Middle Eastern Food Made Simple
The food of the Middle East, like the culture, is based on tradition, history, and passion. What is now considered Middle Eastern food formed out of the diverse cuisines of various countries in the Middle East and Asia. The dishes are very diverse while retaining a sense of connection through their ingredients. Broadening one’s cooking horizons by venturing into Middle Eastern food can not only add variety to the usual meals, but also offer a home cook many healthy and delicious ideas for vegetarian dishes.
Before diving into Middle Eastern cooking, it’s helpful to know a little bit about its background and common practices. Many dishes are cooked with olive oil, and some with butter or clarified butter (called “ghee”). Very few are fried; grilling or baking are the preferred (and healthier!)
methods of cooking. These techniques help minimize a dish’s calories while still adding flavor. Cereals are the basis of a Middle Eastern diet, with wheat and rice as the major staples. If this type of cuisine is to become a part of daily life, it is helpful to know and stock up on common ingredients. Olives, olive oil, pitas, honey, sesame seeds, dates, sumac, chickpeas, mint, and parsley crop up in many dishes. Exotic spices often come to mind in Middle Eastern cooking as well, and there is no shortage in the flavor department. Cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, black pepper, chili peppers, thyme, and garlic are often used.
Thanks to a variety of fresh and delicious ingredients, and innovative methods of preparation, the lack of fats and frying doesn’t mean a lack of flavor. An ordinary sight in Middle Eastern restaurants, shawarma is the preparation of a type of meat (lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, or veal) that is put onto a spit, grilled for up to a day, and then shaved off as needed. This meat can then be used for a variety of dishes, or simply served in pita bread.
Vegetarians will love Middle Eastern cuisine for its incorporation of vegetables into a variety of cooking methods and dishes. Veggies can be boiled, stewed, grilled or stuffed and are a major part of the Middle Eastern diet. Cabbage, spinach, chard, onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, beets, squash, tomato, eggplant and okra are no strangers to Middle Eastern dishes. Many types of beans are a crucial ingredient to Middle Eastern dishes as well. In the dairy family, milk, fresh or soured, yogurt, and white cheeses are ingredients one can expect to see used.
Fortunately, cooking Middle Eastern cuisine doesn’t involve too much specialized skill. Most seemingly unusual ingredients can easily be found in ethnic or specialty grocery stores. If Middle Eastern or Arabic stores don’t have the ingredients you’re looking for, Greek stores are also a good place to check. There are lots of simple Middle Eastern dishes with very few ingredients, and countless recipes to be found on the Internet, so jump right in!
• Hummus is a very popular Middle Eastern recipe, and one that has worked its way into many other cuisines around the world. It is a quick and easy recipe that is very versatile too; functioning as a snack, a dip for pitas, bread and vegetables, or a spread. This chickpea based dish is also healthy, doesn’t involve any baking, and only has about seven ingredients. Hummus can make a great appetizer for the first try at a Middle Eastern meal.
• Falafel is another dish that has crossed borders. A common street food around the world, falafel is made by forming a small patty with chickpea flour and water, then deep frying it until golden. It is served as a replacement for meat in a pita with lettuce, onion and tahini. Falafel can also be paired with vegetables for a main dish more suited to dinner.
• Speaking of tahini, this common dip or spread is the foundation in multiple Middle Eastern recipes, and is also very easy to make. The base of tahini only has two ingredients in it – olive oil and sesame seeds. The seeds are baked and then the two ingredients are blended together in a food processor to create a pourable paste. Some recipes add additional spices or garnishes to add to the flavor or create a different type of sauce that can be used to top foods like meat or vegetables. Make a batch and keep it in the refrigerator to enjoy fresh tahini on-hand at any time, and to use as a base for other recipes.
• Having a good pita bread recipe on-hand creates many kitchen opportunities. The options are only limited to what the imagination can come up with – pitas filled with meat and vegetables to create many types of sandwiches, such as gyros, falafel, and kebabs; pitas as scoopers for hummus and other dips; as a base for pizza; and baked into pita chips. Another recipe with very few ingredients, these small, round flatbreads do take a little preparation time as the dough has to sit and rise. But being rewarded with warm, freshly made pita bread is worth the extra effort!
Middle Eastern food first hit the international scene when Mediterranean diets came into fashion.
With benefits for the heart and healthy, fresh ingredients, Middle Eastern food is often just what people and restaurants are looking for in an exciting, nutritious meal option. In just the last ten years, Middle Eastern cuisine has grown much more popular around the world. Most people won’t have to look too hard to find a tasty restaurant with most of the dishes described above in their neighborhood. But next time, try some of the simple Middle Eastern basics at home. Cooking at home is less expensive, is usually healthier (especially when amounts of butter and oils can be regulated), and gives the chef a great chance to learn something new and broaden the family’s horizons.