Go beyond the falafel with our very quick guide to Middle Eastern food
From hummus to falafel, we've sure taken Middle Eastern food into our hearts (or shall we say, our mouths) in recent years. But that said, this vast region has so much more to offer than various preparations of the humble chickpea.
If you're wondering where the Middle East actually is …
It's here – where Asia, Africa and Europe meet. Middle Eastern cuisine usually refers to tasty stuff from Egyptian, Iranian, Persian, Kurdish, Turkish or Arabic cultures – so expect subtle spices, as well as lots of yogurt, nuts and grains.
Essential ingredients in Middle Eastern cooking are:
- Olive oil and lemon (use loads!)
- Lots of herbs such as parsley and mint
- Pulses and grains – mainly bulgur wheat, lentils and chickpeas
- And of course, spices. Cumin is essential, but also use paprika, coriander seeds and sumac
If you're new to Middle Eastern cooking …
Start out with meze dishes and salads such as matbucha (a tomato, pepper and chilli dip – see the picture below) or tabbouleh (a parsley-based salad). They're easier and quicker to prepare than lots of main meals.
You'll find the best Middle Eastern food …
In family homes and simple restaurants. Traditional food sums up the heritage of a place and is naturally local and organic because people had to make the most of what the region gave them. In Kurdish cuisine for example, they use lots of sumac, which has a sour, citrus flavour, because the region didn't grow lemons. Before that, sumac was mainly used to dye shirts.
Get yourself a spice grinder
They're about £17 and you'll be able to make your own spice blends such as ras el hanout. Nothing beats the flavour of freshly ground spices.
A Middle East feast
Broaden your horizons with these awesome Middle Eastern recipes, not so commonly prepared ...
Sort of like a Turkish ratatouille with all the usual suspects (aubergine, peppers and courgette). It's spiced up good and proper though and chickpeas are thrown in for good measure. Why not.
Zaatar is another Middle Eastern spice blend of oregano, sesame seeds and sumac. Baked into bread, it's a popular breakfast on-the-go. Its aromatic and tangy flavour is guaranteed to wake up your taste buds.
The national dish of Lebanon, kibbeh is a mixture of minced lamb and crushed bulgur wheat either moulded into torpedo-shaped coquettes or baked as a pie. We went with the pie option – it's much easier to make if you're a bit new to all of this.
Not one for the impatient, börek is a labour of love when it's traditionally made, as it calls for lots of sheets of pastry to be rolled out wafer thin. Cheat with shop-bought filo and you'll be tucking into those soft squidgy layers filled with warm spinach and melted cheese in no time at all.
This Egyptian spice blend is traditionally eaten as an early evening snack with bread and oil, and makes a delicious crust on lamb and chicken. There's no need to stop there, though: use it to garnish chocolate pots, sprinkle over a feta cheese and peach salad or even stir into a plum crumble. There are as many ways to make it as there are chefs in the kitchen, so take Homemade's simple recipe and feel free to mess around.
A creamy fresh cheese much loved across the Middle East. Think you can't make your own cheese? Just strain yogurt to remove the whey and you're done. Simples.
Pizza gets a meaty makeover with lahmacun as it's traditionally topped with minced lamb. Roll it up to eat it like a local.
No, it's not an insult. Fattoush is actually a Middle Eastern salad made with toasted pitta bread, parsley, tomatoes, cucumber and sumac. Mix one up for your next barbecue.
If you love bread, go to Yemen. No other place does spices and dough so well and from these crumpet-style pancakes to buttery malawah bread, you'll be spoilt for choice.
Fresh mint, caramelised onions and a clever combination of spices makes this traditional Middle Eastern meal more than the sum of its parts.
Yes, they both contain smoky aubergine but mutabbal is not to be confused with baba ghanoush. This Syrian dip is made with the sage addition of yogurt to make it even more delicious than the good-old baba.
There are so many varieties of this sweet Middle Eastern fudge, so start off simple with tahini, sugar, butter and pistachio. It melts in the mouth.