In the last decade, Middle Eastern cuisine has experienced a considerable rise in its global profile. It’s little surprise to those who have already sampled the rich, aromatic and multi-dimensional dishes that families throughout the region get to enjoy every day of the week. The diversity of flavours and textures is unlike anything you would find on a Westernised restaurant menu. Without further ado, here are the top 9 authentic dishes you should try whenever you’re in the Middle East.
This is the closest thing you’ll find to a pizza in the Middle East. A manakeesh is a popular Levantine flatbread snack, topped with ground meats, cheese and fresh thyme. There’s a host of other toppings you can get involved with, such as onion and tomato, keshek (a highly nutritious powdered cereal) and za’atar (another long, green herb with a thyme-like flavour). Locals will either devour this as a breakfast or lunchtime snack to keep them going throughout the day.
Undoubtedly one of the most successful Middle Eastern dishes to transcend western cultures is falafel. The word falafel comes from the Arabic word ‘falafil’, which is plural for ‘filfil’, meaning pepper. These vegetarian fritters contain healthy doses of onion, garlic, parsley and a host of other spices, combined with chickpeas or fava beans. They work perfectly as a light snack, dipped in tahini or hummus, as well as toum, a Middle Eastern garlic-based dip.
3) BABA GHANOUSH
If you’re a fan of aubergine, we guarantee you’ll be intrigued by this smoky dish which is either eaten as a side dish or used as a dip. It comprises of cooked aubergine that’s gently mashed together with tahini, olive oil and a host of addictive spices and flavours – garlic, lemon juice and cumin to name but a few. What’s great about baba ghanoush is that it packs a punch of flavour but is almost always one of the cheapest sides available on menus throughout the Middle East. Families throughout the region are divided on what makes the best baba ghanoush. This Guardian article perfectly describes the plentiful versions.
Shawarma is arguably the most popular street food on the streets of the Arabian Peninsula. Its roots stem from the Ottoman Empire, where meats such as chicken, lamb, turkey, or veal are fixed to a spit and grilled slowly for up to 24-hours. Shavings of meat are taken off the spit and served on a plate with side dishes such as tabbouleh and fattoush or within a wrap or sandwich.
You might be wondering what the difference is between shawarma and gyros, but there are subtle differences. For instance, shawarma’s seasoning is quite different in that it uses turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Its garnishes are also different, with generous servings of sides and pickled vegetables on offer. Deliveroo recently profiled a shawarma restaurant in Dubai, Shawarma Time, that’s bringing a new lease of life to the dish with a global approach to cooking.
Dolma is another popular vegetarian dish that has transcended other parts of the world. Although it originated in the Middle East, Dolma is also a popular Mediterranean dish. These stuffed vine leaves are usually prepared with olive oil, before being filled with rice and served cold as a light bite with a refreshing garlic-infused yoghurt dressing. Last year, dolma-making by the people of Azerbaijan was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site.
Particularly popular in Persian cuisine, kofte kebabs consist of spicy balls of minced lamb or beef. They can be barbecued, fried, grilled or even baked, depending on your preference. The best way to enjoy a fresh kofte is to serve your minced balls with a tangy, spicy sauce. On the Arabian Peninsula, kofte is usually cooked and served on sticks to make things easier to transport and eat. Most kebab shops in the UK will offer some form of kofte as a takeaway which is a good starting point before your visit to the Middle East.
Don’t be put off by how mansaf is often presented. It might not look overly appealing, but this melt-in-the-mouth lamb dish is the national dish of Jordan and is well worth the wait. It’s a very popular group dish to be shared with family or friends. The lamb is cooked in a sauce based around fermented dried yoghurt and served with a side of bulgur or rice. In Jordan, the locals will eat their mansaf using the fingertips of their right hand.
Knafeh is one of the most traditional Middle Eastern desserts you’ll find on your travels. Made using cheese pastry that’s soaked for a period in a sweet, sugary syrup, the pastry is light and fluffy and topped with pistachio nuts as a garnish. The first instances of the dessert date back to the 10th century, in the Palestinian city of Nablus. It is here where the world’s largest ever plate of knafeh was made, securing a place in the Guinness World Records, weighing 1,350kg!
If your taste buds are tempted by hearty, wholesome dishes, you’ll find it impossible not to be enchanted by the Persian classic, Fesenjoon. This slow-cooked stew sees tender chunks of chicken cooked slowly in a sauce comprised of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup. These ingredients contrast wonderfully over time to provide an addictive balance of nutty and tangy, sweet and sour tones. Locals will add a dollop of yoghurt on the side to balance out the sweetness, depending on their taste.
Hopefully this article serves to underline the diversity in Middle Eastern cooking. Many of these dishes you will never have heard of, but we can guarantee they will linger in the mind once you’ve had a taste!
We hope that this article has inspired you to try Middle Eastern dishes! If you have any questions please leave these in the comments below.
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