this guide will offer you an insight into everything from the components that make up the Middle Eastern kitchen to some easy recipes you can try at home.
Middle Eastern restaurants are great for vegetarians and meat eaters alike
As with all things food and territory related, what is considered to be a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean is and will always be contested. While you may have tried some generic Middle Eastern style lentils or bulgur, there are a host of subtle differences within what we generalize as the “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean” diet. As Leila Hudson form the University of Arizona points out in one of her studies, the term “Mediterranean” is used in western countries more as a marketing tool than anything else.
However, because of the region’s shared history in all aspects of war, love, politics and culture, we can start understanding the Mediterranean diet by looking at the generalization made by a study done at the University of Sydney, which states that typically, “the Mediterranean diet is less processed compared to western diets as it is based on whole foods.”
Looking at the history of religion in the region alone, there are certain foods and dishes that have been favoured over time simply because they were allowed in many rites of abstinence, fasting or penitence including Lent, Shabbat or Ramadan.
Focusing on prehistoric farming, wheat was a staple in the Mediterranean region – spanning from countries like Morocco and Italy to Egypt and Syria. In fact, because of shared agricultural history, many foods in the Mediterranean basin region also share staple dishes like flatbread, pine nuts, and skewered meat. In addition, whether you’re looking at Lebanese, Turkish or Yemeni cuisine, the Middle Eastern diet favours using olive oil over other types of fats.
The groundwork for this famous cuisine can also be seen to have been laid out all throughout ancient history, from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Andalusians of Spain and the Byzantine empire. It can be generalized, however, in the Ottoman Empire, which brought a diverse group of people under one rule: Kurdish, Greek, Turkish, Arab, Armenian peoples as well as those in the Balkan region and the Sephardic Jews that had been driven out by the Spanish Inquisition.
During Ottoman rule, those who definitely didn’t have the globalized palate we have today began to eat things like Persian rice, Arabic fava beans, and Armenian chickpea dishes for the first time. Turkey, on the other hand, contributed dishes like dolma, or stuffed vegetables, kebab, yogurt and yogurt sauce.
Middle Eastern food, while known for its delicious meat based dishes, also includes a very wide variety of vegetarian dishes – many of which we enjoy on a daily basis like hummus, baba ghanoush or tahini sauce.
Condiments on falafel include tzatziki sauce, feta cheese and hummus
Regional differences within the Middle East can mean many different things. For example, dishes such as hummus and falafel tend are pretty standardized when it comes to their preparation. Both of these dishes are chickpea-based, involve similar spices, and can actually be varied by the inclusion of fava beans.
Similarly, dishes like kebab, or kabob and fattoush tend to be made without much variation from country to country. The dishes mentioned can actually form part of what is commonly referred to as the mezze, or meze, which is an assorted platter of appetizers that can also include pitta bread, or pita bread, baba ghanoush, za atar or zaatar, stuffed grape leaves, known as warak enab or dolma, and more.
While there are many different combinations and slight variations amongst Middle Eastern countries, from how they prepare shawarma to what they include in baklava, there are also different dishes that have arisen simply because of differences between resources and cultures.
For example, while Iranians tend to follow a rice-based diet, countries like Libya and Egypt eat cereals like couscous. In contrast, ingredients like lentils, eggplant, yogurt and chickpeas are widely used in all Middle Eastern countries.
Lentil soup, for example, is typical of Kuwait, Iran, Afghanistan and Yemen. The differences can be found in how they spice their dish, whether they include meats such as lamb, or the herbs they use.
Shawarma is another dish that makes the case for how Middle Eastern countries have adapted standard dishes to their diet and culture. While shawarma is based on the doner kebab in Turkey, it is essentially cooked in the same manner: by slowly roasting skewered meat, spices and vegetables on a spit and then shaving it off. While this kind of preparation is typically done using meats like lamb, chicken and beef, Israel is known for its adaptation using turkey.
Baba ghanoush, or baba ghanouj, is another dish that has taken on different iterations throughout the Middle East. While the recipe can sound standard at first, involving a puree of grilled aubergines and spices, different countries have made their own versions of the popular dish. In Libya, for example, mtabal is like baba ghanoush, but whose preparation involves dicing the aubergine instead of pureeing it.
While there are many standard side dishes, like pitta chips, or pita chips, and widely used herbs and sauces like parsley and tahini, Middle Eastern countries all have their own, unique spin on dishes we might think of as homogeneous.
Whether you’re used to treating yourself with delectable baklava, a pistachio based desert, or are addicted to Turkish coffee, there are actually a countless number of ways in which Mediterranean dishes have been adapted around the world.
In the past decades, there has been an explosion of Middle Eastern restaurants not just in the UK but also abroad. With its high degree of versatility and wide range of flavours – from dishes including stuffed vegetables, shish kebab, spiced figs and pistachios – it’s not hard to see why this cuisine is becoming so popular.
One region that is likely to have the most similarities with the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern diet is Asia. Looking at the history of movement and civilization on the world arena, it’s not hard to see why. Whether it be because of a shared, passed trade history or through a shared religion, the Middle East and Asia have actually developed some of the same dishes.
While you’re unlikely to find it at a Middle Eastern restaurant, Indian chicken biryani can actually find it’s variation in Iraq. While biryani is a dish whose origins can be traced back to the Muslim communities in India, it is also a traditional dish that became especially popular in the Kurdish regions of Iraq.
While the standard recipe for Indian biryani includes basmati rice, mint leaves, cardamom and coriander – Iraqi biryani uses basmati rice as well as vermicelli noodles, turmeric and carrots.
Freshly ground coriander goes great with warm pitta, or pita
Most people wait until they have time to go to a Middle Eastern restaurant to enjoy the flavours of Egyptian, Yemeni or Lebanese cuisine. Just like you don’t have to travel all the way to Beirut to be able to taste great kibbeh, a great option for eating dishes from the Middle East is to simply cook them yourself.
While much of Middle Eastern food does include ingredients like minced or ground meat or meat skewers, there are also a host of traditional dishes that are vegetarian or vegan, such as rice pilaf, burghul and labneh. Here are some traditional, easy Middle Eastern recipes to try at home.
There’s a lot of die-hard lovers of pittas, or pitas, who have never had the chance to try some Manakish. While all flatbread is delicious and especially useful as an easy vegetarian snack, manakish also makes for the perfect side dish to dishes like soups, kofta kebab, or kafta kebab, and more.
While you can make manakish from scratch, you can also make it using store bought pita. The only thing you’ll need to buy for them is zaatar, which is made up of sumac, thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and salt. While this typical Levantine dish is usually eaten in the morning, feel free to make it whenever the craving strikes or to adapt it to the spices you’ve got in your kitchen, like paprika and cumin.
To make at least 8, 7 inch flatbreads, make sure you combine about 200 grams of zaatar to 115 millilitres of oil. After mixing these ingredients in a bowl, adding more or less zaatar as needed, pour about 15 millilitres of the zaatar and oil mix onto your pitas, cooking them in the oven as directed on the package you’ve bought them from.
For some more recipes to make at home, check out these top dishes.