Middle Eastern food, also referred to as West Asian Food, with its varied but homogeneous cuisine, is gaining worldwide recognition for its compelling and delicate flavors owing to the usage of aromatic spices. The Middle Eastern cuisine comprises of a number of sub-cuisines of different Western Asian countries each of which has its own national dish. Falafel, hummus, and fava beans are believed to be the national dishes of some Middle Eastern countries, though titling them as such has been an issue of controversy over the years. Apart from those already mentioned, the kibbeh(also known as kibbe or kubbeh) and Shawarma( a grilled meat dish) are also extremely popular.
Middle Eastern food include dishes from the Iranian, Iraqi, Assyrian, Mzandarani, Iraqi and Kurdish cuisines.
- Assyrian food - Consists of rice, meat, vegetables, or fruit as the staple. Tea is served with or without snacks, like baklawa during tea time. The Middle Easterns may consume a restricted diet on special occasions like religious festivals during which they commonly abstain themselves from meat.
- Iranian cuisine - Known as Persian cuisine is known for its unique style, traditional endowments and rich diversity.
- Mazandaran cuisine - Diverse cuisine with the cooking styles and dishes prepared being different for the coastal and non-coastal regions. This cuisine consists of dishes made with ingredients which are supposed to cure or be beneficial for curing certain medical conditions.
- Iraqi cuisine - Known as the Mesopotamian cuisine is an ancient Middle Eastern cuisine consisting of Levantine dishes.
- Kurdish cuisine - Characterized by the extensive use of cucumber. Apart from that, the other ingredients like meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy products, which are used in other cuisines are also commonly used in the Kurdish cuisine.
Commonly Used Ingredients
Middle Eastern Food is commonly cooked in olive oil. Olives are also one of the most used ingredients of the cuisine. Middle Eastern people commonly consume pita bread. Sumac, a spice obtained by grinding the fruit of the Sumac plant, and parsley and mint are also used frequently in the Middle Eastern cuisine. Sesame seed paste called tahini; chick peas and honey are other ingredients that make some of the best Middle Eastern dishes.
Common Styles of Cooking
Middle Eastern Food has its roots in the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cuisines. The present day cuisine of this part of the world is mostly influenced by the Israeli cuisine, the Bedouin and the Druze. Bedouin cooking mostly consists of baking Khobz (bread) and fateer (cookies) for the wandering herdsmen in tents. Hence this type of cooking is also popularly known as “tent cooking”. Middle Eastern recipes made of dates, milk, wheat flour breads, rice and samneh (clarified butter) were commonly made in the tents. The Druze cooking, comprising of the northern Israeli cuisines is characterized by usage of pomegranate seeds and the juice of the fruit in salads and sauces respectively. Other fruit like orange (both the pulp and the juice) are used for cooking specific dishes like the Druze stews and also Turkish coffee.
Sumac is used to season fish and kebabs. One of the main features of Samaritan cooking is to slaughter a lamb in a religious venue and then feasted on the roasted meat of the animal. The highlighted Middle Eastern foods of the Circassian cuisine are the Sweet omelet (made of eggs and sugar), corn soup, and psihalivas (dough boiled in water with a stuffing of meat).
Middle Eastern recipes are diverse and are cooked by most of the conventional methods of cooking like simmering, sautéing, marinating, mincing, dicing, chopping, browning, slicing and julienning. Most of the meat dishes of the Middle Eastern cuisine are cooked by one or more of these methods.
Everyday/Traditional/ Festive/ Gourmet/ Modern/ Fusion Recipes
- Traditional and Everyday – Traditional Middle Eastern Food like the Hummus ( a very flavorful chickpea dip made with/without a Tahini, a sesame seed paste, and served as an accompaniment to pita bread), Baba Ghanouj( a vegetarian dip that is served as an accompaniment to pita bread ), Falafel( chickpea appetizers which also taste good when used a stuffing for sandwiches along with vegetables), Tabbouleh ( a salad made with cracked wheat and herbs), pita bread( which is eaten as a main course item at any time of the day), and Baklawa ( also known as Baklava, this is a dessert made with honey, rose water, or orange blossom), lokum ( cornstarch candies), Turkish Coffee( a strong coffee usually flavored with cardamom), and Foul Mudammes( a spicy fava bean dish served as an accompaniment to pita bread for breakfast). The simple versions of many of these traditional Middle Eastern dishes are prepared on an everyday basis.
- Festive – Crown lamb roast ( a lamb dish resembling a crown made with two lamb racks), spinach pilaf( a savory main course rice dish made with spinach ), and umm ali( an Egyptian dessert pudding made with bread) are some of the most popular Middle Eastern dishes made on festivals.
- Gourmet –Apart from the traditional dishes like Baklawa, Hummus, Falafel, and Tabbouleh which are made in a number of delicious gourmet versions, Ghrybe( Creamy Lebanese cookies ), Ma’ AMoul and Kolourakia(Easter cakes and cookies),Kafta Ala Sheesh( skewered meatballs), and Lahm Mahswi( Sheesh Kebab) are some the dishes from many Middle Eastern cuisines.
- Modern – Contemporary Middle Eastern food includes a number of light but tasty dishes. Modern versions of salads made with orange, a citrus chicken and yogurt are some of the modern salads. Bread butter, puddings and pancakes of the Egyptian style are some f the inclusions in the modern Middle Eastern cuisine.
- Fusion – One of the popular dishes of the Middle Eastern cuisine is the chickpea stew made by including bacon in the recipe. The dish represents a fusion of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines.
Middle Eastern Food is generally valued for its nutritional worth.
- Breakfast – According to the Middle Eastern cuisine, this is an elaborate affair. It consists of a main course of Lebanese bread (a flatbread) with a number of accompaniments like Feta cheese, and a vegetable platter consisting of an assortment of vegetables like carrot, radish, and cucumber, tomato, with parsley and pepper seasonings. A plate of fresh olives, some Labneh(or salted yogurt ). Zatar is a spice mixture mainly made of roasted sesame seeds and sumac. The Arabian beverage Qawah, is a tea or coffee drink which is served during breakfast.
- Lunch - Mezze( appetizers)- The first course, called the mezze consists of a variety of small chunks of bite-sized appetizers. Pita bread with herbs and cheese, hummus and tabbouleh , fresh olives, fattoush( a salad made of pita bread, eggplant and zucchini ), salad made of bulgur wheat, and kibbeh( a beef or lamb dish). The mezze may also include smaller version of many major dishes. Apart from the hors de oeuvres, soups are the other appetizers that are served with the main course meals. Jalik( soup made with cucumber),Hamud( citrus chicken soup), and Chickpea soup are some of the soups that are served as appetizers. Khubz ( bread), Macarona( pasta), and Roz(Rice) are three classes of main courses consisting of a variety of Middle Eastern dishes made with Middle Eastern vegetables, bread, wheat and other ingredients. The accompaniment dishes include a salalat (salad), mekhalel (pickles). The other dishes that are served are Bied( Eggs), Gereesh( a cracked wheat preparation), Khoddar( vegetables), Samak and Dajaj(fish and chicken dishes), Lahem Baquir/Kharouf(lamb/beef dishes), and Markat( Sauces).
- Dinner – Middle Eastern Recipes for dinner are almost the same as those for lunch. Middle eastern breads or rice are eaten along with a number of other dishes like the moussaska( a beef and eggplant dish served as an accompaniment to rice or pita bread), shish kebabs( meat appetizers), Mujaddarah( a rice and lentil dish which is served as one of the side dishes for a Middle Eastern meal), Fatayer( Middle eastern meat pies made with spinach), Kafta( spicy and flavorful meatballs which can be served with main course dishes . salads, or in a sandwich. Halawiyat( desserts), Murrabiyat( jams and compotes), and beverages( a variety of coffee or tea drinks) and sharbat( fruit juices) are the other Middle Eastern foods that are served for dinner, apart from many of the dishes that are also served for lunch.
- Snacks – These are an interesting part of Middle Eastern cuisine. Baked falafel sandwiches, pita chips( with cheese, garlic flavorings), roasted watermelon/pumpkin/squash seeds, fatyer( pies made with spinach or other ingredients), zucchini fritters, onion rings, Middle Eastern Pita bread pizza, and Sambousek( a Middle Eastern stuffed and fried pastry).
Food Habits and Dining Etiquette
Middle Eastern food habits are mostly determined by geographical and climatic factors, which are not conducive for cultivation of food crops or pasture lands. Hence, goat milk , and not cow or buffalo milk, is available for consumption. For a similar reason, lamb meat is easily available for consumption rather than beef. Fish is eaten in the coastal areas. Owing to unfavorable climatic and soil conditions, the variety of vegetables or fruits that are found on a typical Middle Eastern food menu is limited.
The Middle Eastern food habits are also influenced to a considerable extent by religious and cultural factors. Appropriate Middle Eastern dining etiquette requires one to eat food with the right hand. Guests are honored by being served the best of whatever is available on the table. For example, if meat is to be served, the guest gets to eat the prized parts like the head, eyes, or any other part that is generally considered the best by the host.
Middle Eastern Food is considered to be one of the healthiest. Unlike many other cuisines of the world, most middle eastern recipes prescribe usage of olive oil as the cooking medium, in place of butter, lard or cooking oils from other sources. Most dishes are grilled or baked and not fried, hence restricted usage of oil makes the diet healthwise compatible. Middle Eastern cuisine includes more usage of vegetables. Salads , which are healthy are an important part of the Middle Eastern menu.
Middle Eastern Food restrictions are mostly driven by socio-religious norms. The consumption of flesh of scavengers (like pork, birds and certain fish, like the shell fish) is prohibited. The consumption of nicotine, alcohol and caffeine, is restricted though these are consumed in significant proportions in the Middle Eastern countries these days. Even foods which involve the direct or indirect usage of these substances are, ideally prohibited for consumption.