MIDDLE EASTERN CUISINE ULTIMATE GUIDE
When you think of the Middle East, visions of never-ending deserts and the aromatic smells of bustling spice markets flood your imagination. It’s a full-blown sensory experience, and nothing takes you there faster than whipping up a dish rich with the deeply fragrant spices of this part of the world.
TASTE OF MIDDLE EASTERN FOOD
When you think of the Middle East, visions of never-ending deserts and the aromatic smells of bustling spice markets flood your imagination. It’s a full-blown sensory experience, and nothing takes you there faster than whipping up a dish rich with the deeply fragrant spices of this part of the world. There are a vast array of differences of dishes across regions, from Basmati rice to Sumac, each country has developed their own unique tastes.
Middle Eastern and Arabic food facts
Influences for Middle Eastern culinary traditions include the Mediterranean climate and ancient religions. You’ll often find things like olives, honey, sesame seeds, mint and chickpeas in delicious spreads.
The Persion language is poetry indeed. In fact, the English term ‘paradise’ originates from the Persian word for ‘enclosed garden’.
Rice is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine and is often flavoured with spices like saffron or cumin.
Sitting between Asia, Africa and Europe, the area was rich in trade along the Silk Road. Spices were often traded and this shaped the flavours of the area, including coriander, cinnamon, cassia, turmeric and saffron.
Middle Eastern desserts often feature ingredients like honey, nuts, rosewater, and floral essences. Baklava, halva, knafeh, and Turkish delight are popular examples.
Hummus, a creamy dip made from chickpeas, tahini, garlic, and lemon juice, originated in the Middle East and is now popular worldwide.
Mezze culture is a popular way of eating in the Middle East and is similar to Spanish tapas. Mezze refers to a variety of small dishes served as appetisers or a meal on their own. It often includes dips like hummus and baba ghanoush, salads, pickled vegetables, olives, cheese, and small pastries. Mezze encourages sharing and allows for a diverse range of flavours and textures.
Bread holds great significance in Middle Eastern cuisine. Flatbreads like pita, lavash, and khubz are used for scooping up food, wrapping kebabs, or creating sandwiches. Breaking bread together is seen as a symbolic act of unity and respect.
Middle Eastern cuisine is known for its rich and aromatic spices. Common spices used include cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, sumac, cardamom, and saffron. These spices add depth and complexity to dishes.
Middle Eastern cuisine often features slow-cooked dishes and flavourful stews. Tagines, ghormeh sabzi, and kabsa are examples of such dishes. Slow cooking allows the flavours to meld together and results in tender and flavourful meat or vegetable dishes.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims in the Middle East observe fasting from sunrise to sunset. Iftar, the meal to break the fast, is a significant event with a variety of special dishes and drinks served.
THE SIGNATURE FLAVOUR OF THE ARAB CUISINE
A staple in Middle Eastern cooking, Baharat is an all-purpose spice blend that gives that signature warm, earthy, sweet and smoky flavour to the most popular dishes. Though it varies from place to place, it’s usually made from a combination of black pepper, coriander, paprika, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, cloves, and cinnamon.
Also known as garbanzo beans, are a staple legume in Middle Eastern cuisine. They are used to make dishes like hummus, falafel, and stews such as chickpea curry or Moroccan tagines.
It is a staple in Middle Eastern cooking and is used abundantly in dressings, marinades, and sautéing. It adds a distinctive flavour and richness to dishes.
Meats are also a key part of the Middle Eastern diet, with lamb, chicken and beef used in kebabs, stews and shawarmas. Goat is also used in tagine and saltah, and camel meat is a delicacy in some parts of the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia; fish and other seafood are also popular. Neither Jewish nor Muslim people eat pork.
Rice is a fundamental ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine, used in dishes like pilafs, biryanis and stuffed vegetables. It is commonly cooked with aromatic spices and served as a side dish or used as a base for meat or vegetable preparations.
Nuts such as almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, and walnuts are widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine. They are often toasted and sprinkled over dishes as a garnish, used in desserts, or ground into pastes to add richness and texture.
Tahini is a paste made from ground sesame seeds that adds a nutty and creamy element to dishes. A key ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine, it is often used in dips like hummus and baba ghanoush.
Bulgur is a cracked wheat product commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. It is made by parboiling, drying, and coarsely grinding wheat berries. Bulgur is a versatile ingredient and is used in dishes such as tabbouleh (a parsley and bulgur salad), pilafs, and stuffed vegetables.
Freekeh is a type of wheat that is harvested while young and then roasted. Cracked freekeh refers to the cracked grains of this wheat. It has a smoky flavour and a slightly chewy texture. Cracked freekeh is used in pilafs, soups, and salads.
Yoghurt is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine and is consumed in various forms. It can be enjoyed plain, used as a base for dips like tzatziki, incorporated into marinades, or used in desserts and drinks. Yoghurt adds creaminess, tanginess, and a cooling element to dishes.
Molasses are thick, syrupy ingredients used in Middle Eastern cooking. Carob molasses is made from carob pods and has a sweet, caramel-like flavour, while pomegranate molasses is made from reduced pomegranate juice and has a tangy, slightly sweet taste. Both are used to enhance the flavour of dishes, marinades, and dressings.
Dried barberries are small, tangy berries that are used as a souring agent in Middle Eastern cuisine. They add a burst of tartness to dishes like rice pilafs, salads, and stews, and are often used as a garnish.
Floral waters, such as rosewater and orange blossom water, are used sparingly in Middle Eastern desserts and beverages to add a subtle floral aroma and flavour; they are distilled from rose petals and orange blossoms, respectively.
Dried limes, also known as black limes or loomi, are limes that have been dried to remove moisture. They have a tangy and slightly smoky flavour. Dried limes are commonly used in stews, soups, and rice dishes to add a unique citrusy and tangy taste.
Middle Eastern Spices
Spices are the heart and soul of Middle Eastern cuisine, elevating dishes with their aromatic flavours and vibrant colours. From warm and earthy notes to tangy and pungent undertones, spices are crucial components that define the culinary heritage of the region.
Whether it’s the warm depth of cumin, the sweet fragrance of cinnamon, or the tangy zing of sumac, spices enhance and intensify the flavours of Middle Eastern dishes. The aroma of certain spices evokes a sense of warmth and comfort, making them integral to celebrations and rituals.
Arabic spices also represent the centuries of trade, exploration, and culinary exchange that have shaped Middle Eastern cuisine. Many of the spices used today have been part of the region’s culinary heritage for thousands of years, contributing to the distinct identities of different Middle Eastern cuisines. The spices used in each country or region reflect its unique history, geography, and cultural influences.
Before the advent of refrigeration, spices played a crucial role in preserving food in the Middle East. Spices like coriander, fenugreek and turmeric were used for their antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, helping to extend the shelf life of ingredients and protect against spoilage.
Below are some of the most present spices used in Middle Eastern cooking:
Fenugreek seeds and leaves are used in Middle Eastern cuisine for their distinctive flavour and aroma. The seeds have a slightly bitter, nutty taste, while the leaves have a milder flavour. Fenugreek is often used in spice blends, curries, and stews, adding depth and complexity to dishes.
Saffron is highly valued for its vibrant colour and delicate flavour. It is used sparingly in Middle Eastern cooking, especially in rice dishes like Persian saffron rice (jewelled rice) and desserts such as saffron-infused milk-based sweets. Saffron lends a unique floral and earthy taste to dishes.
Tamarind is a sour and tangy fruit used as a souring agent in Middle Eastern cuisine. It is a key ingredient in dishes like Persian fesenjan (a walnut and pomegranate stew) and various curries. Tamarind is also often used in chutneys, marinades, and sauces, adding a pleasant tanginess to dishes.
Cinnamon is a warm and aromatic spice that adds a sweet and woody flavour to both savoury and sweet dishes. Cinnamon is often used in spice blends, such as baharat and ras el hanout, which are used to season meat, rice, and vegetable dishes. It is also used in desserts, such as rice puddings, pastries, and spiced teas.
Coriander is a versatile spice used in various forms in Middle Eastern cooking. Coriander seeds have a citrusy and slightly floral flavour, and they are commonly found in spice blends, marinades, and pickles. Ground coriander is a staple in Middle Eastern spice mixes and is used to season meat, vegetables, and lentil dishes. Coriander leaves are used as a garnish and to add freshness to salads, soups, and sauces.
Turmeric is a vibrant yellow spice widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine. It has a warm, earthy flavour and is known for its health benefits and vibrant colour. Turmeric is used in various forms, including fresh roots, ground powder, and as an ingredient in spice blends. It is a key component of curry powder and is used in dishes such as rice pilafs, stews, and lentil soups.
Sumac is a tangy spice derived from the berries of the sumac plant. It has a tart, lemony flavour and is used as a souring agent and a seasoning in Middle Eastern cuisine. Sumac is sprinkled over salads, grilled meats, and rice dishes, adding a tangy and slightly fruity taste.
Urfa biber pepper
Urfa biber pepper, also known as isot pepper, is a dried chilli pepper from the Urfa region of Turkey. It has a smoky and slightly sweet flavour with mild heat. Urfa biber pepper is often used in Middle Eastern cuisine to add depth to dishes like kebabs, stews, and marinades.
Marash chilli flakes are made from a variety of Turkish chilli pepper and have a moderate heat level. They have a fruity and slightly smoky flavour and are used as a seasoning in dishes such as kebabs, pilafs, and dips.
Aleppo pepper is a moderately hot chilli pepper that is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. It has a fruity and slightly tangy flavour. Aleppo pepper is used in spice blends, sprinkled over dishes for added heat, and incorporated into marinades and sauces.
Za’atar is both a spice blend and a type of herb commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine. The leaves of the za’atar herb have a fragrant, savoury flavour and are often used fresh or dried in salads, dips, and as a topping for bread or roasted vegetables. The spice blend, also called za’atar, contains dried za’atar leaves, sumac, sesame seeds, and sometimes other herbs, and is used as a seasoning.
Dukkah is an Egyptian spice and nut blend typically made with toasted sesame seeds, nuts (such as hazelnuts or almonds), coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and other spices. It is served as a dip with bread or used as a seasoning for salads, roasted vegetables, or grilled meats.
Advieh is a Persian spice blend that varies in composition, but typically includes spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and rose petals. It is used in a wide range of Persian dishes, such as rice pilafs, stews, and grilled meats, providing a complex and aromatic flavour profile.
WHICH RICE FOR MIDDLE EASTERN CUISINE?
Each variety brings something different so choosing the right type of rice for your dish is important. Your meals deserve the best, so let’s take it to the next level and create authentic plates that impress.
Extra Long Basmati grains are a popular pairing with Middle Eastern and Persian dishes, especially one-pot sharers made to impress. Our Grand Extra Long Basmati and Grand Sella offer separate and extra-long elegant grains that go so well with Biryanis and Polos.Explore rice for Middle Eastern cuisines
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