Middle Eastern cooking is a celebration of colors, rich flavors and intoxicating aromas. Every culture uses its own spices and herbs to bring out the natural taste of meat, chicken and fish dishes. Together, the Persian, Israeli, Moroccan, Syrian and Lebanese cuisines make one of the most unique and diverse food cultures in the world.
Last time, we introduced you to the wonders of the Middle Eastern cuisine. In this article, Cheetah chefs share pro tips on Middle Eastern cooking and where to get the right ingredients for every cuisine type.
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Same Dish, Different Culture
Although many of the recipes and ingredients in Middle Eastern cooking share similarities, they also have many differences and variations. Each country adds its own flare to the collective cuisine, and all countries are inspired by each other. Here are some examples of dishes that are found in different countries, but always with a twist.
The Chelow Kebab is considered the national dish of Iran. The dish consists of steamed rice along with Iraninan kebab. It’s traditionally accompanied with butter, basil, sumac, grilled tomatoes and onions, all coming together to create a delicious dish. While the Chelow Kebab is unique to Iran, kebabs are a common dish throughout Middle Eastern cooking.
Kebab consists of ground meat mixed with herbs and spices cooked on a skewer over a fire. When cooked over a fire, the mutton or lamb used for the Kebab makes all that fat ooze out and the scent of grilled meat is hard to resist.
Of all Middle Eastern cooking varieties, he falafel is the most popular dish in Israel. It’s made of ground chickpeas soaked overnight with cumin and coriander to add flavor and then mixed with parsley, scallions and garlic.
Falafel is commonly served in a pita accompanied by a fresh cut salad and topped off with savory tahini sauce. It’s easy to prepare and what makes it so unique is the fact it’s 100% vegan. While it gained great popularity in Israel, it’s not unique to the country and is served in other Middle Eastern countries as well. In Egypt, they use fava beans to make the falafel balls instead of chickpeas.
Generally served with vegetables, the Moroccan couscous is cooked in either a spicy or mild stew and some meat, generally chicken, lamb or mutton. After the couscous is steamed, it’s topped with almonds, cinnamon, sugar and saffron. While it’s considered the main Moroccan dish, it’s not exclusively Moroccan.
Other Middle Eastern countries also prepare couscous well with different variations. In Lebanon and Syria, the couscous is cooked in chicken stew with cinnamon, caraway and chickpeas. Couscous is also a common dish in Israel with Tunisian Jews serving it with harissa or shkug which makes the dish spicy.
The Kibbeh dish is based on spiced minced lamb and bulgur wheat or semolina formed into balls. Aleppo, a city located in northern Syria is famous for having more than 17 different types of Kibbeh. Some of those Aleppo dishes are made with sumac, some with yogurt and some with quince.
Kibbeh is very popular in Middle Eastern cooking. It is considered a national dish by many countries with each country adding its own distinctive twist. The Kubba in Iraq is flat and round and its crust is made of rice rather than bulgur. In Lebanon they serve it raw on a platter as part of the meze garnished with mint leaves and olive oil.
Hummus is one of the most popular dishes in Middle Eastern cooking, especially in Lebanon. But it’s also one of the most popular dishes in a lot of other Middle Eastern countries. Hummus is made from mashed chickpeas mixed with tahini, lemon juice and garlic. It’s commonly scooped with flatbread, usually pita. It’s topped with a wide variety of garnishes such as parsley, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, whole chickpeas, olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, paprika, sumac, ful and pine nuts.
In Egypt, Hummus is commonly flavored with cumin and other spices. In Jordan, they serve a very unique type of hummus with yogurt in the place of tahini and butter in the place of olive oil, topped with pieces of toasted bread.
The Middle Eastern Pantry
To get started, you’ll need to stock up. Cheetah carries all the Middle Eastern favorites you need, including:
Since hummus is a staple food in Middle Eastern cooking, chickpeas are very handy to have around. When combined with thick tahini, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, hummus becomes an addictive dish that can be served as an appetizer, dip, spread or main dish. Sprinkle some paprika or sumac on top, along with some pine nuts and fresh parsley to add that extra flavor and you’ll get an authentic Middle Eastern dish.
Chickpeas are also included in other Middle Eastern recipes such as salads, stews, tagines and of course falafel.
Tahini is an absolute must for Middle Eastern cooking. It’s basically a paste made out of ground sesame seeds and is used in many of the popular dishes such as hummus, salad dressing or sauce for meat. What’s unique about tahini is that it can also be used in desserts.
Halwa for example is made out of tahini combined with sugar syrup and ground pistachios or other nuts. The halwa is a sweet, satisfying dessert that’s also packed with healthy fats from the sesame seeds and the nuts.
This aromatic spice adds flavour to every dish. Traditionally made with sesame seeds mixed with dried herbs including thyme, oregano and sumac. Mix Za’atar with olive oil and drizzle it over a flatbread. Roast the seasoned flatbread in the oven and fill your house with the oriental aroma of the Za’atar. Sprinkle Za’atar on chicken or add to marinades for fish or meats.
Sprinkle za’atar on top of hummus, tahini, salads and roasted veggies will give them more flavor and texture.
Olive Oil is a must-have in your kitchen, preferably in large quantities. In Middle Eastern cooking it’s used for meat, chicken and fish marinades, as well as for salads and appetizers. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest quality and has the most potent flavor.
Olive Oil is an essential ingredient in your kitchen. It adds a rich, luxurious flavor to any dish and it’s considered a healthy fat. It can be used to replace most of the unhealthy fats we commonly eat.
A popular food in Middle Eastern cooking for thousands of years, Yogurt is commonly served with meats or as a side dish. It’s often blended with cilantro, cucumbers or dill. The Labneh is the traditional thicker cheese made from yogurt. Strain your yogurt through a cheese-cloth for a few hours in the refrigerator to get a thicker consistency.
Labneh is commonly served on a plate and drizzled with olive oil and za’atar and then scooped like hummus with flatbread or pita.