For all the issues that divide the region, an emphatic belief in the importance of good food is one thing on which all people of the Middle East agree. And little wonder given what’s on offer. Middle Easterners see eating as a social event to be shared with family and friends, a means of marking the most important moments in life, and a pastime worth spending hours over. Or to put it another way, life revolves around food.
The Middle East is an excellent place to eat out (or in, if you're lucky enough to be invited to a meal in a local family home).
Restaurants Found across the region, from fusion boutique eateries to simple places serving kebabs or roast chicken.
Teahouses Traditionally where locals go to socialise and eat, with tea and water pipe.
Kababis Simple kababis (Ocakbaşıs in Turkey) serve, yes, kebabs, and shawarma and they're everywhere.
Takeaway Fast food is popular and begins (and often ends) with bread-roll ‘sandwiches’.
In somebody's home Possibly the best food you'll ever taste.
Staples & Specialities
Middle Eastern cooking draws on a range of influences, from sophisticated Ottoman and Persian sensibilities, or the spare improvisation of the desert cooking pot, to a Mediterranean belief in letting fresh ingredients speak for themselves. Where the excitement really lies is in the astonishing variety at large in its feasts of colour and complementary tastes.
Mezze (meze in Turkish) ranks alongside Spanish tapas and Italian antipasto as one of the world’s greatest culinary inventions. A collection of appetisers or small plates of food, mezze allows you to sample a variety of often complementary tastes and takes the difficulty out of choosing what to order – choose everything! Mezze mirrors the time-honoured practice of hosts throwing a party, offering up for their guests a banquet of choice. Largely vegetable-based and bursting with colour and flavour, it’s the region’s most compelling culinary flourish.
Although it’s usually perfectly acceptable for diners to construct an entire meal from the mezze list and forgo the mains on offer, there are subtle differences from country to country in just how far you can take this mezze obsession. Mezze is the headline act when it comes to Levantine cuisine, but it’s the understudy to kebabs in Turkey and the trusted warm-up to the region’s other cuisines.
Feature: Popular Mezze Specialities
Among the seemingly endless candidates, we’ve narrowed it down to the following dishes (spellings may differ from country to country).
baba ghanoosh – purée of grilled aubergines (eggplants) with tahini and olive oil
basturma – cold, sliced meat cured with fenugreek
borek – pastry stuffed with salty white cheese or spicy minced meat with pine nuts; also known as sambousek
fatayer – triangular deep-fried pastries stuffed with spinach, meat or cheese
hummus bi tahina – cooked chickpeas ground into a paste and mixed with tahini, lemon, olive oil and garlic
kibbeh – minced lamb, burghul wheat and pine nuts made into a lemon-shaped patty and deep-fried
labneh – thick yogurt flavoured with garlic and sometimes with mint
loobieh – French bean salad with tomatoes, onions and garlic
mouhamarra – walnut and pomegranate syrup dip
muttabal – purée of aubergine mixed with tahini, yogurt and olive oil; similar to but creamier than baba ghanoosh
shanklish – tangy, eye-wateringly strong goat’s cheese served with onions, oil and tomatoes
tahina – paste made of sesame seeds and served as a dip
wara ainab – stuffed vine leaves, served both hot and cold; in Egypt also called mahshi
For all the variety of the Middle Eastern table, bread (khobz or a’aish, which means ‘life’) is the guaranteed constant, considered a gift from God and the essential accompaniment to any Middle Eastern meal. In fact, it’s considered such a necessity that few Middle Eastern restaurants dare to charge a cent for it. If you’re wandering through the streets of an Arab city in the morning and you see a large queue forming at an otherwise innocuous hole in the wall, you’ve almost certainly stumbled upon the local bakery.
The staple Middle Eastern bread follows a 2000-year-old recipe. Unleavened and cooked over an open flame, it’s used in lieu of cutlery to scoop dips and ripped into pieces to wrap around morsels of meat. Dinner is always served with baskets of bread to mop up mezze, while kebabs are often served with a tasty bread canopy coated in tomato, parsley and spices.
Almost every meal in Iran is accompanied by nun (bread). The four main types of nun are barbari (crisp, salty and often covered with sesame seeds), lavash (flat and thin breakfast bread), sangak (long and thick and baked on a bed of stones to give it its characteristic dimpled appearance), and taftun (crisp with a ribbed surface).
It’s inconceivable for most people in the region to eat a meal without salad and it's a zesty, fresh complement to a piping hot kebab. Middle Easterners are loyal to their basic salads and don’t mind eating them meal after meal. Elaborations or creative flourishes are rare and simplicity is the key: crunchy fresh ingredients (including herbs), often caressed by a shake of oil and vinegar at the table. Salads are eaten with relish as a mezze or as an accompaniment to a meat or fish main course. Three salads, found throughout the region, form an integral part of the local diet:
fattoush – toasted khobz, tomatoes, onions and mint leaves, sometimes served with a smattering of tangy pomegranate syrup
shepherd’s salad – colourful mix of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion and pepper; extremely popular in Turkey, where it’s known as çoban salatası
tabbouleh – the region’s signature salad combines burghul wheat, parsley and tomato, with a tangy sprinkling of sesame seeds, lemon and garlic
The regional stars of the snack-food line-up are shawarma and falafel, and they’re both things of joy when served and eaten fresh. Shawarma is the Arabic equivalent of the Greek gyros sandwich or the Turkish döner kebap – strips are sliced from a vertical spit of compressed lamb or chicken, sizzled on a hot plate with chopped tomatoes and garnish, and then stuffed into a pocket of bread. Falafel is mashed chickpeas and spices rolled into balls and deep-fried; a variation known as ta’amiyya, made with dried fava beans, is served in Egypt.
In Egypt look out for shops sporting large metal tureens in the window: these specialise in the vegetarian delight kushari, a delicate mix of noodles, rice, black lentils and dried onions, served with an accompanying tomato sauce that’s sometimes fiery with chilli. An alternative more often seen at Israeli sandwich stands is sabich, a falafel alternative with roast aubergine, boiled egg and potato, and salad with a tangy mango dressing, all stuffed into a pita.
In Lebanon, nothing beats grabbing a freshly baked fatayer bi sbanikh (spinach pastry) from one of the hole-in-the-wall bakeries that dot city streets. In Turkey, visitors inevitably fall deeply in love with melt-in-the-mouth su böreği, a noodle-like pastry oozing cheese and butter.
Variations of the pizza abound, one of the most delicious being Egypt’s fiteer, featuring a base of thin, filo-style pastry. In Turkey, the best cheap snack is pide, the Turkish version of pizza, a canoe-shaped dough topped with peynirli (cheese), yumurta (egg) or kıymalı (mince). A karaşık pide has a mixture of toppings.
The most unassuming of all Middle Eastern fast foods is also one of the most popular. Fuul (fava bean paste) is mopped up by bread for breakfast and ladled into a pocket of bread for a snack on the run. You’ll find it in Egypt (where it’s the national dish), Jordan and Lebanon.
Kebabs & Other Meats
There are more variations on the kebab in this part of the world than you could poke a skewer at. Every country has its specialities – Turkey is understandably proud of its luscious İskender kebap (döner kebap on a bed of pide with a side serving of yogurt) and Lebanon has an unswerving devotion to shish tawooq (grilled chicken kebab, often served with a garlic sauce).
In Iran, even in a restaurant with a long menu, most main-dish options will be kabab. These are served either on bread or as chelo kabab (on a vast mound of rice), and in contrast with the greasy döner kebabs inhaled after rough nights in the West, Iranian kababs are tasty, healthy and cooked shish-style over hot charcoals. They are usually sprinkled with spicy sumaq (sumac) and accompanied by raw onion, grilled tomatoes and, for an extra fee, a bowl of mast (yoghurt).
The kebab might be king in most Middle Eastern countries, but when it comes to meat dishes there are courtiers waiting in the wings. Primary among these is kibbeh, a strong candidate for the title of Lebanon’s national dish. Indeed, these croquettes of ground lamb, cracked wheat, onion and spices are considered the ultimate test of a Lebanese cook’s skills. In Beirut, they’re served raw like a steak tartare, accompanied with fresh mint leaves, olive oil and spring onions. Raw kibbeh (kibbeh nayye) has many variations. In northern Lebanon, you often find mint and fresh chillies mixed through the meat. Kibbeh saniye is kibbeh flattened out on a tray with a layer of spiced lamb and pine nuts in between.
Another culinary star is kofta (spiced ground meat formed into balls; köfte in Turkey), which is served in innumerable ways and is the signature element of the Egyptian favourite daood basha (meatballs cooked in a tagen pot with pine nuts and tomato sauce).
Although not native to the Middle East, rice is a region-wide staple that’s ever-present in home cooking but far less common on restaurant menus. Usually cooked with lamb or chicken, a subtle blend of spices and sometimes saffron, its arrival as the centrepiece of an already groaning table is often a high point of the meal. It’s also the point at which you wish you hadn’t eaten so much mezze.
If your average Middle Easterner loves rice, it’s the Bedu who revere it. Easy to store, transport and cook, rice was perfectly suited to the once-nomadic lifestyle of many Bedu. For this hardy desert people, mensaf (lamb served on a bed of rice and pine nuts and accompanied by a tangy yogurt sauce) is what it’s all about. Such is mensaf’s popularity that you’ll find it on menus in the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.
Another regional rice speciality that won’t disappoint is makloubeh (literally ‘upside-down’) rice. It’s cooked in stock and spices with chickpeas, onions and off-the-bone lamb shanks, and then pressed in a deep bowl and turned upside down to reveal a delicious work of art. The vegetarian version incorporates eggplants with almonds and pine nuts.
Desserts & Sweets
All Middle Easterners love their sweets but they come closest to worshipping them in Turkey. The prince of the regional desserts is undoubtedly muhalabiyya (also known as mahallabiye), a blancmange-like concoction made of ground rice, milk, sugar, and rose or orange water, topped with chopped pistachios and almonds. Almost as popular is ruz bi laban (rice pudding, known as fırın sütlaç in Turkey).
But best of all are the pastries. Although these are sometimes served in restaurants for dessert, they’re just as often enjoyed as an any-time-of-the-day snack. Old favourites include kunafeh, a vermicelli-like pastry over a vanilla base soaked in syrup; and the famous baklava, made from delicate filo drenched in honey or syrup. Variations on baklava (called baghlava in Iran) are flavoured with fresh nuts or stuffed with wickedly rich clotted cream (called kaymak in Turkey, eishta elsewhere).
Food plays an important part in the religious calendar of the region and holy days usually involve a flurry of baking and hours of preparation in the kitchen.
Food & Rites of Passage
In the Middle East, food is always associated with different milestones in an individual’s and a family’s life. When a baby is born, Egyptians mark the birth of a son by serving an aromatic rice pudding with aniseed called meghlie; in Lebanon it’s called mighlay and is made of rice flour and cinnamon. The same dish is called mughly in the Palestinian Territories, where it is believed to aid lactation.
In Lebanon, chickpeas and tooth-destroying sugar-coated almonds are the celebratory treats when the baby’s first tooth pushes through. In Egypt, ataïf (pancakes dipped in syrup) are eaten on the day of a betrothal and biscuits known as kahk bi loz (almond bracelets) are favourites at wedding parties. Turkish guests at engagement parties and weddings are invariably served baklava.
Mourning carries with it a whole different set of eating rituals. A loved one is always remembered with a banquet. This takes place after the burial in Christian communities, and one week later in Muslim communities. The only beverages offered are water and bitter, unsweetened coffee. In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Muslims may serve dates as well, while Christians bake rahmeh, a type of bun commemorating the soul of the departed. Muted varieties of much-loved sweets, such as helva and lokum (Turkish delight), are commonly part of the mourning period in Turkey; a bereaved family will make irmik helvası (semolina helva) for visiting friends and relatives.
When observant Jews mourn the dead, religious dictates urge them to sit around the deceased for seven days and then have a solemn meal of bread, to signify sustenance, and boiled eggs and lentils, whose circular forms invoke the continuation of life.
Ramadan & Other Islamic Celebrations
The region’s most important religious feasts occur during Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish and Farsi), the Muslim holy month. There are two substantial meals a day during this period. The first, imsak (or sahur), is a breakfast eaten before daylight. Tea, bread, dates, olives and pastries are scoffed to give energy for the day ahead. Iftar, the evening meal prepared to break the fast, is a special feast calling for substantial soups, rice dishes topped with almond-scattered grilled meats and other delicacies. Iftar is often enjoyed communally in the street or in large, specially erected tents. In Turkey, a special round flat pide is baked in the afternoon and collected in time for the evening feast.
The end of Ramadan (Eid Al Fitr) is also celebrated in great culinary style. In Turkey, locals mark this important time with Şeker Bayramı (Sugar Festival), a three-day feast in which sweet foods (especially baklava) occupy centre stage.
The Shabbat (Sabbath) meal is an article of faith for most Jews and central to that weekly celebration is the bread known as challah (Sabbath bread), which is baked each week by Jews in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. A slowly cooked heavy stew called cholent is another Sabbath tradition widely enjoyed. Fatty meat, beans, grains, potatoes, herbs and spices stewed for hours in a big pot will heartily serve the family as well as their guests.
The Pesah (Jewish Passover) is celebrated even by the nondevout, which comprises the majority of Israelis. Unleavened bread is the best-known ingredient. During Hanukkah, potato pancakes and special jam doughnuts (soofganiot) are traditional dishes, while Rosh Hashanah means eating sweet foods like apples, carrots or braided challah dipped in honey.
Easter heralds another round of feasting, with Good Friday’s abstinence from meat bringing out dishes such as m’jaddara (spiced lentils and rice) or shoraba zingool (sour soup with small balls of cracked wheat, flour and split peas) in Lebanon. Selak, rolls of silver beet (Swiss chard) stuffed with rice, tomato, chickpeas and spices, are also served. The fast is broken on Easter Sunday with round semolina cakes called maamoul stuffed with either walnuts or dates. The Armenian Christmas, the Epiphany (6 January), has the women busy making owamaut (small, deep-fried honey balls).
Vegetarians & Vegans
Although it’s quite normal for the people of the Middle East to eat a vegetarian meal, the concept of vegetarianism is quite foreign. Say you’re a vegan and they will either look mystified or assume that you’re ‘fessing up to some strain of socially aberrant behaviour.
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to find vegetable-based dishes. You’ll find yourself eating loads of mezze and salads, fuul (fava bean paste), tasty cheese and spinach pastries, the occasional omelette or oven-baked vegetable tagens (stews baked in a terracotta pot) featuring okra and aubergine.
Watch out also for those vegetables that are particular to Middle Eastern cuisine, including molokhiyya (aka moolookhiye or melokhia), a slimy but surprisingly tasty green leafy vegetable known in the West as mallow. In Egypt it’s made into an earthy garlic-flavoured soup that has a glutinous texture and inspires an almost religious devotion among the locals. In Lebanon molokhiyya is used to make strongly spiced lamb and chicken stews.
The main source of inadvertent meat eating is meat stock, which is often used to make otherwise vegetarian pilafs, soups and vegetable dishes. Your hosts may not even consider such stock to be meat, so may assure you that the dish is vegetarian. Chicken and mutton often lurk in vegetable dishes and mezze.
The best country for vegetarians is Israel, where kosher laws don’t permit the mixing of meat and dairy products, resulting in a lot of ‘dairy’ restaurants where no meat is served.