The Middle East is an incredibly broad region spanning many cultural groups, and that variety is reflected in Middle Eastern Cuisine. There are some common threads among the various types of Middle Eastern Food, which is also referred to as Mediteranean Food. Olive oil, a staple of the region, is common, as are spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, mint, and parsley. As pork is prohibited both in Islam and Judaism, it is not a commonly used meat. Cattle are not as common in the region as they are in the United States, so lamb and chicken are more common forms of meat. Let’s take a look now at some of the most popular Middle Eastern Food.
Humus is an increasingly popular dip that is made from mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, lemon juice, and often garlic. The very name comes from the Arabic word for chickpeas. It’s hard to pin down exactly where and when humus was invented, but our earliest records of the food come from 13th century Egypt. Oftentimes humus will be garnished with olive oil, pine nuts, or other spices. It is frequently served as a spread for pita bread, and recent years has become an international dip sensation in Western supermarkets.
Shawarma is a mouth watering rotisserie-cooked cone of stacked slices of meat, often of lamb but also sometimes chicken, turkey, beef, or veal. As the meat spins around its spit, slices are shaved off, usually to be placed in a sandwich. The original appearance of Shawarma—specifically grilling a vertical stack of thinly sliced meat—occurred in Turkey as a Doner Kebab. From Turkey it branched out both to Greece as Gyros and to the Middle East. Lebanese immigrants brought the tradition to Mexico, where it became tacos al pastor (a variety that uses pork, since pork is an acceptable food in Christian countries). The Shawarma meat itself is often seasoned with cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, paprika, or baharat. It is often served in a wrap like a pita or laffa, with fixings such as diced tomatoes, cucumbers,, pickled vegetables, amba (a type of mango sauce) and sometimes french fries.
Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern salad with a bit of a tangy kick, most of which comes from the heavy use of fresh parsley and mint. Tomatoes, onions, and soaked bulgur (not cooked, but soaked) combine with the aforementioned herbs, along with a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice—with a little bit of salt and pepper to boot. Tabbouleh is believed to have originated in Lebanon and Syria, where the particular local wheat variety was well suited for making bulgur—the cereal that forms a staple part of this now-popular salad. In Arab countries, Tabbouleh is often served as part of Mezze, which are small dishes much like appetizers or the Spanish Tapas.
Falafel is one of the most popular street foods around the world, but its origins are certainly Levantine (Middle Eastern). Falafel is essentially deep fried balls of chickpeas or fava beans (sometimes both). They are most commonly eaten in sandwich form, being served in a wrap like laffa or a pocketed bread like pita, which is usually accompanied by stuffings of cucumber, tomato, lettuce, along with hummus or tahini. The word itself goes back to Arabic, Persian, and even Sanskrit words for peppers—an allusion to the way that these fried chickpea balls look like little round peppercorns. Some have speculated that it may have been eaten in Ancient Egypt. Others believe the Coptic Christians of later times in Egypt would eat it as a substitute for meat during Lent, and point to the fact that it is still very much a Coptic holiday food. Regardless of its origins, Falafel—crispy on the outside, and soft in the middle—has become the quintessential middle eastern street food, so much so that Middle Eastern McDonald’s have it on their menu.