Welcome to the realm of Middle Eastern cuisine, a gastronomic journey that will tantalise your taste buds and stir your senses. Middle Eastern dishes, steeped in history, culture and tradition, tell stories of ancient traditions, trade routes and civilisations. They are a culinary exploration of histories told and untold. From succulent kebabs to delectable hummus, and from aromatic biryanis to luscious Baklava, Middle Eastern cuisine promises a mouth-watering feast for the senses.
Let’s embark on a delicious journey of discovering traditional Middle Eastern dishes, their glorious past, their cultural significance and the art of making them.
Middle Eastern cuisine is synonymous with the tradition of Meze, an array of small dishes served before the main course. This is not just a culinary practice but a social ritual, a shared experience that brings people together. The meze tradition can be traced back to Persia where it was used as taste teasers to accompany wine.
Meze dishes vary greatly from region to region, but some staples include hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves. The concept behind meze is to offer a variety of flavours, textures and aromas, so you’ll often find a selection of dips, pickles, salads and breads alongside meats, seafood and vegetables.
Hummus, a rich, creamy dip made from mashed chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic, is perhaps the most well-known meze dish. This deliciously simple dish is a staple in Middle Eastern households, often enjoyed with warm pita bread.
Another Middle Eastern culinary gem is Dolma, a dish that literally means ‘stuffed.’ This dish is a favourite in many Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, Iran and Greece, where it is often served as a main dish.
Traditionally, Dolma is created by stuffing vegetables or leaves with a mixture of rice, meat, and spices. The most common version uses grape leaves, but bell peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and zucchini can also be used. The stuffing is usually a combination of minced meat (usually lamb or beef), rice, onions, and various spices.
The taste of Dolma is unique, combining the tanginess of the vegetable or leaf wrapping with the savoury richness of the stuffing. This dish is often slow-cooked, allowing the flavours to meld together beautifully.
No exploration of Middle Eastern cuisine would be complete without mentioning Kebabs, a dish that has become synonymous with the region’s food culture. Kebabs originated from the medieval kitchens of Persia and have since spread across the globe.
Kebabs are typically made from pieces of meat, fish, or vegetables skewered and grilled over a fire. The most famous variety is the ‘Shish Kebab,’ which is made of skewered chunks of marinated lamb. There’s also the ‘Doner Kebab,’ a Turkish creation featuring thinly sliced meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie.
Kebabs are loved for their smoky, charred flavour and their versatility. They can be eaten on their own, accompanied by a salad, or wrapped in bread with a drizzle of sauce.
Biryani, a fragrant rice dish, is another cornerstone of Middle Eastern cuisine. Originating from the Indian subcontinent, it has become popular throughout the Middle East and beyond. The dish is a fusion of aromatic spices, basmati rice, meat (usually chicken, mutton, fish, prawn, or beef), and sometimes, vegetables.
Biryani is cooked by layering partially cooked rice with marinated meat and then cooking it over a slow fire. The result is a dish bursting with flavours, with every grain of rice beautifully separated and carrying the flavour of the meat and spices.
Finally, we cannot ignore the dessert that epitomises Middle Eastern sweet treats: Baklava. This heavenly dessert is believed to have originated in the Ottoman Empire and is highly popular throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean region.
Baklava is a rich, sweet dessert pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and held together with syrup or honey. It is usually cut into square or diamond shapes. The sweet, sticky pastry is often garnished with ground nuts and served at room temperature.
Middle Eastern cuisine is a treasure trove of gastronomic delights. Each dish carries with it a tale of its own, a piece of history, and a tradition carried forward over generations. It’s a culinary journey that offers more than just food—it’s a cultural experience, a celebration of flavours, and an exploration of traditions. So, go ahead and discover the rich and varied world of Middle Eastern cuisine. You won’t be disappointed.
An integral part of Middle Eastern cuisine is Shawarma, a lip-smacking dish that has managed to captivate foodies across the globe. Shawarma, often equated with the Greek Gyros or Turkish Doner, was originally invented in the Ottoman Empire, from where it spread wide and across.
Shawarma can be made with either chicken or beef, marinated in a mix of exotic spices. The meat is then stacked onto a vertical spit and grilled slowly. The cooked meat is shaved off the stack with a large knife and served either on a plate with accompaniments like fries and pickles or wrapped in a soft flatbread, often with a drizzle of tahini sauce.
The flavors of Shawarma are robust, with the meat absorbing the marinade spices, making each bite a delightful explosion of taste. The slow grilling also imparts a distinct smoky flavor to the meat. Served with tangy pickles and a creamy sauce, it’s no wonder that Shawarma is considered a comfort food by many.
Considered the national dish of Jordan, Mansaf is a traditional Bedouin dish with a rich heritage. Mansaf holds great cultural significance in Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries as it is often served on special occasions or to honor guests.
Mansaf is a hearty dish made from lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served over rice. The lamb is first marinated, then slow-cooked to tender perfection in a jameed (fermented dried yogurt) broth. It’s then served over a bed of aromatic, steamed rice.
The taste of Mansaf is a wonderful balance of savory and tangy, with the jameed sauce imparting a unique, tangy note to the dish. The lamb, cooked till it almost melts, contributes a richness that is beautifully offset by the light, fluffy rice.
There’s no doubt that Middle Eastern cuisine is an elaborate tapestry of rich flavors, tantalizing aromas, and diverse textures. From the robust, smoky flavors of Shawarma to the tangy, savory delight of Mansaf, every dish has a unique story to tell. Exploring this cuisine is not just about savoring delectable dishes, but also about diving into a fascinating cultural journey marked by centuries-old traditions and age-old culinary practices.
Whether it’s the social ritual of sharing a Meze platter, the craftsmanship behind stuffing a Dolma, or the meticulous layering involved in making a Biryani, each Middle Eastern dish offers a unique gastronomic experience. The sweet lure of Baklava, the savory allure of Kebabs, and the comforting warmth of a Shawarma wrap, offer a culinary journey that transcends borders and cultures.
So, embrace the journey of discovering these traditional Middle Eastern dishes. Each bite is a celebration of flavors, each aroma a whiff of history, and each dish a testament to the rich heritage of Middle Eastern cuisine. No matter where you are in the world, this culinary exploration will leave you with a deeper appreciation of the Middle Eastern food culture and will definitely leave you yearning for more.