Although many of this region’s current borders have only taken shape in the last century, the Middle East is home to some of the oldest civilizations in the world, and their cuisines are firmly rooted in that history. The countries that make up the Middle East can be separated into two different sections:
The eastern and southeastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea include the countries Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt (although Egypt is technically in North Africa, its cuisine is far more similar to Middle Eastern cuisine); and
The countries of South East Asia which include Iraq, Iran and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Although the cuisines of these countries are similar, each culture has distinctly different eating practices, food preferences, and food preparation techniques
However, from a culinary perspective, we can split both regions up into three distinct traditions,
Persian (Iranian) cuisine,
Arabic cuisine and
The food of Israel
Which despite of borrowing from one another over the centuries have many distinct characteristics.
All the countries that make up the Middle East are hot and dry with rugged terrain, much of it desert. However, there are large, famous rivers here too like the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which have allowed people to successfully cultivate the land and survive for thousands of years. In fact, the region that encompasses the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates river deltas is known as the “Fertile Crescent”, and considered the “cradle of civilization”, a region that saw the development of many of the earliest human civilizations.
Effect of Geographical Location
Given its central location between Asia, Africa and Europe, you can just imagine the sheer quantity of merchants from a variety of cultures that would have travelled through the Middle East, bringing with them ingredients and culinary traditions to share. At the time, the foundation of Middle Eastern cuisine was that of the indigenous Bedouin tribes. This group of nomad peoples survived predominantly on meat from sheep (lamb and mutton), dates and yogurt made from sheep’s milk. The early civilizations that settled in the region cultivated the land with fruits, vegetables, beans, herbs and nuts. Once the constant stream of spice caravans travelling back and forth to India began, Middle Easterners became rich from the spice trade and developed their own unique ways of using spices like ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, cardamom and cloves. As time went on, New World foods began to be integrated into Middle Eastern cuisine, and foods like tomatoes, sweet peppers and squash became vital ingredients in this region’s cuisines.
Effect of Religion
Religion has played a huge role in the development of Middle Eastern cuisine. With the exception of the Jewish state of Israel, Islam is the dominant religion in this part of the world. Muslim dietary laws exclude the consumption of pork and alcohol, so both are fairly scarce in traditional Middle Eastern cuisine. The major sources of protein are primarily lamb and legumes like chickpeas. Muslims adhere to a strict code of hospitality, and cooking and eating are very social and mark all important events like births, weddings and festivals. In Israel, Jewish dietary restrictions (called kashrut, “kah-shroot”) also exist, and following this code is called “keeping kosher”. According to these laws, the consumption of blood is forbidden, so kosher butchers must slaughter animals and drain the blood from the meat prior to preparing it.
Animals that “chew the cud” (called ruminants) like cattle, goats and sheep and also have cloven hooves are permitted on the basis that they cannot hold prey (and thus eat blood). But all others, including hogs, rabbits, horses and others are forbidden. The only fish that are considered acceptable are those with fins or scales, eliminating shellfish, shark, eel and squid from Jewish diets. Not every Jewish person follows the kashrut, but forbidden dishes are nonetheless not easily found in the cuisine of Israel.
Staple Food in Middle East Cuisine
Sourdough Bread from Turkey
One of the most important and versatile staples in the Middle Eastern diet is bread (remember its part of the Mediterranean triad). A meal without some form of bread would be unthinkable, and it serves not only as a food, but also as a utensil and a napkin. Flat wheat loaves of different thicknesses are of primary importance and are either baked in clay ovens or on clay griddles.
One of these breads has made its way into western diners’ hearts: pita bread. No doubt you’ve heard of pita bread, either having it as a convenient substitute for sandwich bread or as a handy and quick pizza crust. Pitas are popular throughout the Mediterranean and we see them throughout the cuisines of Greece, North Africa, Iran, Armenia, Turkey and even parts of the Indian Subcontinent.
Another popular bread product is known as lavash (“lah-vash”), a flat bread popular in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Similar to the way naan is made in the Indian tandoori oven, lavash is made by rolling dough flat and placing it against the walls of a hot clay oven. When soft, lavash can be used as a wrap for sandwiches and other fillings but it often dries out quickly, making it hard and brittle. The bread is stored this way and sprinkled with water to soften it when it’s ready to be eaten.
Another popular type of bread is called simit, a chewy sesame seed covered bread ring that is either served plain or at breakfast with tea, jam or cheese. Despite the religious restrictions placed on meat eating in the Middle East, non-restricted meats enjoy heavy popularity.
Lamb and chicken are the most favored meats in this area of the world. The most popular method of preparing meat is the kebab (“kah-bahb”), which is meat cooked over an open flame. The kebab has become a major export of the Middle East and has spread in popularity around the Mediterranean and the world. The most common kebabs are cubed cuts of meat on skewers, known as shish kebab and kofta (“koff-tah”) kebab, which is made from grilled meat shaped around the skewer and grilled. Kebabs are usually served with some type of bread and salad. You may have seen a large piece of meat rotating on a vertical spit in your local Middle Eastern restaurant. This is called shawarma (“shahwar-mah”), a type of kebab whose roots lie in the dish called döner (“doh-ner”) kebab, which is a Turkish invention.
Shawarma may be roasted for hours (or even a day), and is often served by shaving off pieces of the roasted meat and wrapping them in flatbread with tabbouleh (a salad made with couscous, “tah-boo-lee”), tomato, cucumber and the popular spreads made of sesame seeds (called tahini,“tah-hee-nee”) and chickpeas (hummus, which is discussed below, “hum-us”). Kebabs and shawarma are among the most popular street foods in the Middle East and other parts of the Mediterranean.
The Fertile Crescent is the crescent-shaped area stretching from the Nile valley and delta, through the lands on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and continuing through the area surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Because the areas of the Fertile Crescent have a relatively large amount of water in what is an otherwise arid climate, vegetables, beans and pulses grow with great success. This has led to dishes throughout the Middle East that are rich with these freshly grown ingredients.
Stuffed vegetables, called dolma (“dole-mah”), are common dishes in the Middle East and are often grape leaves, chard or cabbage stuffed with rice, ground meat, nuts and spices and stewed in oil and tomatoes. Other vegetables commonly stuffed are squash, onions, peppers and eggplant. Eggplant is such a popular and versatile vegetable it is sometimes called “the potato of the Middle East”. To make one of the most widely enjoyed eggplant dishes, baba ghanoush (“bah-bah gah-noosh”), the dark purple vegetable is sliced, fried and dressed with yogurt and garlic before being mashed and mixed with tahini, lemon juice and cumin. This tasty dish is often eaten as a dip with pita bread or is added to other dishes.
Another very popular dip that has found its way into western kitchens is the chickpea-based hummus. In fact, “hummus” is the Arabic word for “chickpeas”. Hummus is made by mashing chickpeas and blending them with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. Hummus is considered a very ancient food and is very nutritious; it is high in iron and vitamin C with significant amounts of B vitamins and folate. In addition, chickpeas are a great source of protein and fiber and is eaten extensively by vegetarians and vegans the world over.
Chickpeas are also used to make another popular Middle Eastern street food “falafel”. These little balls are deep-fried mixtures of ground chickpeas, herbs and spices. It is most often served wrapped in a pita with tahini or hummus, salad and pickled vegetables. Falafel is considered a national dish of Egypt, Palestine and Israel.
Meals of the Day
All throughout the Middle East, it’s common to eat three meals daily.
Breakfast is either fresh or reconstituted bread (like the lavash described above) with cheese, yogurt, fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, jams, nuts and belila (“beh-lee-lah”), a traditional Egyptian dish of sweetened cooked grains.
Lunch is often light, including dishes like falafel or shawarma, eaten sandwich style wrapped in pita bread. Omelets are also popular at lunchtime. Thick, sweet Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom seeds is drunk throughout the day, with the exception of Iran, where tea (Irani Chai) is the preferred beverage. As with many cultures around the world, supper is the most important meal of the day.
Dinner might be a one-dish meal like a soup, stew or stuffed vegetables. Bread, yogurt, olives and pickled vegetables are generally always served, no matter what the main dish. In some parts of the Middle East, cheese might serve in the place of yogurt. If a family is wealthy, meat would be included in the entrée several times a week. When a family sits down to eat, it’s common for diners to take food from a common plate set in the middle of the table.
Spice Market in Israel
Much like in India, utensils are rarely used, and food is scooped up with the hands and pieces of flat bread like pita. As in India, eating is restricted to the right hand. If you find yourself dining on Middle Eastern food and happen to be left handed, you’re going to have to adapt quickly to using your right hand. Use your left hand only to drink from your glass.
Hospitality is of utmost importance in this part of the world, and there is strong emphasis on enjoying meals with family and friends.
Ramadan is the religious holiday in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown for a month. After sunsets, grand banquets are held, cafes and pastry shops are open at night and a general party atmosphere abounds. In fact, sweet pastries and desserts are plentiful in Middle Eastern cuisine, regardless of the occasion. Filo dough, paper-thin sheets of unleavened dough, is used for making these delicate pastries, and they are often layered with ground up nuts and honey, as in the wonderful dessert baklava.
Baklava has become quite a popular dish throughout the world, and if you happen to spot some in your local bakery, I recommend you buy at least two.