Hummus and falafel are practically part of our standard American culinary vocabulary these days, and it’s no surprise why: Middle Eastern food is delicious. But these aren’t just foods that you can buy on the street for a late-night snack; Middle Eastern dishes are easy to make at home, as long as you have the right ingredients.
While there are many ingredients that make up the Middle Eastern kitchen, here are a dozen to start with and a few ideas of what to do with them.
1. Yogurt. Yogurt has been a popular food in the Middle East for thousands of years and is commonly mixed into a sauce to serve with meats or as a side dish. It’s often blended with cilantro, cucumbers and even dill. Traditionally yogurt used in Middle Eastern cooking is thick in consistency, and there is even the popular Labneh, a soft, spreadable cheese made from yogurt. The easiest way to obtain a thicker consistency is to strain your yogurt through a cheesecloth for a few hours in the refrigerator. Try these Lamb Kofte Kebabs with a Cucumber Yogurt Sauce.
2. Za’atar. A common Middle Eastern spice blend, Za’atar also must means “wild thyme.” That thyme is regularly crushed together with sumac and sesame seeds to form the spice blend, but there are many variations depending on what region you go to. Either way, the bulk of the spice tends to be made of thyme or oregano. The spice blend is used as a table condiment, so you can sprinkle it on meats, vegetables or anything else you feel needs some flavor, and it’s even used atop flatbread.
3. Sumac. The dark brick red of powdered, dry sumac brings color to any meal, and the spice is an essential in fattoush salad, za’atar and tabbouleh. Rarely used in Western cooking, it abounds in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. Its tart, fruity flavor is used to add acidity to a dish. If you can’t find sumac, a squeeze of lemon is a good substitute.
4. Olive oil. While we often think of olive oil in a Mediterranean context, it’s also a cornerstone of Middle Eastern cooking, at its most basic, just drizzled over dishes as a condiment. With the many health benefits of olive oil, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be adding it to more of your cooking.
5. Sesame Seeds/Tahini. Appetizer favorites hummus and baba ganoush have one thing in common: tahini. A paste made from ground, hulled sesame seeds, you can actually make it yourself, by grinding sesame seeds and a little bit of oil in a food processor. You can even use tahini in non-traditional Middle Eastern dishes like in this easy dinner of Tahini Green Beans & Red Cabbage. Sesame seeds themselves are also common in Middle Eastern cooking, particularly in sweet pastries like sesame seed cookies.
6. Pomegranate molasses. Cultivated since ancient times, the pomegranate has its roots in Iran and across the Middle East you’ll find it in a variety of forms, from streetside juice stands in Afghanistan to the sweet molasses that you’ll find in many markets across the region. As a dressing for fattoush salad, as a base for Persian Khoresh Fesenjan, pomegranate chicken stew, or a marinade for lamb kaftes, pomegranate molasses is key anytime you want to add a sweet-and-sour element to a dish.
7. Lemon. Lemons have long been a staple of Middle Eastern cooking. Often you’ll find preserved lemons as an addition to dishes, and preserving them yourself allows you to keep the citrus on hand longer than fresh ones would last. You can also make a delicious quick version of preserved lemons at home.
8. Couscous. Couscous can refer to the ingredient, a coarsely ground pasta made from semolina, or the dish, a staple of Berber cuisine in North African Maghreb. There’s also Israeli Couscous, which is also made from semolina, but takes a larger, pearl form. Pair it with lamb sausage for a hearty dinner.
9. Bulgur. Made from dried, cracked whole wheat, bulgur is a good base for pilafs and salads, like the classic tabbouleh. It cooks up really quickly, simply by soaking it in hot water. You can use it in place of rice or couscous in practically any dish. It’s especially yummy mixed up with ground meat in a popular dish called kibbeh.
10. Mint. You’ll find fresh mint used in everything from tea to sauces in Middle Eastern cuisine, which is no surprise since the herb is thought to have originated in Asia and the Mediterranean region. You can chop it up and throw on salad or make a yogurt sauce or use it to steep a simple mint tea.
11. Saffron. The delicate red threads of saffron provide flavor to numerous Middle Eastern dishes, from delicious Persian rice with almonds and raisins to roasted lamb. You’ll know a saffron dish when you see it as the spice gives a beautiful golden hue. Try it in a Saffron Bulgur Pilaf.
12. Feta. Tangy, creamy feta makes several important contributions to any Middle Eastern meal. Though it’s a fresh cheese, like mozzarella, blocks of the white cheese are brined, giving it a characteristic tanginess–just like lemons, sumac, and pomegranate molasses. Depending on the country, feta can be made from sheep’s, goat’s, or cow’s milk, or a combination. If you prefer less tanginess, soak the feta in water or milk for 30 minutes before serving.
Also check out: The Essential Spices of India
This post was written by Anna Brones, a food and travel writer based in Paris, France who has a love for bikes, coffee and all things organic.