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The Top Flavors Of The Middle East

Updated on December 31, 2009

The broad term "Middle Eastern cuisine" includes the foods of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Sharing many similar dishes, preparations, and borders these countries centered east and south of the Mediterranean have subtle differences in the spicing and spelling of their traditional dishes.

Part of a region frequently visited throughout history by traders and invaders, the countries of the Middle East share many of the same key ingredients. The region's cuisine has a heavy emphasis on fresh produce, dried pulses (predominantly chickpeas and lentils); olives, olive oil, yogurt, fresh parsley and mint. Other staples include lamb, chicken and fish; spices such as sumac (a granular red spice with a sour flavor), Syrian allspice, cinnamon and cayenne; cracked wheat, rice, lemon juice, tahini and flower-flavored waters.

Religion plays a dominant role in the choices of ingredients. Muslims abide by the halal rules (similar to the laws of keeping kosher for Jews). Pork and pork products are unlawful or "Haraam," and are forbidden. Only cheeses containing vegetable rennet are permissible, and halal and nonhalal utensils are separated.

Pickling is a typical Middle Eastern method of preserving seasonal vegetables. Torshe is a mixture of pickled vegetables that can include bright pink pickled turnips, eggplant and cauliflower. A common technique in this region is stuffing grape leaves or vegetables such as onions, squash and eggplant with a savory filling. Preserving lamb by encasing it in its own cooked fat and then storing it in pottery crocks called khalii is an old tradition still practiced today.   

Throughout much of the region, appetizers called meze (also called mahza, maza or mezah) include dishes like tabbouleh, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, baba ghanoush (pureed eggplant mixed with tahini, garlic and lemon juice), mjadra (lentils, bulgur and onion), lamb tongue, and falafel (fried patties of ground chickpeas and herbs). Originally, meze became commonplace in Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon and Iraq where bar patrons drank quantities of arrack (liquor distilled from rice and molasses) or ouzo. To keep people from becoming terribly drunk, bars began serving small dishes which were called meze, or "eat with drinking."

While the cuisines of the countries of the Middle East are more similar than different, there are regional distinctions. Syrian cuisine is characterized by desserts made from flaky phyllo dough such as baklava (phyllo dough layered with nuts and sugar syrup) and shredded phyllo nests with chopped pistachios, and pudding-like desserts made of a hot wheat cereal base mixed with nuts, sugar and rosewater. Both Syria and Lebanon specialize in kibbe (finely minced raw lamb with onions, bulgur, and basil or mint), and stuffed koosa (squash filled with rice, meat and vegetables). Lebanese cuisine uses more mint than its neighbors. Iranian cuisine is known for its distinctive rice dishes flavored with meat and fruit, and Jordan uses an abundance of cereals and dried pulses, saving meat primarily for festive occasions.

In recent years, the cuisine of the Middle East has become increasingly popular in the United States and in other foreign countries, and words like pita, hummus and tabbouleh have become a part of our everyday vocabulary.


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