The Middle East is the birthplace of the earliest civilizations and many religions. Made up of over a dozen countries and about forty different ethnic groups, it is a region rich in history and culture. It’s also a place of delicious food with the cuisine of all the various countries and people of the Middle East as well as influences from those who invaded, migrated and inhabited the area. Let’s see which countries make up this area. The Middle East includes Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United States Emirates, and Yemen.
This year, cooking with Middle Eastern flavors is a hot food trend. That’s no surprise to us; we love Middle Eastern food with its healthy grains, legumes, and bold spices. Here’s a quick primer on how to cook with Middle Eastern flavors.
1. Herbs and Spices
The Middle East has a rich history of spice trading with Asia, Africa, and Europe so it’s no surprise that the cuisine uses many unique spices and herbs for color as well as flavor. Common herbs and spices include cumin, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, caraway, garlic, black pepper, aniseed, turmeric, parsley, mint, thyme, and allspice.
Za’atar is an herb blend of thyme, marjoram, and oregano with sumac and sesame seeds. You can buy it or make your own Homemade Za’atar Blend. It’s often mixed with olive oil and spread on bread. It is also used with vegetables, kebabs, and salads like this Za’atar Roasted Chickpea Salad and this Chermoula-Spiced Karantita and Pomegranate Salad.
Baharat, which means “mixed spices,” is a spice blend containing allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, and dried chilies. It is commonly used in meat dishes.
Ras el hanout, which means “top shelf,” is a traditional Arabic spice blend, commonly used in Muslim and Sephardic cooking, that typically includes cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, saffron, dry turmeric, peppers, fennel, rosebuds, and anise. Try this blend in this Moroccan Chili and this Seitan Tagine with Apricots and Dates.
Harissa is a North African chili pepper paste made from sweet and hot peppers, garlic, caraway, and coriander. Make your own Harissa and then use it to make these Spiced Chickpeas with Harissa and Tamarind and these Stewed Great Northern Beans With Harissa.
Preserved lemon is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Lemons are pickled in brine with saffron and nigella seeds. Rose water and orange blossom water are used primarily in desserts such as rice pudding, candies, and baklava. Other common flavors include olive oil, olives, pomegranate, nuts, sesame seeds, and honey. See how to make Vegan Pineapple Honey.
Grains are a large part of Middle Eastern cuisine. Wheat is commonly used to make breads including pita bread. Learn how to make Homemade Pita Bread and this Whole Wheat Pita Bread. Cracked wheat or bulgur is also common, especially for tabbouleh. Try this Bulgur with Curcuma, Veggies, Nuts, and Cranberries and this Colorful Bulgur with Papaya and Pomegranate. Tabbouleh can also be made with other ancient grains like this Veggie Tabbouleh with Barley and for gluten-free options, my Rainbow Quinoa Tabbouleh, this Herbed Beet Quinoa Tabbouleh.
Couscous, made with wheat, is a popular Middle Eastern dish, as is freekeh, a type of immature wheat. Rice is often served as part of a meal. You’ll love this Curried Couscous and Vegetable Salad, Mediterranean Couscous in Red Pepper Sauce, and this Freekeh Salad with Cucumber, Pistachios, and Mint.
After grains, beans, pulses, and legumes are the most commonly used ingredients in Middle Eastern cooking. We all love falafel but did you know it was originally made with fava beans? Today, we see it made mainly from chickpeas though other beans can be used. Try making these Chickpea and Pistachio Falafel, Beet and Chickpea Falafel, and Baked Falafel with Fresh Herbs and Tahini Yogurt Sauce.
Hummus, made from chickpeas and sesame paste, originated in Syria and Lebanon. Hummus is a favorite of everyone and can be used for appetizers, entrees and whatever you can think of. It can also be made with beans other than the traditional chickpeas. Try this Spinach and Garlic Hummus, Black Bean Jalapeno Hummus, and Edamame Pistachio Hummus.
Chickpeas are also used in many other Middle Eastern dishes like this Za’atar Roasted Chickpea Salad, Lebanese Spiced Roasted Cauliflower Chickpea Salad, and this Iranian Eggplant and Chickpeas Stew With Coconut-Almond Sauce. For other ways to use chickpeas, see 10 Recipes You Might Be Surprised are Made with Chickpeas.
4. Other Legumes
Let’s get back to the fava beans which are common in Middle Eastern dishes. Ful Medames, or Stewed Fava Beans, is a dish eaten all over the Middle East and is considered the national dish of Egypt. It is a breakfast dish of fava beans, garlic, and lemon juice. It is sometimes mixed with hard-boiled eggs and so it makes sense that a few spoons of an already prepared tofu scramble could be incorporated into the dish if desired. Get the recipe for ful medames in 10 Ways to Cook Beans with Global Flavor. Green fava beans are cooked like other green beans. Try them in this Miso Zoodle Soup With Fava Beans and Greens and this Fava Bean Quinoa Salad.
Lentils have been eaten since biblical times. A common Middle Eastern lentil dish is mujaddara. It is a hearty ancient dish made with lentils and rice and is so satisfying. In this Lebanese-inspired Mujaddara, the lentils and rice are seasoned with warm spices, and the fried onions get mixed into the dish as well as tossed on top, so you get fried, crunchy goodness throughout. Serve it with a yogurt-lemon sauce for a tangy, cool element against the spiciness. Split peas are also popular. Get the recipe for my Split Pea Soup in 10 Ways to Make Soup with Global Flavors.
There are plenty of veggies in Middle Eastern cooking. You’ll see lots of eggplant, okra, tomatoes, root veggies such as carrots, turnips and beets, and leafy greens including cabbage, chard, and spinach. This Batata Hara is a dish of spiced potatoes that is perfect with any main course while this Roasted Carrot and Beet Salad with Lemon Confit is a delicious blend of sweet, earthy, and tart flavors. These Persian Style Potato Pancakes (Kuku Sib-Zamini) has Arabic and Persian flavors combined in delicious frittata-type patties.
Baba ganoush is one of my favorite spreads since I love roasted eggplant and I love roasted garlic and when these two loves get together, it’s magical. Get the recipe for my rich and decadent Baba Ganoush in 10 Ways to Cook Eggplant with Global Flavors. Also try this Lemon and Thyme Baba Ganoush and BabagaHummus which is a combo of two favorite spreads. You’ll also want to make this Legendary Middle Eastern-Style Vegan Bake made with eggplant and tons of flavor and these Eggplant Slices with Tahini Cumin Sauce.
Muhammara is a boldly-flavored Middle Eastern red pepper dip that’s good on absolutely everything. This Healthier Muhammara and this Muhammara Spread are just as flavorful and easy to make as the original, but raw walnuts and sprouted grain bread make them healthier.
Stuffed vegetables are most associated with Middle Eastern cuisine. They are commonly called dolma, the Turkish word meaning “stuffed,” but also the Arabic mahshi. While stuffed grape leaves may also be a Greek delicacy, they are common in the Middle East where they are cooked in tomatoes and oil. Try these Dolmades Stuffed With Pine Nuts and Currants. Other veggies stuffed include eggplant, squash, tomatoes, and peppers. See 25 Stuffed Veggie Dishes You Can Feel Good About Stuffing Yourself With for more recipes you can add Middle Eastern flavors to.
6. Protein and “Dairy”
Grilled meats cut into cubes and cooked on skewers are popular in the Middle East. These shish kebabs are served as street food with bread, salads and pickles. You don’t need meat to make delicious kebabs. Check out Go Crazy for Kebabs With These 9 Skewered Summer Recipes including these Spicy Balsamic Tofu Veggie Kebabs and Piquant Tempeh Kebabs. Get tips and tricks in 5 Tips for Amazing Skewered Food.
Lahmajun is an Armenian/Turkish pizza traditionally made with ground lamb or beef and served with lemon wedges. This Vegan Lahmajun – Armenian/Turkish Pizza uses soy crumbles instead.
Yogurt which is from the Turks, is commonly used in dishes, dressings and drinks as well as eaten plain. Learn How to Make Dairy-Free Yogurt at Home and then use it to make this Lemon and Lavender Yogurt Cake, Baked Falafel With Fresh Herbs and Tahini Yogurt Sauce, and Roasted Root Vegetables on Quinoa with Dairy-Free Yogurt Sauce. Cheese is also commonly used. It’s said that the first cheesemakers were Middle Eastern goat herders. While we may think of it as Greek, feta cheese is used throughout the Middle East. Make this Tofu Feta Cheese or this 5-Ingredient Almond Feta Cheese and add it to everything from salads to desserts.
Borek is a dish typically made with cheese and spinach between layers of buttery filo pastry. This Turkish Tofu and Spinach Börek uses tofu and nutritional yeast to substitute for cheese in this decadent dish.
Tahini is so pervasive in Middle Eastern cuisine that it deserves its own category. This paste is made from ground sesame seeds and if you’ve eaten hummus, you have eaten tahini. It’s very common in Middle Eastern dishes where it is mixed with lemon juice and garlic. It’s easy to make your own Homemade Tahini and then you can use it in dishes both sweet and savory. Tahini can be used to make sauces, dressings, dips, spreads, and as a replacement for dairy. Look at these 5 Non-Dairy Tahini-Based Dressings You Have to Try. It can also be used to make delicious desserts like these Chocolate Tahini Cookies and Tahini Dark Chocolate Chunk Blondies with Caramelized Ginger and Figs.
Check out 15 Tasty Tahini Recipes You’ll Love and then be sure to try this Warm Fennel and Pomegranate Salad, Eggplant Smothered in Tahini Sauce, Roasted Chickpea Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with Creamy Tahini Sauce, Cauliflower Crisps and Tangy Tahini Dressing, and Harissa Tahini Romaine Wraps and Salad.
8. BONUS: Don’t forget the Desserts!
Middle Eastern desserts tend to be sweet with nuts, fruit and floral aromas. Baklava is a popular pastry dessert with nuts, cinnamon, lemon and tahini. Learn how to make it with Baklava for Beginners. Then try this 2 Minute Matcha Ice Cream With Baklava Sprinkles and this Stout Choklava that adds chocolate and beer. These Cardamom Pistachio Rose Energy Bites have Middle Eastern flavors such as pistachio and rose water. Halva is also a popular dessert traditionally made with sesame seeds, honey and spices. This Halva Pudding is aromatic and delicious.
Common ingredients in desserts include dates, pomegranate, walnuts, almonds, and coconut. Ma’amoul is a cookie-like, date filled pastry often served during special occasions. These Maamoul (Date-Orange Stuffed Cookies) are plump, tender cookies filled with a sweet and spicy mixture of dates, orange, and ginger. Cardamom cookies are a popular dessert. Try these Hazelnut Butter and Cardamom Chocolate Chunk Cookies and 5 Ingredient Fig and Banana Cookies With Cardamom. You’ll love this Delectable Cashew Citrus Cream Cake with Pomegranate Seeds, Pumpkin Pomegranate Cheesecake, Fig Tahini Truffles, Pistachio Sesame Seed Balls, Turkish Delight Cake, and these Golden Pumpkin Phyllo Rolls in Agave Maple Syrup with Roasted Apples and Hazelnuts.
With so many different cultures in the Middle East, it’s no wonder that the cuisine is varied and exciting. If you haven’t already being enjoying them, these flavors are bound to become your new favorites.
Lead image source: Cauliflower Crisps and Tangy Tahini Dressing