The region that we’ve come to call the Middle East covers a vast parcel of land. It ranges from eastern Europe to western Asia, crisscrossing the continents where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge. The Middle East commonly contains countries like Egypt and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Oman, but if you choose to include what’s come to be known as “The Greater Middle East”, the region extends into Asia as far east as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and as far south in Africa as Somalia.
The cultures that call this part of the world their home are abundant and diverse, displaying broad influences that came to this global crossroads through Silk Road trade or by foreign invasion. Despite the breadth of land and vast array of cultures, the cuisines in this region tends to share some overarching characteristics. The food tends to be aromatic and succulent, but not overly spicy. They make terrific use of grains, beans, and pulses and are not quite as meat-heavy a cuisine as can be found in other parts of the world. And much of the food has roots that run deep into the regional ancestry and their attendant traditions and historical influences.
Wheat was first cultivated in the Middle East, followed shortly by barley, dates, figs, pistachios, and pomegranates. Fruit, poultry, and rice were introduced across the Middle East during the era of the Persian Empire. Mongol invaders brought dumplings to the region, while Russians contributed yogurt. Cumin, garlic, and turmeric found homes in the Middle East thanks to India. Okra came from Africa. Allspice, cloves, and peppercorns were carried in from the Spice Islands. Religion factored into food choices, too. Many people in the Middle East are either Muslim or Jewish; they don’t eat pork and instead, choose lamb or sheep. Consumption of these meats peaks in countries like Bahrain. In 2020, Bahrainis ate 35 pounds of lamb and sheep per capita; US consumers ate just 1 pound of lamb and sheep by comparison.
Most Middle Eastern dishes, when you look at how they’re made, are no more difficult to make than any other cuisine’s, and are just as amenable to substitutions and swaps. If you don’t like lamb, for example, try making a kebab with chicken or beef. Aside from lamb,the Middle Eastern diet often features foods like lentils or chickpeas, feta cheese, and flatbreads. Wheat or rice is available at every meal, whether as bread, pilaf, or matzoh and it is seasoned according to what the meal it is going accompany tastes like. Eggplant is the most popular vegetable in the Middle East and it is seasoned with things like chile flakes and cumin. Sweet squashes like butternut, and mild squashes like zucchini, are commonly found in the Middle East, as well as vegetables like okra, leafy green chard or spinach, and root vegetables like onions, carrots, and beets.
Middle Eastern Spices
Middle Eastern spices are often familiar to the American palate but are used in ways or in combinations that Americans normally don’t consider. Take a look at the difference spices and seasonings used in the Middle East to make your meal as delicious and authentic as possible.
- Aleppo Pepper- This is a mild, fruity pepper flake. It’s tart and a touch salty, and lends incredible nuance to savory dishes in Middle Eastern cooking.
- Anise Seed- Used frequently in breads, fruit dishes, and in cakes. It has a licorice flavor that is popular to people in the Middle East.
- Crushed Maras Pepper- Popular for its fruity aroma and rich flavor, this crushed chile is as common on tables in the Middle East as Black Pepper is in the United States.
- Ground Nutmeg- With its warm, peppery-nutty aroma and flavor, nutmeg is wonderful in desserts and in savory cooking. In America, nutmeg is typically associated with holiday desserts, but in the Middle East it’s used year-round, in sweet and savory ways.
- Caraway Seed- This is an ingredient in the popular dessert meghli. Caraway Seed has a spicy, sweet flavor that is used in desserts and meat dishes. In the US, Caraway Seed is most recognizable as the crunchy seeds in rye bread.
- Sumac- Commonly used in a popular bread salad called fattoush, this spice is also popular for meats, rice, and vinaigrettes. Sumac is thought to be sour and a good lemon substitute in the Middle East. Sumac is one of the few spices indigenous to the US, and has been in use as long as Native Americans populated the nation.
- Cardamom- This is used in a wide variety of dishes, whether savory or sweet. You can find cardamom in Middle Eastern desserts, in coffees, and sometimes even in breads. Cardamom is also used in many beverages.
- Turmeric- Predominantly a spice used in rice, Turmeric gives food a lovely yellow hue and tastes earthy and delicious.
- Cumin- A favorite spice in the Middle East, cumin is used on everything from falafel to soups. Cumin has a broad reach and an also be found as a dominant spice in Mexican and Tex-Mex foods.
- Cinnamon- Cinnamon is often used in the Middle East to season chicken, though it can be used for a wide range of foods, from vegetables to desserts, to the sprinkle on top of coffee. In the US, cinnamon is usually considered to be solely a dessert ingredient, though its use in savory applications is creeping upward.
- Organic Pink Rose Petals- Rose petals offer a delicate aroma, a surprising hit of gentle pepper and a palate-cleansing astringency. They can be overdone, so use sparingly at first.
Seasoning Blends Used in the Middle East
Seasoning blends in the Middle East are not often standardized; instead, they are created to meet individual and regional preferences.
- Ras-el-Hanout- This blend is very versatile and when roughly translated, the name means "top shelf. There can be as few as 4 and as many as 20 ingredients in this blend.
- Baharat- Used in stews, tomato sauces, and with lentils, Baharat is an important spice blend in Middle Eastern cuisines.
- Za'atar- There are actually two versions of this blend, a Syrian blend which has salt in it, and an Israeli blend that is salt free. It is used most frequently on pita bread.
- Advieh – Warming and fragrant, Advieh combines cinnamon, cumin, and rose petals into an unforgettable flavor combination.
- Shawarma Seasoning– Rich with woodsy cinnamon and cloves, and just the right nudge of cayenne, Shawarma Seasoning is great for grilling. It’s traditionally used on kebabs, but is equally at home in burgers or tossed over shrimp and sauteed.
- Dukkah- Dukkah is a remarkable blend. It’s a combination of sweet and sour seasonings—think bright coriander and tart sumac—and nutty, crunchy sesame and hazelnuts. Dukkah is terrific tossed over toasted pita, but it’s also bulky enough to snack on, on its own.
Middle Eastern ingredients can be a little hard to come by sometimes, though they are gaining prevalence and popularity in US markets. If you want to venture into cooking Middle Eastern food, a good place to start would be with recipes like tabbouleh, chicken shawarma, or falafel. The flavors are familiar and the ingredients are easy to source. The Middle East is full of wonderful flavor adventures. What are you waiting for?