If you’ve ever enjoyed pita bread, hummus, or falafel, you’ve ventured into the wonderful world of Middle Eastern food. But there’s much more to the cuisine than these iconic staples—it has a range of flavors and styles to offer.
If you have Middle Eastern heritage or want a deeper understanding of the region, a great place to start is the food. Authentic food from any given place packs with it more than just the flavors. It provides insights into the lives of the people and the history of the region.
But what exactly is considered Middle Eastern food, and why is it significant?
What Is Considered Middle Eastern Food?
Middle Eastern food stems from a variety of cultures around the Mediterranean, Red, Arabian, and Caspian Seas. It includes Arab, Israeli, Moroccan, Syrian, and Turkish cuisines, just to name a few. In reality, a long list of countries and cultures are included.
While Middle Eastern food encompasses a variety of cuisines, it’s generally characterized by fragrant and copious spices, nuts, olive oil, and creamy elements. Mutton, lamb, and goat are traditional meats. Chicken, camel, beef, fish, and pork are also used, but less frequently.
Traditional Middle Eastern Foods
Early civilizations in the Middle East paved the way for modern farming and cooking. This area of the world was among the first to keep farm animals and cultivate plants, including wheat, sheep, goats, and cattle. Middle Easterners also developed the process of fermentation, which has permeated worldwide cultures to leaven bread, make alcohol, and create unique flavors.
As a result of its unique location between Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East became a hub for the exchange of goods and culture as international trade expanded through the ages. Spices, ingredients, and new dishes were all exchanged, shaping the food of the Middle East and surrounding areas alike.
Local ingredients and religion have also played key roles in shaping the food in the region. Dates, fava beans, chickpeas, and barley are staples as locally sourced ingredients, while lamb and mutton became the predominant meat as a result of religious laws banning pork.
Religious practices in the area also paved the way for a worldwide staple: coffee. The stimulating drink was brewed to help people stay awake for evening worships, particularly during Ramadan.
Ramadan: A Month of Fasting
Ramadan is a holy month of fasting in Islamic culture. It has deep ties to the Qur’an and holds spiritual significance for Muslims around the world. Throughout the month, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, only eating after a prayer at sunset.
The evening meal that follows is often a social event shared in homes or mosques. Shops and restaurants stay open late into the night to accommodate daily fasts, creating a lively nightlife. In the morning, drums and bells sound before dawn, warning Muslims to eat their last meals before the next day of fasting.
When the month ends, everyone celebrates with a large feast and festivities known as Eid al-Fitr. Pastries and sweets are served in abundance alongside other celebrations, such as gift giving and family visits.
Etiquette at Middle Eastern Mealtimes
Dining etiquette varies by region in the Middle East, so it’s difficult to pinpoint hard and fast etiquette rules. Generally, food is either shared from a central, communal plate or served by the host. If a host is serving you food, be prepared for second helpings the moment your plate is cleared. Leaving some food on the plate can signal that you’re full.
Arab countries typically favor finger foods, so utensils are not always used. Areas such as Turkey do use utensils. Arab countries also avoid using the left hand while dining, as it is culturally the hand used to do unhygienic tasks. Floor cushions and low tables are also common in some regions.
Middle Eastern Recipes
Use these recipes to taste some of the best dishes of the Middle East from your own home. While there’s no substitute for actually visiting the Middle East, food can help you experience some of its elements from afar. Try this list to get started:
Hummus: Probably the most famous dish originating from the Middle East, hummus is a creamy and versatile dip made from chickpeas.
Manakeesh: This flatbread is a popular choice for breakfast. It’s topped with a flavorful heap of cheeses and spices.
Foul Mudammas: For this dish, fava beans are stewed with spices and herbs to create a flavorful and hearty meal.
Falafel: Falafels are fried balls made of chickpeas and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways.
Fattoush: This light bread salad is refreshing and flavorful, the perfect addition to any meal.
Umm Ali: This Egyptian dessert is similar to bread pudding and is served with nuts and other fillings.
Shawarma: Shawarma is a crowd favorite, the marriage of slow-roasted chicken and the famous pita bread.
Mansaf: The yogurt sauce for mansaf makes this dish. Lamb is cooked in it, and it’s often served over a bed of rice.
Baklava: Baklava is probably the most famous dessert from the Middle East. It’s made with ground nuts, honey, and layers of filo dough.
Knafeh: Knafeh is another Middle Eastern dessert. It’s made with a cheese filling that’s surrounded by shredded filo dough and topped with a syrup.
Masgouf: This grilled carp dish is the national dish of Iraq.
Pita: The popularity of pita bread speaks for itself. It’s a flatbread characterized by a pocket of air in the center.
If you have Middle Eastern heritage, try looking for or sharing family recipes through FamilySearch Memories.
Source: Family Search