Starting with any recipe can be difficult if you don’t have the cultural knowledge or background necessary to prepare it. Whether the extent of your knowledge about Middle Eastern cuisine covers only lemony tabbouleh or if you already have Middle Eastern origins – learning about the history of this flavourful cuisine is a great starting point.
Origins of Middle Eastern Food
From cardamom to halal, the spices and styles of cooking in the Middle East have much of the same shared history. The reason as to why you’re likely to hear Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food talked about interchangeably is because of the similarities in the staple ingredients that make them up.
Also referred to as the Levant or Levantine region, a study by the University of Sydney revealed that the Middle East tends to eat “less processed” foods when compared to its western counterparts because of the fact that it is “based on whole foods.”
These whole foods can include everything from yogurt sauce, fava beans, lentils, burghul, grape leaves, pistachios and more. In fact, the reason why the Middle East and Mediterranean enjoy so much of the same products is due to an intertwined agricultural and trade history. Food involved in religious and abstinence rituals have also led to the development of similar dishes.
Whether you’re a hardcore vegetarian or carnivore, chances are you’ve probably tried Middle Eastern cuisine. From the spiced, grilled meat slow cooked on skewers we know as kebab, to the savory pitta chips, or pita chips, we’ve both tried at Middle Eastern restaurants or picked up at the grocery stores – Middle Eastern recipes don’t just offer a wide variety main dishes, they’re also extremely flavourful and delicious.
While you’re more likely to encounter only the most popular of dishes in any Middle Eastern restaurant, like shish kebab, tabbouleh or baba ghanoush, understanding the history and development of traditional platters in the Middle East can give you an insight into the similarities and differences in cuisine between the countries of the region.
Regional Differences in Both Food and Recipes
If you’re looking to try some Middle Eastern recipes at home, but don't understand the differences within the region, a good place to start will be by trying out some of the more standardized dishes of the region. Differences in dishes, stemming from differences in the availability of certain spices like paprika and cardamom, or simply just from varying cultures, has led to a host of unique food traditions in the region.
However, there are some recipes that tend to stay the same whether you’re in Beirut or Cairo. Here are some examples of recipes you’ll find regardless of what country you travel to or live in as well as the different variations you’re likely to encounter.
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Mezze, or meze, is a traditional platter in the Middle East filled to the brim with tasty appetizers. Similar to aperitifs in France or tapas in Spain, mezze combines the best of Middle Eastern flavours from various different dishes. If you’d like to build your own mezze, make sure to include some of the following
- Falafel or kibbeh
- Shish kebab, or kabob
- Stuffed grape leaves, known as warak enab or dolma
If you’d like to make your mezze meat friendly, you can also add some skewered meats like kafta, also known as kofta, or lamb. Mezze is often served with flatbread such as pitta bread, or pita bread, and sauces that include yogurt or tahini.
If you’re living in or traveling to Israel, you’re likely also encounter dag meoushan. Meaning smoked fish in Hebrew, the regional dish is typically added to a mezze platter as well. On the other hand, in countries like Cyprus, you might also find grilled halloumi on your plate.
While dishes like shawarma and baba ghanoush or ingredients like chickpeas and parsley tend to get most of the notoriety when it comes to Middle Eastern cuisine, dessert dishes showcase some of the Middle East’s best skills and flavours. One great example of this can be found in Baklava, which is a pastry made up of layers of filo, a flaky dough, and stuffing.
This stuffing varies widely from country to country and forms the basis of the different types of baklava you’ll find. It is typically made of nuts like pistachios or almonds that are mixed in with honey. In Armenia, where it is known as paklava, it is actually made with spice like cloves and cinnamon.
How You Can Adapt Dishes to the UK and Beyond
While some Middle Eastern foods are easy to shop for at your local store, there are some recipes you might want to try yourself. Here are some easy vegetarian recipes as well as meat-friendly Middle Eastern dishes that are finger-licking delicious. If you’d like some of the exact recipes, you’ll most likely find all of them here.
While you may be familiar with tabbouleh comprised mainly of bulgur, the traditional way to prepare it is actually by adding a lot more parsley. Proportionately speaking, tabbouleh should be much more of a parsley salad than a bulgur salad.
While there are different variations within the different countries of the region, most of the countries on the Arabian peninsula follow a standard recipe. Here are some of the main ingredients:
- tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- cup mint
The preparation of tabbouleh is as easy as any other type of salad and is perfect for making for making large quantities or taking it with you on the go.
Kibbeh is similar to falafel in that it is a spherical form of deep fried flavour. What sets it apart is that instead of being comprised of chickpea flour and herbs, kibbeh is made up of bulgur cracked wheat, minced onion and a meat such as beef or lamb.
The meat, bulgur, spice mix is normally rolled into patties and fried, typically served with sauces like tahini sauce. Kibbeh can also be stuffed with feta and spinach. This dish is so popular it is, in fact, considered to be the national dish in many countries around the Middle East.
Here are some ingredients you should buy if you’d like to make kibbeh:
- ground meat like beef or lamb
- bulgur cracked wheat
Some of the spices you’ll need in your pantry are cumin, allspice, some salt and pepper. Keep in mind that Kibbeh is normally made in relatively large quantities, you you’ll want to find a recipe that will suit your needs: whether you’re throwing a party or simply making dinner.
Lahm bi ajin
This side dish is the Lebanese version of sfiha in Arabic and resemble pizza, although they predate pizza by about three centuries. It is a popular dish in Syria, Iraq and Jordan and can even be found in countries like Brazil.
While it is traditionally prepared by making your own flatbread, it can also be prepared with store-bought flatbread. Completing the recipe with store-bought flatbread like pitta bread will make the process a bit easier. Here are some of the ingredients you will need when making lahm bi ajin:
- Beef or lamb
- Garlic cloves
This dish is one of those recipes you can make either as a snack or for large parties. While the traditional spices included in the recipe are paprika and allspice, you can also freestyle and adapt to your own flavour preferences - as many of the countries around the world have done!
If you’re interested in some of the other popular dishes in Middle Eastern countries, or want to make a full course of Middle Eastern cuisine, take a look at some of the dishes below.
As mentioned, appetizers can typically be found in the mezze. Here are some of the most delicious dishes you can make at home:
- Warak enab: also known as dolma in some countries, this dish involves grape leaves stuffed with rice and can be made with or without meat.
- Manakeesh – one of the most popular Levantine foods, it is flatbread topped with za atar, pine nuts and more.
- Ful – often eaten at breakfast, this Egyptian dish is made of fava beans and is often likened to hummus.
If you’ve been craving some soup but want to try something new, you might want to try looking at Yemen.
- Saltah – eaten mostly in the north of Yemen, Sultah is a stew made of lamb, spices and veggies.
People don’t often get to try main dishes, as the most popular Middle Eastern dishes tend to be side dishes. Expand your palate and try some of the recipes below.
- Koshary - hailing from Egypt, this chickpea dish, is jam-packed with grains and legumes.
- Mujaddara – if you’re into rice bowls, try out this amazing dish made of lentils. To spice it up, you can also add tahini sauce.
If your knowledge of Middle Eastern desserts ends at baklava, start by trying a famous Lebanese sweet treat.
- Ghoraibi – similar to a sugar cookie, this butter cookie is topped with almond halves.