With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, a celebration of Middle Eastern food and flavors, geared toward those who aren’t already intimately familiar with them.
For those not in the habit of cooking Middle Eastern recipes, now is the perfect time to start—when you’re in a rut, and maybe craving flavors that make you feel farther away from your daily life. You can still use your familiar meats, vegetables, and starches, and simply accent them with something other than the same old spices and condiments.
Or swap out staples: Consider couscous instead of rice or pasta. Try flatbread instead of rolls or a baguette. Go with lamb instead of pork and beef (try our Middle Eastern Lamb Kebabs at your next BBQ for starters), 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, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Our definition of “Middle Eastern food” is fairly loose because food migrates across borders and blends with neighboring countries and cultures. You also see these ingredients, techniques, and recipes in far-flung places due to historical colonialism and today, due to travel and immigration. We’re grateful food travels so well.
Middle Eastern Cookbooks
By no means an exhaustive list, these are some of the best Middle Eastern cookbooks to have in your kitchen for specific recipes, foundational techniques, historical insights, and more inspiration:
- “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon” by Caludia Roden, $30.08 from Amazon
- “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews” by Poopa Dweck and Michael J. Cohen, $49.99 from Amazon
- “Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories” by Naz Deravian, $33.75 from Amazon
- “Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies” by Najmieh Batmanglij, $42.17 from Amazon
- “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, $24.99 from Amazon
- “Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen: Authentic Recipes for Fresh and Flavorful Mediterranean Home Cooking” by Julie Ann Sageer and Leah Bhabha, $21.27 from Amazon
- “New Feast: Modern Middle Eastern Vegetarian” by Greg and Lucy Malouf, $29.99 from Amazon
- “Olives, Lemons and Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking” by Rawia Bishara, $29.99 from Amazon
- “Our Syria: Recipes from Home” by Dina Mousawi and Itab Azzam, $30 from Amazon
- “Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen” by Joudie Kalla, $35 from Amazon
- “Rose Water and Orange Blossoms: Fresh & Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen” by Maureen Abood, $30 from Amazon
- “Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen” by Adeena Sussman, $23.49 from Amazon
- “The Turkish Cookbook” by Musa Dagdeviren, $38.31 from Amazon
- “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” by Michael Solomonov, $24.43 from Amazon
- “Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen” by Yasmin Khan, $26.95 from Amazon
How to Add More Middle Eastern Flavor to Your Food
Some of the cornerstones of Middle Eastern cuisine can be incorporated into any dishes. Try some of these tips to get more familiar with Middle Eastern flavors:
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 or used as a sauce for roasted or grilled meat. Greek yogurt can be smeared on your plate next to a salty fish or slathered on flatbread; sprinkle spices on top too.
Or level up to labneh, a thicker strained cheese made from yogurt, boasting a more intense flavor. It’s good on top of hummus, served as a dip by itself with olive oil and spices, and spread on bread (or bagels) with breakfast. Try this Homemade Labneh recipe from Simply Lebanese and you’ll find yourself making batches regularly.
Treat Lemon Differently
You may be used to squirting on some lemon juice or sprinkling 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. Our Spiced Preserved Lemons recipe contains allspice, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, and bay leaves, plus a whole lot of salt to do the preserving; for a plainer end result that’s a little more versatile, you can omit the warm spices. (Either way, try using them in a nice Vegetable Tagine recipe, a Preserved Lemon and Bitters Vinaigrette, or this Moroccan Charmoula Dressing.)
Mina Moroccan Preserved Lemons, $3.99 from Thrive Market
You can also buy them ready made.
No time to wait? Char fresh lemons by placing the halves, flesh side down in a pan (or on the grill) and cooking until you see some brown spots. The mellower, sweeter result enhances any dish calling for lemon.
Shake Up Your Spice Cabinet
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, and cumin. It’s used on pita, as a dip, 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 “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, but try it on roasted veggies and chicken.
In Any Baraghani’s modern Middle Eastern cooking guide, he reminds us of the importance of always blooming your spices too.
Related Reading: Saffron Is Another Superstar of the Spice Cabinet
Swap in Harissa for Your Regular Hot Sauce
Frank’s Red Hot, Tabasco, Tapatio, chili oil, sambal, and Sriracha will always have a place on our table, but now and then, we like to reach for 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.
Dea Harissa, $4.50 from Amazon
Spice up your life.
Sprinkle on Some Fun Extras
Mixing dried fruit and toasted nuts into couscous, rice, and other grains instantly makes them more interesting, but you can use these as garnishes elsewhere too. You’ll often see pistachios, pomegranate seeds, white or golden raisins, pine nuts, sesame seeds, and drizzles of tahini dressing on platters of meats, roasted vegetables, and salads. Take inspiration and add them to almost anything that could use some excitement; pairing nuts and fruit with meat is also particularly good.
Try Tahini in More Than Just Hummus
This ground sesame paste gives depth to hummus, but it’s also great in lots of other things. An easy tahini dressing with lemon and garlic works on kale salad, roasted veggies, falafel, grain bowls, and even avocado toast. Tahini desserts are a whole delicious genre on their own.
Soom Foods Premium Sesame Tahini, 2 for $16.50 from Amazon
This brand is beloved by many chefs and home cooks alike.
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 just the usual cinnamon and raisins—but don’t be afraid to use them (sparingly) in savory dishes too, like couscous and rice pilaf.
Cortas Orange Blossom Water, $8.46 from Amazon
It's easy to go overboard with these fragrant flavors, so always add them a little at a time.
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 for your next crudite platter, and use it to make dressings and sauces spark.
Or make this Rose Petal Jam recipe from the “Food of Life” cookbook by Persian food authority Najmieh Batmanglij. You can spread it on toast, add it to desserts like panna cotta and parfaits, swirl some into yogurt or ice cream, or eat it with roasted meat if you enjoy the sweet-savory combo.
Have More Hummus
Homemade hummus is not only tastier, healthier, and cheaper than store-bought, it’s easy to make. Plus, the classic chickpea mash is a blank canvas for additional toppings and flavors. You can use it as more than a dip, too—top it with ground lamb and veggies for a full meal (à la the fabulous Hummus Kawarma recipe in “Jerusalem“), or be totally nontraditional and use it in place of mayo in egg salad.
Related Reading: Where Did Hummus Come From?
Wrap It Up
Flatbread takes many forms in the Middle East (and across the entire world), like pita and lavash. It’s not only a nice change from your usual sandwich bread, it’s perfect for swiping up all sorts of dips and sauces. As a bonus, you can make an easy flatbread recipe right on your stovetop—take that, sourdough.
Middle Eastern Recipes
We can’t claim this is a comprehensive list of Middle Eastern recipes, or even that they’re all “authentic,” but we can promise these are all delicious. (Refer back to that list of cookbooks for even more options.)
The classic salad made from bulgur, tomatoes, and fistfuls of fresh herbs is both healthy and delicious. We like to add toasted pine nuts and sumac to our Tabbouleh recipe for even more texture and flavor, then scoop it up with pita or serve it with a roast chicken. According to Anissa Helou in “Feast: Food of the Islamic World,” “The most typical mistake is adding too much bulgur. Then there are those who add cucumber, or worse, cilantro, both absolute no-nos.” She adds that there are regional variations, but that the key is that it’s an herb and tomato salad first and foremost—and that “the herbs should be cut by hand.” We think it’s OK to experiment with ratios and techniques until you find what you like, but it’s always good to know where you’re beginning.
This is one of those dishes that doesn’t hew to any particular tradition but highlights several traditional ingredients. Besides the headliners, there are olives (another signature of Middle Eastern cuisine) and preserved lemon rind in the mix, and then a Preserved Lemon and Bitters Vinaigrette for double the pucker power. Get our Fennel, Parsley, and Celery Salad recipe.
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; store it in the freezer to make it last longer. Get our Dukkah-Crusted Salmon recipe.
Make this soft, pillowy flatbread for a change from pita. Slathered with olive oil and sprinkled with za’atar, it’s habit-forming. Eat it like rolls with dinner, or as a delivery vehicle for your hummus, labneh, tahini, or other dip. Get the Za’atar Flatbread recipe.
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 yours in under 40 minutes. Get our Lamb Meatballs with Lemon-Cumin Yogurt recipe.
This dreamy Tunisian-Israeli dish is a great way to make a Middle Eastern breakfast (but it’s just as good for dinner). 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—zhug—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.
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, and brings pomegranate seeds into the mix for color, texture, and flavor. Get our Couscous Stuffed Eggplant recipe.
Pita, pine nuts, chickpeas, garlicky yogurt, and tahini combine for a traditional breakfast dish that tastes just as good later in the day. It can be made with lamb for a meatier dish. Get the Fatteh recipe.
While couscous gets way more press, freekeh is another good-for-you grain that’s been eaten in the Middle East for ages. Paired with warm spices and roasted squash and shallots, it’s a great vegetarian meal (from the “New Feast: Modern Middle Eastern Vegetarian” cookbook), but you can serve it as a side to roasted meat as well. Get the Freekeh Pilaf with Spiced Roasted Butternut Squash recipe.