Middle Eastern Cuisine

The Middle East is the cradle of human civilization. The culinary traditions of Middle East are greatly influenced by the Mediterranean climate, ancient religions, and the trade routes through the region that have been used for centuries. The cuisine of this area is varied but does share similar ingredients like olives, honey, sesame seeds, mint, chickpeas, and parsley. The major food players in this region are debatable, but it’s fair to say the cuisine is dominated by the foods of Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Israel.

The shared profile of the cuisine of Middle East countries is the use the local herbs and spices. Nutmeg, caraway, cumin, turmeric, parsley, and mint add flavors to the dishes. Saffron is added in many dishes for its flavor and color. Two flavor profiles predominate: tomato-cinnamon and lemon-parsley or mint. Butter or clarified butter is the most common medium of cooking with olive oil used in the areas around the Mediterranean Sea.

Most of the dishes are vegetarian and often made with olive oil, chickpeas, beans, lentils, and vegetables. Vegetables have a prominent place in the diet. They are boiled or grilled, stewed, or stuffed, and cooked with rice. The common leafy vegetables are cabbage, chard, and spinach. Onions and garlic, beets, carrot, and turnip are also used. Squash, okra, eggplant, and tomatoes also go into to many Middle Eastern delicacies. Eggplant is the most favored vegetable and is prepared in many different ways- fried, roasted, and dressed in dips. Tomatoes are heavily used in broths, stews, and kebabs.

Due to religious restrictions, meat is sometimes excluded from meals. Meat dishes are generally made of lamb, chicken, and beef. Usually, the dishes are prepared by skewering and grilling over fire. Vegetarians meet their protein needs from cheeses, legumes, and yogurt.

Since ancient times, grains formed the staple food of Middle Eastern people and still hold a prominent position in the diet. Wheat and rice are the most common grains along with barley. Wheat has two variations – bulgur and couscous and is often consumed in the form of flatbreads like lavash or pita. Strong Turkish coffee is the main beverage in the area but tea has been a part of the local cultures for ages.

Lebanese Cuisine

Lebanese cuisine makes good use of the country’s abundance of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish and seafood. Poultry is eaten more often than red meat, and when red meat is eaten, it is usually lamb or goat. Lebanese chefs includes copious amounts of garlic and olive oil, often seasoned with lemon juice. Chickpeas and bulgur are staples of the diet which make generous use of parsley, tomatoes, and mint.

Notable Dishes – Baba Ghanouj (char-grilled eggplant dip), Falafel (deep-fried chickpea patties), Chicken Shawarma (marinated chicken skewered and served in pita), Hummus (blended chickpea and tahini dip or spread),  Tabbouleh (bulgar, tomato, and parsley salad), Imam Bayildi (thin eggplants slit and filled with tomatoes and onions), Labneh (drained yogurt cheese), Shish Taouk (marinated grilled meat in pita), Kibbeh (filled bulgar dough made with ground meat), Manakeesh (“pizza” made with cracked wheat, meat, cheese, and za’atar), Baklava (walnuts and sugar baked between phyllo sheets and drenched in sweet syrup).

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Arabic Peninsula Cuisine

The countries making up this cuisine are Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen. Arabic cuisine is heavily influenced by Mediterranean and Indian cuisine. Spices from India add flavor to the dishes along with Middle Eastern spices and herbs like saffron, thyme, garlic, and yogurt. Common ingredients include olives and olive oil, pita, honey, sesame seeds, dates, sumac, chickpeas, mint, rice and parsley. Lamb and goat are the most common meat.

Notable Dishes – Mansaf (lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with rice or bulgur), Batata Harra (spicy potatoes), Bazerghen (bulgur salad with red pepper and walnuts), Balaleet (sweet vermicelli with egg), Circassian Chicken (shredded chicken in eggplant-sesame paste sauce), Kabsa (chicken and rice with raisins and nuts), Emerite Rubyan Meshwi (grilled red prawns), Dolma Mahshi (stuffed onions), Esh Asarya (cheesecake with rosewater cream).

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Turkish Cuisine

Deemed among world’s richest cuisine, Turkish cuisine has maintained its tradition and influence to this very day. It is largely the heritage of expansion-happy Ottoman Empire (14th through early 20th centuries) and can be described as the fusion of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Balkan, and Eastern European cuisines. Turkish cuisine has in turn influenced those and other neighboring cuisines, especially Northern Africa. With its cooking methods, rich variety and tastes, Turkish cuisine promises more than just the kebabs and gyro its most known for. Soups, salads, pickles, dishes with olive oil, pies, and rice are the main elements of Turkish cuisine. Seafood, game, chicken dishes, meatballs, stews, kebabs, grilled, fried, stewed food offer the best examples of meat. For dessert, pastry, puddings, halvas, fruit desserts, cakes, cookies and jams stand out. They’re also world renowned for their strong and delicious coffee.

Notable Dishes – Adana Kebab (thin meat slices with yogurt sauce), Manti (small meat dumplings topped with caramelized tomato sauce, brown butter, and garlicky yogurt sauce), Pide (meat and cheese “pizzas”), Dolma (meat or rice stuffed vine leaves), Kuru Fasulye (stew of white beans, olive oil, tomato sauce, and onion), Börek (phyllo dough stuffed with minced meat, spinach, and cheese), menemen (scrambled eggs in tomato-based stew with cheese and a spicy sausage added), Börek (pastry rolls filled with with meats, cheeses, or spinach), Baklava (flaky phyllo layered and topped with with pistachios and soaked in sweet honey syrup), Lokum (“Turkish Delight”- colored jelly cubes dusted in sugar or coconut).

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Iranian (Persian) Cuisine – Persian cuisine is the historical cuisine of what is now Iran. Iran’s culinary culture has historically interacted with the cuisines of its neighboring regions, including Turkish, Greek, and Russian cuisines. Typical Iranian main dishes are combinations of rice with meat, vegetables, and nuts. Herbs are frequently used, along with fruits such as pomegranates, quince, apricots, and raisins. Characteristic Iranian flavorings such as saffron and preserved lemon add sour flavoring while cinnamon, turmeric, and parsley are mixed in to various dishes to add fragrance and contrast.

Notable Iranian Dishes – Chelo ba Tahdig (steamed saffron rice with tahdig, a crispy, golden layer of rice or potato at bottom of the pan), Tahchin (Iranian rice cake of yogurt, saffron, egg, and chicken fillets), Khoresht-e fesenjan (duck or fish slow-cooked stew combining the nutty taste of ground walnuts with the sweet and sour flavor of pomegranate syrup), Chelo Kabab Koobideh (grilled ground meat seasoned with minced onion, salt and pepper), Khoresht-e gheimeh (diced meat combined with yellow split peas, dried limes, and saffron), Persian Almond Cake with Saffron and Rose Water.

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Israeli Cuisine

Irsaeli cuisine comprises both local dishes and dishes brought to Israel by Jewish immigrants from Europe, including Russia, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Spain, and Italy. Israeli cuisine has integrated the various cooking styles of traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish cuisines with the many foods traditionally included in other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Spices like za’atar and foods and foods such as falafel, hummus, shakshuka, and couscous are widely popular in Israel.

Other influences on the cuisine are the availability of foods common to the Mediterranean region, especially certain kinds of fruits and vegetables, dairy products and fish as well as the dietary traditions of keeping kosher and the customs and foods specific to different Jewish holidays.

Notable Israeli Dishes – Falafel (fried chickpea balls in pita with tahini yogurt), Israeli Hummus (Chickpea and sesame paste dip with mayonnaise), Shakshuka (Eggs fried in tomato sauce), Bourekas (stuffed puff pastries filled with mashed potatoes, veggies or cheese), Ptitim (Israeli pearl couscous with pomegranate seeds, peppers, zucchini, cherry tomatoes), Israeli Chopped Salad, Matbucha (cooked tomato and roasted bell pepper with garlic and chili pepper), Shug (hot fresh green chilies with garlic, parsley, cilantro, and lemon juice), Chocolate Rugelach (chocolate-filled pastries), Tayef (Pancakes Stuffed with Walnuts), Halva (tahini-based sweet), Krembo (meringue cream on a cookie dipped in chocolate).

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The Middle Eastern Table

There are two basic structures for meals in the Arab world- one regular schedule during most of the year, and a second one that is unique to the month of Ramadan in which observant Muslims fast during the day. If you ever have meals with an Arab family, you would be moved by the hospitality. In most of the Arab countries, is common for diners to take their food from a communal plate in the center of the table. They traditionally do not use forks or spoons; instead they scoop up the food with a torn piece of pita bread or a thumb and two fingers. The platter would include rice, chicken, lamb, and stewed vegetables. A lot of dried fruits are also consumed.

A traditional table setting firstly involves the tablecloth, called sofre, and is spread out over either a table or a rug. Main dishes are concentrated in the middle, surrounded by smaller dishes containing appetizers, condiments, and side dishes, all of which are nearest to the diners. Tea is the most favored beverage. Once the food is perfectly arranged, an invitation is made to seat at the sofre and start having the meal.

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