With its heady spices, depth of flavours and artful simplicity, it’s not difficult to comprehend the appeal of Middle Eastern food. Food has an irrevocable sense of place, and this can be seen clearly across this region. As powerful as language, religion or landscape, Middle Eastern food is rooted to the soil, climate and sunlight, but also to people and how they grasp of their own identity, particularly in times of crisis. Recipes are transferred from generation to generation and fundamentally become part of an individual, a family and community’s heritage.
Below you’ll find a small, concise list which includes a few (of many) iconic dishes which frequently grace family tables across the Levant.
1. Baba ganoush
Appearing across cultures from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Turkey to parts of North Africa, the origin of this Levantine dish is unknown and as with many celebrated foods across the globe, appears in varying forms depending on the region. Traditionally served as part of a Mezze spread, baba ganoush is often partnered with hummus, flatbreads, a tabbouleh salad and warak enab (stuffed vine leaves) for a light lunch or starter to an extravagant dinner.
Despite taking many forms, the very core of this dish is always the same. Whole aubergines are grilled or fiercely charred over a gas flame until the skin is blistered, black and shrunken and they’ve lost their mauve colour. The trick is to cut into the aubergine’s carbonized shell and scoop out the juicy molten flesh within. The flesh is then drained (removing excess water) and whisked up with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and of course plenty of garlic. The resultant smokiness means that baba ganoush packs a punch of flavour, rivalling humble hummus.
Labneh is a strained yogurt that forms an important part of Middle Eastern food culture, providing a cooling and refreshing antidote to the blistering summer heat across the Levant. It’s made by stirring a pinch of salt into full-fat thick yogurt and then placing this mixture into a muslin/cheese cloth. After about 12 hours or so, excess liquid has seeped through the cloth and you’re left with thick and creamy labneh which can be rolled into balls.
Often enjoyed at breakfast time, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with classic Middle Eastern spices za’atar or dukkah, labneh is traditionally served with wrinkled black olives, sliced cucumber, flatbreads and sometimes a tart apricot preserve. Breakfast in the Middle East takes a far more savoury form than its equivalent in Europe. Flaky pastries, fresh berries and jams don’t make the cut. Instead, the true heroes of a Middle Eastern breakfast are labneh, briny olives, crispy flatbreads and fragrant olive oil. This saltiness actually has a practical explanation, as it helps eaters to replenish the minerals lost through perspiring in the sweltering heat. Nevertheless, labneh can also form a sweeter breakfast or dessert when served with crushed pistachios and poached peaches.
3. Lamb koftes
Fragrant and spicy, the name kofte actually comes from the Persian word to grind, meaning that you can find potato, prawn or even cheese koftes. However, sticking to the classics, these meaty morsels are usually made with either lamb or a mixture of beef and lamb. The superior of the two meats, lamb, certainly holds its own when combined with the substantial flavours used to produce the koftes (traditionally coriander, cumin, paprika/cayenne pepper and parsley). However, these flavour combinations vary greatly across the Middle East, with some kofte mixtures including walnuts, pistachios or dried barberries for example.
Best cooked on a grill or barbeque, serve koftes with flatbreads (toast on the barbeque in the remaining juices), a crunchy salad, a cool cucumber and dill yogurt and perhaps a fiery chili sauce.
4. Fattoush salad
A beautiful tart, sweet and citrussy Levantine salad with plenty of crunch. The perfect accompaniment to oily lamb koftes or other meat dishes, this colourful salad adds a hint of summer freshness and looks truly spectacular on any table. Fattoush belongs to the family of dishes known as fattat (plural of fatteh), which traditionally use stale flatbread as a base. Fried or toasted flatbread is cut into cubes to form a crouton-like base to the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, radish, spring onions, juicy pomegranate seeds, fresh parsley and mint.
The dressing of this ubiquitous chopped salad of the Middle East is quite distinct, consisting of the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, red wine vinegar and sumac. Reddish, purple berries are ground into a luminescent, purple powder to create sumac. Unique in its tart taste, this spice is added to salads, meat and white fish for a touch of acidity.
A renowed Palestinian dish, Maqluba – which translates to ‘upside down’ – consists of meat (chicken or lamb), rice, and fried vegetables which are placed in a pot and flipped upside down when served, creating an impressive and steaming mound of deliciousness. Vegetables such as aubergine, tomato and cauliflower are fried and caramelised at the bottom of the pan during the cooking process. Seasoned with an array of spices including saffron, turmeric, cinnamon and baharat, these fragrant powders infuse the rice until it turns a golden yellow.
Just before sitting to eat, family members gather round to watch as the maqluba is ceremoniously tipped, met with resounding claps, cheers and laughter. Next, it is topped with toasted pine nuts and parsley, drizzled with yogurt and placed at the centre of the table. Most Palestinian families will gather over a maqluba about once a week, the kind of hearty meal you’d tuck into after a hard day’s work.
Ready to start cooking? Here’s a list of 12 essential cupboard ingredients for cooking Middle Eastern food.
Lydia Daniels is a graduate linguist specialising in Spanish and Arabic. Now based in London, Lydia works in digital marketing while blogging on the side at The Foody Girl. She delights in whipping up sensational dishes, spending lazy afternoons sketching, hiking in mountains and immersing herself in new cultures. Her adventures have taken her to many enchanting cities so far; Valencia, Madrid, Barcelona, Amman, Rabat. All the photos in this post are Lydia’s own.
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