How to Infuse Your Meals with Middle Eastern Flavors

If you're tired of using the same old spices, condiments, and techniques with your food, try something new. For those not in the habit of cooking Middle Eastern recipes, now is the time to start — when you're in a rut. You can use your familiar meats, vegetables, and starches, and simply flavor them with something different. Or consider couscous instead of rice or pasta. Try flatbread instead of rolls or a baguette. Go with lamb instead of pork and beef, and make tabouli salad instead of an arugula salad. Learn how to infuse something fresh into your repertoire, in a small or big way, whichever suits you.

The Middle East is a transcontinental region centered on Western Asia and Egypt, at the juncture of Eurasia, Africa, Mediterranean Sea, and Indian Ocean. Our definition is loose because food migrates and blends with neighboring countries and cultures. You also see these recipes in far-flung places due to historical colonialism and today, due to travel and immigration. We're grateful food travels so well. Try some of these tips.

  1. Use yogurt with everything. With so many savory applications, yogurt is much more than a vehicle for fruit at breakfast. Thin, whole milk yogurt blended with lemon juice, garlic, and fresh herbs can be drizzled over roasted beets or carrots. Labneh is a thicker strained cheese with yogurt boasting a more intense flavor. It's good on top of hummus, served as a dip by itself with olive oil and spices on top, and spread on bread with breakfast. Smear Greek yogurt on your plate next to a salty fish. Sprinkle spices on your yogurt or spread the yogurt on your flatbread before the spices.
  2. Treat lemon differently. You may usually squirt some lemon juice or sprinkle in the zest to brighten and balance your dishes, but try adding it in a new way: either preserved or charred. Lemons pickled in brine with saffron and nigella seeds are frequently used in stews, like tagine. Char lemons by placing the halves, flesh side down in a pan and cooking until you see some brown spots. The mellower, sweeter result enhances any dish calling for lemon.
  3. Instead of your usual spices, try these:
    • Za’atar: It differs depending on the region, but often includes a blend of thyme, marjoram, oregano, sumac, and sesame seeds, used frequently as a garnish on pita bread.
    • Dukkah: This Egyptian toasted spice and nut blend has hazelnuts, pistachios, white sesame seeds, coriander, cumin. It's used on pita, as a crunchy coating on chicken or fish, and sprinkled on salads when combined with sumac.
    • Ras el hanout: Translated as “best of the shop,” this refers to a sometimes slightly floral spice blend that varies in each store in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Use it in stews, lamb, and couscous dishes. It can include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, coriander, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek, dry turmeric, peppers, fennel, rosebuds, and anise. Whew!
    • Baharat: Arabic for the "spices," it usually contains hot spices (such as paprika, chiles, and black pepper), sweet spices (such as allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom), warm spices (such as cumin and coriander), and resinous herbs (such as savory and mint). In North Africa, crushed dried rose petals may appear in the mix. It flavors lamb, beef dishes, and tomato sauce.
  4. Don't turn to your regular hot sauce like Frank's Red Hot, Tabasco, a sambal, or Sriracha. Squirt some harissa instead. The North African chili pepper paste is made with sweet and hot peppers, garlic, coriander, and caraway. Get it in a jar, a tube, or make your own harissa.
  5. Sprinkle on some fun extras. You'll see pistachios, white raisins, pine nuts, and drizzles of tahini dressing on platters of meats, roasted vegetables, and salads. Really, on almost anything. Try it.
  6. Include floral and fruity flavors. Rose water and orange blossom water are used primarily in candies such as Turkish delight, but also other sweets, like rice pudding, and baklava. Drizzle some into your rice pudding instead of the just usual cinnamon and raisins. Pomegranate molasses is a sweet-sour syrup that can flavor meats and poultry. Combine it with mineral water for a nice drink, puree it with walnuts and roasted red peppers to make muhammarah, and use it to make dressings and sauces.

Try some of our Middle Eastern-inspired recipes.

1. Spiced Preserved Lemons

Allspice, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, and bay leaves spice the preserve, which uses a whole lot of salt to do the preserving. You can make a nice Vegetable Tagine, Preserved Lemon and Bitters Vinaigrette, or Moroccan Charmoula Dressing with this concoction. Get our Spiced Preserved Lemons recipe.

2. Fennel, Parsley, and Celery Salad

Besides the title ingredients, there's olives and preserved lemon rind in the mix, and then that salad dressing, the vinaigrette. So preserved lemon shows up twice in this dish. Better make the above recipe ahead of time if you're going to make this. OK, you can also buy a jar of preserved lemon. If you want to be like that. Get our Fennel, Parsley, and Celery Salad recipe.

3. Dukkah-Crusted Salmon

Spice up simple salmon fillets with a dusting of dukkah, a Middle Eastern spice and nut mixture commonly used as a dip in Egyptian cooking. You'll need walnut oil too. Get our Dukkah-Crusted Salmon recipe.

4. Francisco's Manaaeesh (Flatbread with Za'atar)

Make this soft, pillowy flatbread instead of the drier, harder pita. Slather za'atar allover it plus olive oil and you will get addicted. Eat it like rolls with dinner, or as a delivery vehicle for your hummus, labneh, tahini, or other dip. Get this Francisco's Manaaeesh (Flatbread with Za'atar) recipe.

5. Lamb Meatballs with Lemon-Cumin Yogurt

Instead of your typical beef meatballs, use ground lamb and flavor it with mint, cilantro, coriander, cumin, and cinnamon. The yogurt dip is pretty simple, and the whole thing could be made in fewer than 40 minutes. Get our Lamb Meatballs with Lemon-Cumin Yogurt recipe.

6. Shakshuka

This dreamy Tunisian-Israeli dish is a great way to make a Middle Eastern breakfast. It's eggs baked in a zesty tomato sauce with melted onions and not-too-hot Anaheim chiles, with feta cheese. A Yemeni pesto-like condiment is drizzled on top. You need to sop it up with some bread like pita, za'atar flatbread, or sliced levain. Get our Shakshuka recipe.

7. Stuffed Eggplant with Couscous, Pistachios, and Pomegranate Seeds

Make your eggplant into a bowl, like stuffed bell peppers for this Middle Eastern, Moroccan-inspired dish. It uses that preserved lemon we mentioned earlier too. Get our Stuffed Eggplant with Couscous, Pistachios, and Pomegranate Seeds recipe.

8. Almond and Walnut Baklava

You'll need a ton of phyllo dough, honey, sugar, nuts, and warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and fennel to make this dreamy, richly sweet dessert. Get our Almond and Walnut Baklava recipe.

— Check out all our Middle Eastern food resources, from recipes and videos to articles, galleries, and Chowhound community discussions.


Amy Sowder is the assistant editor at Chowhound in New York City. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Her running habit is the excuse for her gelato passion. Or is it the other way around? Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.

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