Food is one of the common threads that binds us human beings together, surpassing all the geographical boundaries. It helps us connect with other cultures around the world. In some cultures, like India, food signifies hospitality as well. The whole world is a big family and thanks to technological advancements, we are highly connected. It has brought a lot of popularity to the different cuisines around the world such as Italian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, French, American, Japanese and many more!
When talking about the popular cuisines of the world, it is hard to leave behind Middle Eastern cuisine. It is one of the most popular of the various foreign foods we enjoy today. Middle Eastern food is not only delicious but healthy as well. Though it is a well-known cuisine, many people are not aware of the intricacies and richness that this cuisine carries. Middle Eastern cuisine is so much more than just Shawarma, Falafel, Pita Bread or Hummus. It is an amalgamation of cultures that spreads far and wide geographically from North Africa through Arabia, the former Ottoman Empire and Persia across to India, with the cuisine of the Mughal Empire.
Let us dive deeper into the history, elements and food of Middle Eastern cuisine.
History Of Middle Eastern Cuisine
Middle Eastern cuisine comes from a land where wheat was first cultivated. It comes from a land where fermentation was discovered. It is as old as time and belongs to a region of the earliest written recipes. As a junction between Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Caucasus, the Middle East has always been a trading hub for food and recipes. The first Persian Empire laid the foundation for modern Middle Eastern cuisine back in 550–330 BCE when rice, poultry and fruits were incorporated into the local diet. Being in the centre, the Middle East has taken inspiration from its many neighbouring regions when it comes to food. It was influenced by turmeric and other spices from India, okra or lady finger from Africa, dumplings by the Mongol invaders, cloves and peppermint from the Maluku Islands and tomatoes from the Western Hemisphere. The Ottoman Empire in the Middle East introduced sweet pastries made of thin phyllo dough and thick pastry. Religion, trade, invasions and migration all played in the development of what we know as Middle Eastern cuisine today.
Elements Of Middle Eastern Cuisine
Middle Eastern cuisine houses some common and unique ingredients or elements that give Middle Eastern food its distinctive taste. Let us have a look at the quintessential elements of Middle Eastern cuisine-
Grains are the very basis of Middle Eastern food, with rice, wheat, barley and maize being widely used. Wheat is used in making bread, a quintessential part of Middle Eastern cuisine. It is also used to make other grains like bulgur, couscous and freekeh.
Middle Eastern cuisine is all about flavours and spices. Butter and clarified butter are the traditional choices of cooking, with olive oil favoured in some areas. Some of the common spices used in Middle Eastern dishes include cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, coriander, black pepper, chilli peppers, thyme and za’atar.
Lamb and mutton are the most enjoyed meats in Middle Eastern food. Grilled meat or kebabs are very popular with many regional variations like shish kebab or kofta kebab. Meat and vegetable stew served with rice or bread is also widely savoured in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Vegetables and pulses are mainly used in the boiled, grilled, stewed and stuffed form in Middle Eastern cuisine. They are also famously paired with meat and vegetables. Leafy vegetables such as cabbage, spinach and Swiss chard are typically used. Onions, garlic, carrots, turnips and beets are the popular root vegetables. Squash, tomato, eggplant and okra or ladyfingers are the unique vegetables of Middle Eastern cuisine; tomato being the most versatile vegetable of all.
Middle Eastern Food Glossary
Middle Eastern cuisine can be perfectly described as lavish and luxurious; fit for a king. The flavoursome, decadent and full of aromatic spices Middle Eastern dishes will leave you craving for more. Below listed are some of the famous Middle Eastern food you can enjoy at home-
Baba Ganoush or Baba Ghanouj is a Middle Eastern food traditionally prepared with an eggplant baked or broiled over an open flame, giving the dip a smoky taste. The eggplant is mixed with tahini, olive oil and spices, making it silky and creamy. It is a common dish in Middle Eastern cuisine, often eaten as a dip with fresh or toasted pita.
A decadent dessert in Middle Eastern cuisine that dates its origin back to the Ottoman empire. This famous Middle Eastern food is made with layers of buttery filo pastry, chopped or coarsely ground nuts, soaked in and held together with a sweet syrup. While pistachio and walnut Baklavas are common, they can be made with a variety of fillings and in different shapes and sizes.
Börek is a Middle Eastern food made with baked phyllo dough pastries filled with an assortment of fillings like meat, cheese or vegetables. It is sprinkled with sesame or nigella seeds and eaten as a snack. Börek is called ‘Bourekas’ in Israel.
Dolma is a Middle Eastern food made with whole vegetables, fruit or seafood. It is also made by wrapping grapes or cabbage leaves around the filling. The origins of Dolma can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire and is perceived as a classic dish in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Falafel is a famous Middle Eastern food made from either ground chickpea, fava beans or a mixture of both and blended with onions, herbs and spices. This Middle Eastern food has a crunchy exterior with a light and fluffy texture inside. Falafel is a common dish in Middle Eastern cuisine eaten fresh out of the fryer as a falafel sandwich in a pita, overflowing with crunchy vegetables, pickles and drizzled with tahini.
Fattoush is a tangy salad made from Arabic flatbread called khubz or fried squares of pita. It is a delicious Middle Eastern food tossed with mixed greens and vegetables - typically radishes and tomatoes. To give Fattoush a finishing touch, it is garnished with herbs and spices.
Halva is a famous Middle Eastern food, a dense sweet confection that can be either flour-based, typically using semolina, or nut butter-based, typically using tahini. A nut-based Halva usually has flavours like chocolate or pistachio added to them.
Hummus is a staple dish in Middle Eastern cuisine and also a world-famous Middle Eastern food. It is a smooth and creamy chickpea-based dip or spread, blended with tahini, garlic and lemon juice. Hummus is usually served with all meals - breakfast, lunch, dinner and can be eaten plain with pita or with other dishes as a condiment.
Knafeh is a dessert in Middle Eastern cuisine made with thin, noodle-like strings of pastry, soaked in sweet syrup. It is layered with Nabulsi cheese which gets soft and elastic when heated, giving this Middle Eastern food its stringy texture. Knafeh gets its orange colour from orange blossom or rose water and is usually garnished with nuts.
Labneh is a type of thick and creamy yoghurt cheese with a soft cheese-like consistency. It is a famous Middle Eastern food made by straining yoghurt until it loses its liquid. It is typically served with a drizzle of olive oil on top.
A flavorful Middle Eastern food, Manakeesh is a round bread topped with thyme, cheese, ground meat or herbs like za'atar. The dough to make Manakeesh is first rolled flat and is then
pressed using fingertips to create dips in the dough for the toppings to sit on. This dish of Middle Eastern cuisine resembles a Pizza and is served for either breakfast or lunch.
Pita Bread is a leavened flatbread made from wheat flour and a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. Pita Bread usually has a hollow pocket inside when cut open, which makes it a great choice for stuffed sandwiches.
Shawarma is a famous Middle Eastern food made from thin slices of marinated meat roasted and cut from a slowly turning rotisserie or spit. Shawarma usually uses lamb or mutton that is shaved off a rotating spit, continuously roasting the outer layer of meat. This Middle Eastern food is usually served as a sandwich or a wrap in a Pita Bread, stuffed with vegetables and sauces on top. It is also called Pita Pockets in some regions.
Tabbouleh is a salad made with finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion, uncooked bulgur and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and sweet pepper. This famous Middle Eastern food is usually served cold as an appetiser.
Tahini is a creamy and nutty paste of toasted and ground sesame seeds. It is a popular dish of Middle Eastern cuisine that is eaten as a spread or a dip but it usually serves as a primary ingredient in other Middle Eastern dishes like Hummus and Halva.
Toum is a sauce made primarily with garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. It is pronounced as 'thoum', meaning garlic is Arabic. This Middle Eastern food is a naturally vegan dip, used as a dressing for Middle Eastern dishes like Shawarma and as a dip alongside Falafel.
Turkish Delight, also called Lokum, is a sweet confection made from cornstarch and sugar. This Middle Eastern food is often eaten in the shape of small cubes with a dusting of icing sugar covering it to prevent it from clinging. Traditional varieties of Turkish Delight are generally flavoured with rosewater, orange blossom water, lemon, cinnamon or mint.
Middle Eastern Beverages
Just like the Middle Eastern dishes, Middle Eastern beverages too, are distinctive in flavour. Let us have a look at the beverages enjoyed in the Middle East-
Turkish Coffee is a type of unfiltered coffee prepared in an ibrik or cezve using finely ground coffee beans. It is bold, frothy and rich in taste Middle Eastern beverage sometimes enhanced with a hint of cardamom.
Limonana is a Middle Eastern Frozen Mint Lemonade. It is a sweet, tart and refreshing Middle Eastern beverage enjoyed during hot summers.
Qamar al-din is an apricot juice or nectarine-based Middle Eastern beverage savoured by the localists during the holy month of Ramadan.
Jallab is a traditional Middle Eastern beverage made with grape molasses, grenadine syrup and rose water, smoked with Arabic incense. It is served chilled, garnished with pine nuts and raisins.