Middle Eastern Cuisine



Middle Eastern cuisine or West Asian cuisine is the cuisine of the various countries and peoples of the Middle East and Western Asia. The cuisine of the region is diverse while having a degree of homogeneity. The recipes shown in the following pages focus on Levantine countries cuisine (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan...). Some commonly used ingredients include olives and olive oil, pitas, honey, sesame seeds, dates, sumac, chickpeas, mint and parsley. Some popular dishes include kibbeh and shawarma.


Middle Eastern food became popular in the 1990s with the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, the benefits included a reduced risk of heart disease, a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and a reduced risk of cancer. Coupled with the rising obesity rates, restaurants have become increasingly health conscious, and Middle Eastern food is exactly what so many are trying to incorporate into their menus. For example, Freekeh is a whole grain that has four times the fiber of brown rice, which helps keep blood sugar low. It also has more powerful vision protectors than other grains and helps increase healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. Healthfulness and freshness are central to the Middle Eastern diet, and these qualities are becoming part of a change going on in the American diet as well.

History and influences

Originally the region of the Fertile Crescent, the Middle East was where wheat was first cultivated, followed by barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates and other regional staples. Fermentation was also discovered here to leaven bread and make beer. As a crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, this area has long been a hub of food and recipe exchange. During the Persian Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE) the foundation was laid for Middle-Eastern food when rice, poultry and fruits were incorporated into their diets. Figs, dates and nuts were brought by Arabian warriors to conquered lands, and spices were brought back from the Orient.


The area was also influenced by dumplings from Mongol invaders; turmeric, cumin, garlic and other spices from India; cloves, peppercorns and allspice from the Spice Islands; okra from Africa; and tomatoes from the New World, via the Moors of Spain. Religion has also changed the cuisine as neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork, making lamb the primary meat. Since the Qur'an forbids alcohol consumption, the region isn't noted much for its wine - except in Lebanon, where vineyards like Chateau Ksara, Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Masaya have gained international fame for their wines. Chateau Ksara is also very popular for its arak, the Lebanese version of raki and ouzo. Almaza is also Lebanon's primary brewery, which was at one time, the Middle East's only beer-producing factory. Lebanon has always been well-known in the region for its wine's and arak, making it an exception when it comes to lack of alcohol in the region.


Under the Ottoman Empire, the sweet pastries of paper thin phyllo dough and the dense coffee was brought to the area.


Cereals constitute the basis of the Middle Eastern diet, both historically and today. Wheat and rice are the major and preferred sources of staple foods. Barley is also common in the region and maize has became common in some areas as well. Bread is a universal staple in the region, eaten, in one form or another, by all classes and groups, practically at every meal. Aside from bread, wheat is also used in the forms of burghul and couscous. Burghul is cracked wheat, made by partially cooking the wheat grains in water, drying it in an oven or in the sun, then breaking it into pieces, in different grades of size. Typically, it is cooked in water, with flavorings, much like rice. Burghul is also used in making meat pies and as an ingredient in salads, notably in tabbouleh, with chopped parsley, tomato, lemon, and oil. Freekeh is another common grain, made from immature green wheat.


There are many types of rice produced and consumed in the region. Plain rice is served under grilled meats or with meat/vegetable stews. In more complex rice dishes, there are layers of meat, vegetables, sauces, nuts, or dried fruits.


Butter and clarified butter (also known as ghee) are, traditionally, the preferred medium of cooking. Olive oil is prevalent in the Mediterranean coastal areas. Christians use it during Lent, when meat and dairy products are excluded, and Jews use it in place of animal fats such as butter to avoid mixing meat and dairy products.


Most regions in the Middle East use spices. Typically, a stew will include a small amount of cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and coriander. Black pepper is common, and chili peppers are used occasionally, especially as a separate sauce or as a pickle. Parsley and mint are commonly used in cooking and in salads. Varieties of thyme are common in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, and a mixture of dried thyme and sumac (crushed sour berries) is a common breakfast item with oil and bread. Sumac is also sprinkled over grilled meat. Garlic is common to many dishes and salads.


Lamb and mutton have always been the favored meats of the region. Pork is prohibited in Islam and Judaism and is rarely eaten in the region. Prominent among the meat preparations were the grilled meats, or kebabs. There are a wide variety of these grills, with many regional specialties and styles. The most common are the cubed cuts on skewers, known as shish kebab in most places. Chicken may also be grilled in the same fashion. Another common variety is kofta kebab, made from ground meat, sometimes with onions and spices, shaped around the skewer like a long sausage and grilled. Kebabs are typically a street or restaurant food, served with bread, salad, and pickles. It is not usually prepared in domestic kitchens.


Meat and vegetable stews, served with rice, bulgur, or bread, are another form of meat preparation in the region. Kibbeh is a pie or dumpling made with meat and cereal. The most common are made with ground meat (typically lamb) and burghul, worked together like a dough, then stuffed with minced meat that has been fried with onion, aromatics, and, sometimes, pine nuts or almonds and raisins. This can either be in the form of individual small dumplings (usually shaped like a torpedo), or in slices like a cake, baked on an oven tray with the stuffing placed between two layers of the dough. One variation is kibbeh naye, raw kibbeh, which is made by pounding raw meat and burghul together with seasoning and served with dips of lemon juice and chili sauce.


Vegetables and pulses are the predominant everyday food of the great majority of the people of the Middle East. They are boiled, stewed, grilled, stuffed, and cooked with meat and with rice. Among the green leaf vegetables, many varieties of cabbage, spinach, and chard are widely used. Root and bulb vegetables, such as onions and garlic, as well as carrots, turnips, and beets are equally common. Squash, tomato, eggplants, and okra are distinctive elements in the cookery of the region. Eggplant is often fried in slices and dressed in yogurt and garlic, or roasted over an open fire, then pulped and dressed with tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and cumin, a dish known as baba ghannoush. Tomato is the most ubiquitous ingredient in Middle Eastern cookery. It is used fresh in a variety of salads, cooked in almost every stew and broth, and grilled with kebab.


Beans and pulses are crucial to the diet of the region, second only to cereals. The fava beans are eaten green and dried. Dried, they are boiled in one of the most popular Egyptian foods of foul medames, a domestic and street food, eaten for breakfast or any other meal, mashed and dressed in oil, lemon, and chili. Similar dishes are found in all other parts of the region. The famous falafel, now popular in Europe and America, was originally made from dried fava, crushed and formed into a rissole with herbs and spices, then fried. It is also made from chickpeas, or a mixture of the two. Green fava are cooked like other green beans, boiled and dressed in oil, or stewed with meat. The haricot beans and black-eyed beans are also common. Lentils, split peas, and chickpeas are widely used in soups, with rice, in salads, or with meat. Hummus, made from chickpeas and sesame paste, originated in Syria/Lebanon.


Stuffed vegetables are a dish most associated with the Middle East in the popular mind. They are commonly called dolma, the Turkish word meaning "stuffed," but also the Arabic mahshi. Grape leaves, chard, and cabbage are stuffed with rice, ground meat, pine nuts, and spices, and then stewed in oil and tomato. Many vegetables are similarly stuffed and stewed or baked, such as squash, onion, tomato, eggplant, peppers, and even carrots.  

Arabs commonly consume milk, fresh or soured. Yogurt, a Turkish contribution, is commonly consumed plain, used in cooking, used in salad dressing, or diluted as a drink. White cheese, like the Greek feta and haloumi, are the most common in the region.


Meze is common throughout the Middle East. It consists of a number of small dishes that are picked at leisure: cheese, melon, nuts, various salads and dips, such as tabboule (chopped parsley, tomato, and a few grains of burghul), hummus and mutabbal, pickles, and also more substantial items, such as grilled meat, kibbeh, and sausage.


Khobz, pita or pocket flatbread,  is common in all Levant countries. Markouk is baked on a domed or convex metal griddle, known as "Saj". It is usually large, about 60 Centimeters in diameter, and thin, almost translucent. In some villages it is still traditionally baked in a clay oven. Manakish is a popular Levantine food consisting of dough topped with thyme, cheese, or ground meat. Similar to a pizza, it can be sliced or folded, and it can either be served for breakfast or lunch. The word manaqish is the plural of the Arabic word manqÅ«shah (from the root verb naqasha 'to sculpt, carve out'), meaning that after the dough has been rolled flat, it is pressed by the fingertips to create little dips for the topping to lie in. 


Turkish coffee is the most well-known beverage of the region. It is thicker than regular coffee and is made by boiling finely ground coffee in water and then letting the grounds settle. In the 1980s, instant coffee also became popular.


Aside from Middle Eastern coffee, there is also an alcoholic drink called arak. It is most famous for its potency and milky-white color when water is added; producing the drink nicknamed "the milk of lions." Water and ice are almost always added because of alcohol content between 30% and 60%. Arak is colorless in its pure form and is aniseed-flavored. In the Middle East, arak is served in social settings and with mezze. Lebanon is among the oldest sites of wine production in the world. Recently the sector has been witnessing an unprecedented growth. All the major wineries have their vineyards in the southern Beqaa Valley. Lebanese winemakers have favored French grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Rhone varietals such as Cinsaut, Carignan and Grenache. However Lebanon has a rich heritage of indigenous grapes which are attracting more attention, for instance Musar White is made from a blend of Obaideh and Merwah.


Jallab is a type of syrup popular in the Middle East. It is made mainly of grape molasses then smoked with Arabic incense. It is usually served with crushed ice and topped with pine nuts and raisins. Limonada, a type of lemonade made from freshly-squeezed lemon juice, with or without mint leaves, is a widely popular summer drink in Levant coutries. A common drink served during Ramadan is Qamar El Deen, a thick and sweet apricot drink. The apricots are boiled with sugar and water until they are thick and placed on wooden planks left in the sun until dry. A fruit leather is left, which is then melted with water and sugar and drunk. Another popular drink is Jallab. It is made by diluting a mixture grape molasses, dates, and rose water and served with crushed ice. Some also serve it with raisins or pine nuts. Ayran is a beverage made from yogurt.(© Wikipedia)


Phyllo dough, Semolina dough, noodle threads or Vermicelli dough, pistachios, walnuts, almonds, cashew nuts, pine nuts, dates, cesam seed, white cheese, milk, rice, syrup, rose water and orange blossom water, orange petals jam and honey constitute the basis of the Middle Eastern desserts.

There are two different types of Middle Eastern kunafa or Kanafeh: 'Khishnah' is the crunchiest variant, made with long noodle threads (vermicelli); 'Na’ama' is made with semolina dough, with a softer bite. Kanafeh bil-Jibn, a well-known dessert in the Arab World, is based on Nablusieh or Akkawieh cheese originated from the cities of Nablus or Akka, cited in the early 15th century.

Baklawa is a pastry made of thin sheets of unleavened flour dough (phyllo), filled with pistachios and walnuts sweetened by honey. Burma has the same filling as baklawa, but is cylndrical in shape and made with vermicelli dough instead of phyllo. Muhalabiyeh also called Riz Bi Halib (Rice in Milk) is a rice pudding made with milk and topped with pistachios or almonds.


Halawa, which is believed to be one of the oldest desserts in the world, dating back more than 3,000 years, is a block confection of sweetened sesame flour served in sliced pieces topped and containing pistachios.