From Lebanese specialties to Turkish coffee, it can be difficult to distinguish the similarities and differences within the vast array of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern treats. Understanding food culture in the Middle East can be made especially hard to navigate because of the very term Middle East itself. While countries on the Arabic peninsula are always labelled under the umbrella term, many countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Armenia and Cyprus can also be included in the definition.
Whether you’re an expert in making spiced baklava, want to make some stuffed grape leaves, or are simply looking to expand your vegetarian options – this guide will give you insight on everything from the history of the food to the recipes themselves.
Falafels are an easy to make, delicious treat
A great starting point in understanding what exactly Middle Eastern food is would be to start by dumping some of the knowledge you’ve already acquired. While the Middle Eastern kitchen does include classics like shish kebab, or kofta kebab, falafel, baba ghanoush and hummus – the history of the region has allowed for the development of much more complex dishes.
Staple grains and legumes such as lentils, fava beans, bulgur or burghul, and couscous have deep roots in agricultural history. This is one of the reasons why you’re just as likely to find variations of lentil soup in both Iraq as well as Egypt.
Many of the countries of what is often called the Levantine region developed a diet which a study at the University of Sydney declared tended to be “less processed” and more “whole foods” based than western ones. This can be traced back through the history of the region, whose countries boast some of the oldest civilizations in the world.
Along with this agricultural history, the countries around the Mediterranean basin have also enjoyed a shared trade history. Over the span of time and empires, this has led to the vast spread of spice like cardamom, herbs like parsley, nuts such as pine nuts and even the now ubiquitous chickpea.
In fact, while many Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia use yogurt sauce as a side dish or as an ingredient, yogurt was first introduced from Ottoman Turkey. Similar stories are reflected in the spread of tahini sauce, grape leaves, eggplant, and chickpeas.
While we now enjoy foods like tahini or lamb on a regular basis, the majority of what we find in our globalized palates can be traced back to the Middle Eastern region. While what countries are included or excluded from the list depends from source to source, you an start understanding the development of the Middle East, from the Phoenicians to the modern day, by appreciating their food.
The shish in shish kebab adapts the word for skewer in Turksih
The levant region is best known for its pistachio filled deserts, figs, dates, hummus, tabbouleh and shawarma. However, a variety of different dishes that are typical of the area can actually be found sprinkled around the world.
One region that has long had strong ties with the Middle East is, naturally, Asia. While much of that has to do with history, there is now a very strong link between some popular Asian and Middle Eastern dishes. One example of this can be seen through the lens of the delicious falafel.
Ambode, a popular street food found on the Indian subcontinent, is like the falafel’s distant, deep fried cousin. Instead of being comprised of chickpeas or fava beans, the ambode is made out of a black chickpea variant known as chana dal. Instead of being spiced with just coriander and onion, ambode also includes spices and herbs native to the region such as curry leaves and chili.
Much of the spread of some Middle Eastern dishes was due to what has become known as the first wave of Lebanese immigration beginning in the late 19th century. While pistachios, pitta bread, or pita bread, fattoush and kabob are givens in our everyday lives – much of the spread of food before international trade was accomplished through immigration.
Latin America and the Caribbean was an unlikely but popular place for Middle Eastern immigrants. While one of the most popular tacos in Mexico has been a product of Lebanese immigrants, Brazil can also thank the Middle East for being at the origins of one of their dishes.
Esfiha or esfiha fechada is one variation of the popular sfiha dish, which at its basis is similar to a pizza. Using the base ingredients of flatbread, ground meat, minced garlic and tomatoes, this recipe hasn’t changed much in its travel overseas.
From Greece to Kuwait, from paprika to cracked wheat – the Middle East or Mediterranean region enjoy many similar food customs. However, as with all natural, historical evolution, the region hosts a diverse number of dishes thanks to the differences in culture, religions and the availability of different herbs.
Starting with the dishes you’re most likely to find as pretty standardized throughout the region will allow you to appreciate the distinct qualities of each country.
Typically eaten with flatbreads, za’atar, and other spices, hummus is a ubiquitous and pretty homogeneous (or hummugeneous, if you’re looking for a terrible pun) dish in the region. While every region in the Middle East can be known to put their own spin on the dish once in a while, the recipe remains simple and easy to make.
Starting off with chickpeas and tahini, hummus is also known to include garlic, lemon, olive oil, cheese or yogurt, and more.
While the term “bread salad” might sound a little strange to the uninitiated palate, fattoush is one of the best examples of how to perfectly execute one. While the base of the salad includes standard fare like cucumber, sumac, tomatoes, mint and olive oil – the star ingredient is fried pitta pieces, known as pitta chips, or pita chips.
If you’re a fan of mezze, you’ll definitely encounter some form of fattoush on your platter. While some countries omit or include different ingredients, the recipe doesn’t tend to vary much from country to country.
If you’re interested in understanding how different countries within the Middle East add their own flavours to traditional dishes, start where you usually end: with dessert!
One delectable example can be found on the street corners of Greece, Turkey, Palestine and Balkan countries. While many Middle Eastern desserts have varied their ingredients through nuts like pistachios and walnuts, or additions like orange and rose water – Knafa is one dessert that takes tradition to the next level.
Combining the time-honoured ingredients of semolina and syrup, Knafa also includes cheese into the mix. While knafa can be seen as a variation of baklava, it also varies between the countries that make it. From tel kadayif in Turkey to kadaif in the Balkans, each region has put their own unique twist on this delicious Palestinian desert.
While the history of Maghrebian food has also been subject to a crossover with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, some important regional differences draw important distinctions between the countries within each region.
What is often compared to as the Middle Eastern version of tagine because of its inclusion of many of the same vegetables and spices, Yemeni maraq is another example of the regional differences within the region.
While the mutton stew is defined by spices like turmeric and cardamom, variations can be seen in countries like Somalia and India.
From lamb chops to fresh mint, a Middle Eastern main dish is diverse
Whether you’re looking to spice up your lunch routine, want to explore the flavours of different countries, or are scouring the net for recipes to try for your next party – Middle Eastern cuisine has your back. Don’t be fooled by some of the Middle Eastern restaurants you may have tried, the region’s cuisine is one of the most affordable and easy to replicate at home.
If you’re looking to try some of the food that forms part of the national dishes of the countries in the Middle East, try making your own mezze. Perfect for meals, snacks or guests, mezze is a platter of appetizers typical of the Arabian peninsula. Here are some of the recipes you might want to include in your mezze apart from what we’ve mentioned already: