While shish kebab, yogurt sauce and pistachios are pretty standard fare throughout the Middle East, there are a vast array of differences that have arisen even with a shared, Levantine history. From basmati rice to cardamom, each country within the region has developed their own unique tastes - discover how in this guide.
What is the Middle East?
Unpacking a topic as broad and complex as defining the Middle East would require explanations of textbook proportions. However, there are a couple of generalizations we can draw from this region’s shared history, culture and, of course, food. While many people think only of the rich olive oil or intense cheese from Greece and Italy when thinking of Mediterranean food, this term is actually much more inclusive. The Middle East is distinct from many regions on earth because of the fact that it was, and to many extents still is, a crossroads for many different cultures. From the Phoenicians, Rome, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the Middle East is home to some of the world’s oldest countries – including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan and Israel. While tracing a straight line through the narrative of the Middle East can seem easier in the historical and cultural contexts described, it’s also important to keep in mind that it is impossible capture the truth of people’s identities based on broad terms like the Middle Eastern region, the Mediterranean basin, or the Mediterranean.
History of the Food in the Region
With common terms like baba and halal, or popular grocery store products like bulgur and tahini sauce, we might think we already know a lot about the Middle Eastern diet. However, there is a lot more to the Mediterranean diet than baklava and Turkish coffee. In fact, many of the Middle East’s shared staple ingredients such as pine nuts, flatbreads, veggies and grains come from a shared history in religion, politics and, of course, economy. From Moroccan tagine to Saudi Arabia’s dates, much of the regions dishes have evolved together because of their shared history.
Regional Differences Seen Through Food
While we’ve focused on how the historical evolution of Middle Eastern food has led to many shared, staple ingredients and dishes, anyone from the Middle East will tell you there are are many differences between the countries within the region. From differing politics and dialects to distinct resources and climates, Middle Eastern countries are all unique and require historical and cultural explanations of their own. Here is a beginner's guide to get you started on understanding the different, regional dishes and favourite recipes from the region that first led historian Fernand Braudel to declare it as “a thousand things in one.”
Located on the Arabian Peninsula and home to many islands, Yemen has also unfortunately been declared by the UN as the country whose population is the most in need of humanitarian aid in the world. Political instability has resulted in a famine that as of 2017 has affected 17 million people. While it’s more recent history has been filled with strife, it is important to highlight the beauty of this country’s culture, which can often be appreciated through food. Saltah, often compared to tagine, is a stew made of a meat called maraq, chilies and vegetables. Served with flatbread, it’s a dish often eaten in the north.
Palestine means different things to different people, countries and organizations. While often only focused on because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s also home to a beautiful culture and history of food. One popular sweet snack is Knafa, also known as Kanafeh. As with many Middle Eastern desserts, its ingredients include semolina and syrup. What makes Knafa unique is that it is a cheese based pastry and is often eaten in the city of Nablus. If you’re looking for something savoury, Maqlouba is the typical, everything but the kitchen sink dish. Translating into “upside down” from Arabic, it’s made of fried vegetables like eggplant and cauliflower, meat and rice.
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Egypt is located on the African continent, where it boasts one of the oldest histories of civilization. Because of its flourishing culture and technology, Egyptian influence can still be seen today throughout the Mediterranean. Part of that influence can be traced through its food. If you’re interested in a classic Egyptian breakfast, look towards Ful. Made of fava beans, this dish requires only a bit of oil and salt and are commonly served with pita bread, cheese or eggs. Koshari is a typical Egyptian, chickpea dish made of rice, lentils and macaroni. Topped with spices, herbs and sauce, this dish is a flavour bomb. Find more about it with the best cooking courses London on Superprof.
Located West of Syria and North of Israel, Lebanon is a country whose history dates back more than seven thousand years. While this makes for a nearly endless selection of delectable dishes, you’ve probably already tried one of its most popular savoury treats: tabbouleh. While this dish, as with most, has it’s variations across the Middle East, it is a staple in Lebanese cuisine. Tabbouleh, or tabouleh, is typically thought of as a bulgur salad, mixed with fresh vegetables like tomato and cucumber. However, traditional Lebanese tabbouleh is actually made up of parsley, with a lot smaller quantities of bulgur, tomato and mint. Manakeesh, or manakish, is a variation of flatbread that is covered with toppings such as sesame seeds, pine nuts, olive oil and zaatar, or za atar. Zaatar is a mixture of spices and herbs containing oregano, basil thyme, and savoury. Eaten at breakfast or lunch, there are many bakeries that specialize in making
Located on the Arabian Peninsula, in between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Jordan is the 11th most populated Arab country. Boasting the famous archaeological city of Petra, as well as the earth’s lowest elevation point at the Dead Sea, Jordan is one the Middle East’s most visted countries. If you’re looking to experience Jordan through food, Mansaf is a great dish to begin with. Part of many celebrations and festivals, Mansaf is a lamb based dish that is cooked in yogurt, spiced with saffron and cardamom, and eaten with pitta bread, or pita bread.
While the country’s name was created before the 6th century, the area of Iraq has actually been inhabited since before the pre-Neolithic era. While Iraq is often in the news because of the destruction of ISIL, the country is home to a rich cultural heritage and artistry – infamous for their poetry, sculptures and paintings. While kebab, or kabob, is one of those dishes whose origins in the Middle East are often contested, the Iraqui kebab is distinct from the other kebabs in the region and can be prepared from lamb, mutton and other meats. One classic Iraqi dish is shorba, or shorbat, which is a lentil soup made of lentils, parsley and spices. Making use of red lentils and, while vegetarian, can also be made with chicken or lamb.
Typical Dishes and Recipes from the Middle East
As we’ve already seen, there’s a lot of crossover between the countries that partake in Middle Eastern Cuisine. So much so, in fact, that the culinary culture and dishes have influenced other cuisines around the world. However, there are, as with all regions of the world, some dishes whose origins are and always will be disputed but can be found all over the middle east.
Also known as hummus, this chickpea based sauce literally translates into chickpeas or chickpeas and tahini. While different countries in the region tend to top it with different spices, it is typically eaten with pitta chips, or pita chips and other flatbread. Some regional variations make hummus ful or served with hard-boiled eggs.
Stuffed grape leaves are an appetizer that can be found in countries like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Greece. Typically known as dolma or warak enab, this dish consists of rolling up spiced rice, sometimes with meat inside, into grape vine leaves.
Falafel is deep fried happiness, whose ingredients include a mix of spices and flour made of chickpeas and/or fava beans. While falafel can be eaten on its own, they’re often part of Meze – which is a selection of appetizers common to the Middle East.
Based on Turkey’s doner kebab, shawarma is typically made as skewered meat, spices and vegetables served inside of flatbread. While some countries typically prepare it with lamb, Israel is known for its variation using turkey.
Baba ghanoush, like the above mentioned dishes, is highly popular outside Middle Eastern countries. Made out of roasted aubergines, or eggplant, and tahini, this dish can be made in endless combinations. One example can be found in Libyan Mtabal, which is made by dicing the aubergine rather than pureeing it.