From harissa to za'atar, the recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of Middle Eastern cuisine. According to a recent forecast published by Reuters, the hummus industry alone is expected to reach 1.1 billion by the year 2027. With the increased globalization of Middle Eastern food, it can be hard to keep track of what exactly this style of cooking consists of. Here's a guide to get you started on what Levantine food is, and how it has been adapted to the palate of the world's countries.
What Is The Difference between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Food?
Whether you’re a hardcore vegetarian or carnivore, chances are you’ve probably tried Middle Eastern cuisine. From the spiced, grilled meat slow cooked on skewers we know as kebab, to the lemony tabouleh we’ve both tried at Middle Eastern restaurants or picked up at the grocery stores – Middle Eastern recipes don’t just offer a wide variety main dishes, they’re also extremely flavourful and delicious.
As with any culture, the origins of a main dish or a side dish can be highly contested in the Middle East, beginning with the distinctions between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Starting with what both styles of cooking have in common, the similarity in the region’s dishes comes from a shared history spanning the centuries.
Commonly known as the Levant region, a study done at the University of Sydney found that this region’s diet tended to be “less processed compared to western diets as it is based on whole foods.” One example of this can be found in mezze, or meze, which is eaten in the Middle East, Balkans, Greece, and North Africa. This is a type of large platter that involves a host of appetizers including stuffed grape leaves, yogurt sauce, fava beans, lentils, figs, pistachios, burghul, labneh and more.
The countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin, from Arabic and Greek speaking countries to Turkish and Italian ones, have also enjoyed the a shared agricultural and trade history. This is the reason why you can find pitta chips, or pita chips, and other flatbread or kofta, or kafta, and kibbeh in Lebanese food as well as in Cyprus.
While many a Middle Eastern restaurant has been known to serve up only the most popular of dishes, whether that be shish kebabs, tabbouleh or baba ghanoush, there are many ways in which each country within and around the Middle East has adapted these famous platters. This stems from differences in the guidelines set out by eating halal, availability in spices like paprika and cardamom, and culture.
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Some Middle Eastern Specialties
Whether someone from the Middle East is Lebanese, Kuwaiti or Yemeni, they’re bound to have tried these tasty dishes and traditional treats before. Here are some of the most common dishes you’re likely to find either in restaurants, in your travels to the Middle East, or at your friend’s house.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a couple of years, you’ve probably tried hummus. If you’ve ever googled where hummus comes from, or bring it up with your Middle Eastern friends, you probably also know that it’s origins are highly contested.
Everybody can agree, however, that this delicious chickpea and tahini sauce based dip is absolutely delicious. Typically eaten with flatbread like pitta bread, or pita bread, hummus can be found in Egyptian, Greek, Saudi Arabian or Lebanese cuisine.
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Whether you’re used to having it in a kebab, or kabob, or prefer it as a side dish, falafel can be found from Beirut to Dubai. As far as fast food goes, falafel is probably one of the healthiest options. Made of ground chickpeas or fava beans, herbs like parsley and coriander, and spices like cumin and cayenne, falafel is jam packed with fibre.
Taken from the Turkish doner kebab, originating from the Ottoman Empire, shawarma is meat slowly cooked on a skewer. Typically made from lamb, chicken, turkey and beef, this meat is prepared by shaving off slices from the spit and serving it in pitta or other flatbreads in a sandwich.
Baklava is, again, one of those rich food items found in the Middle East that can be made in countless different ways. In its essence, It is a pastry that is made out of filo, or puff pastry, and stuffed with nuts like pistachio, rose water, orange flower water or syrup. From Iraqi baklava to Armenian paklava, this is a desert that you’ll never tire of trying.
If you haven’t already gotten the idea that dishes in the Middle East can be found in an endless, delectable combination, here’s another example that typifies the variation of the region’s cuisine. Fattoush is a salad dish that is typically made with cucumber, tomatoes, lettuce, radish and green onions. It can also include pitta bread or herbs and spices like mint and sumac, or za atar.
Differences within Regional Dishes
Whether you’ve eaten chicken shawarma, had some ground lamb or drank Turkish coffee, Middle Eastern countries have each put their own spin on popular dishes. Here are some of the differences you’re likely to encounter form country to country.
While there’s been heavy focus on the Palestinian conflict, the region is also home to a historically and culturally beautiful and important people. One way in which to experience this is simply by looking at the history of Palestinian food.
Knafa is one important variation on baklava. Known also as Kanafeh, it is made out of semolina and syrup – the difference being that it also uses cheese as its main ingredient. Similar cheese based deserts can be found in Turkey where it is known as tel kadayif, around the Balkan countries as kadaif, or in Greece as kataifi.
Another region that has seen political strife result in devastation, Yemen has been racked by a sever famine that has led to one of the worst humanitarian crisis of the decade. While it is important to understand what is happening in the region, it is equally as vital to underscore the beauty in Yemeni culture.
To do this, you can start by appreciating some of the typical dishes. Maraq, a stew whose ingredients involve spices like turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom, is mutton based and can actually be found in countries like India and Somalia. It is often also compared to Moroccan tagine because of the variations it can take on.
The second largest country in the Middle East, it boasts one of the oldest civilizations in the world and is currently notorious for its oil power as well as political instability. Another thing that Iran is famous for, and a great way to start understanding the country’s history, is its food.
Bademjan, a dish typically made in big batches, is the Iranian response to baba ghanoush. Cooked for longer, and also involving a yogurt or sour cream sauce known as kashk, bademjan is typically also eaten with flatbreads like lavash. Some other countries that have their own unique variations of baba ghanoush, or baba ghanouj, include Libya’s mtabal – which adds tahini sauce instead of sour cream.
Middle Eastern Dishes in the World
The rise in popularity of Mediterranean food around the world in the recent decades has not only led to the proliferation of classic dishes and the most popular recipes, but also to a fusion between these dishes and the countries of the world.
In fact, in London, the Middle Eastern restaurant the Palomar was voted the restaurant of the year by the Observer Food Monthly. Originating from Israel, many of the dishes featured at the restaurant offer a preview of the various types of cuisine that can be found in the Middle East. From Jerusalem style polenta to Persian pappardelle, this is just one example of how a variety of Middle Eastern recipes can be found so far from home.
One interesting way in which Middle Eastern food has been adapted oversees can actually be found in Mexico. Tacos “al pastor,” or shepherd style, actually originate from Lebanese immigrants in Mexico. In its essence, the tacos are made from meat that are cooked in the style of the shawarma. The major difference is in how the meat is served: where in the Middle East it is typically eaten with flatbread, in Mexico it is eaten with tortilla, coriander and onion.
Another popular variation on falafel can be found in India. Because of the Mediterranean’s relationship with Asia, with some of its countries being located on the Asian continent, it follows naturally that there tends to be a lot of crossover within the two regions’ cuisine. Ambode is made up of chana dal, also known as Bengal gram, which is a product of black chickpeas. While this fried ball still uses ingredients like coriander, onion and garlic, it also adds flavours typified by the region such as curry leaves, chilis and coconut.