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. These aren’t just foods that you can order at restaurants or pick up at the store for a late-night snack; Middle Eastern recipes 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.
Ingredients for Middle Eastern recipes
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. Recipes also often call for labneh, a soft, spreadable cheese made from yogurt. If you don’t have labneh, 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.
Za’atar is a popular spice blend used in Middle Eastern recipes. The name means “wild thyme.” There are many variations of this spice blend depending on the region. The base of the blend is typically made from crushed dried thyme or oregano, accompanied by sesame seeds and sumac. Za’atar is used as a table condiment that can be sprinkle it on meats, vegetables, or anything else you feel needs some flavor. We love it sprinkled atop a simple flatbread.
The dark brick red hue of powdered, dry sumac brings color to any meal, and the spice is an essential ingredient in fattoush salad, za’atar, and tabbouleh. Rarely used in Western cooking, it abounds in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. Its tart, fruity flavor adds a pop of bright acidity to any dish. If you can’t find sumac, a squeeze of lemon is a good substitute.
4. Olive oil
Olive oil is also a cornerstone of Middle Eastern cooking. At its most basic, it’s 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. This paste is made from ground, hulled sesame seeds. You can make it yourself by grinding sesame seeds and a little bit of oil in a food processor. You can use tahini in non-traditional Middle Eastern dishes like in this easy dinner of Tahini Green Beans & Red Cabbage or this vegan tahini ice cream. 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. You’ll find a variety of pomegranate dishes across the Middle East, from street-side juice stands in Afghanistan, to the sweet molasses available in many markets across the region. Pomegranate molasses is used dressing for fattoush salad, a base for Persian Khoresh Fesenjan, and as a marinade for lamb kaftes. Pomegranate molasses is key anytime you want to add a sweet-and-sour element to a dish.
Lemons have long been a staple of Middle Eastern recipes. Salty preserved lemons are a common addition to dishes. You can also make a delicious quick version of preserved lemons at home.
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.
Made from dried, cracked whole wheat, bulgur is a good base for pilafs and salads, like the classic tabbouleh. It cooks up 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.
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 a salad, make a yogurt sauce, or use it to steep a simple mint tea.
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—the spice gives rice and grains a beautiful golden hue. Try it in a Saffron Bulgur Pilaf.
Tangy, creamy feta is a delicious addition to many Middle Eastern meals. Feta fresh cheese, like mozzarella, but blocks of fresh feta are brined, giving the cheese its characteristic tanginess. Depending on the country, feta can be made from sheep’s, goat’s, 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.