The Middle East was where wheat was first cultivated, followed by barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates and other regional staples. Fermentation was also discovered here to leaven bread and make beer. As a crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, this area has long been a hub of food and recipe exchange. During the Persian Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE) the foundation was laid for Middle Eastern food when rice, poultry and fruits were incorporated into their diets. Figs, dates and nuts were brought by Arabian warriors to conquered lands.
These were only the first influences on the area. During Turkey's Ottoman Empire the sweet pastries of paper thin phyllo dough and the dense, sweet coffee was brought to the area; coffee is now consumed throughout the Middle East.
The area was also influenced by yoghurt from Russia; dumplings from Mongol invaders; turmeric, cumin, garlic and other spices from India; cloves, peppercorns and allspice from the Spice Islands; okra from Africa; and tomatoes from the New World, via the Moors of Spain. Religion has also changed the cuisine as neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork, making lamb the primary meat. In addition, the Qur'an forbids alcohol, so consequently the region is not generally noted for its wines.
Many Middle Eastern dishes are made with a paste called tahini. Tahini is a sesame paste made with hulled seeds, unlike its Asian counterpart. It is used to make such popular meze, or appetizers, as baba ghanoush and hummus along with pungent dipping sauces served with falafel, keftes or kofta and vegetables. Hummus is made from chickpeas, which are staples of the diet.
Middle Eastern cuisine is based on healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, fish, lean meat, beans and nuts. It is also known for it aromatic spices and subtle flavors.
Kibbeh is a Levantine Arab dish made of burgul (crushed wheat) or rice and chopped meat. The best-known variety is a torpedo-shaped fried croquette stuffed with minced beef or lamb. Other types of kibbeh may be shaped into balls or patties, and baked or cooked in broth.
Kibbeh is one of the most characteristic foods of Levantine cuisine. It is widespread in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Cyprus (where it is called koupes or koubes), Egypt (where it is called koubeiba), the Arabian Peninsula, Armenia, Israel and several Latin American nations which received part of the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora during the early 20th Century, such as Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras or Mexico.
Shawarma is made by placing strips of beef, lamb or marinated chicken on a stick; an onion or tomato is placed at the top of the stack for flavoring. The meat is roasted slowly on all sides as the spit rotates in front of, or over, a flame for hours (see rotisserie). Traditionally a wood fire was used; currently, a gas flame is common. While specialty restaurants might offer two or more meat selections, some establishments have just one skewer.
After cooking, the meat is shaved off the stack with a large knife, an electric knife or a small circular saw, dropping to a circular tray below to be retrieved. Shawarma is eaten as a fast food, made up into a sandwich wrap with pita bread or rolled up in an Armenian Lavash flatbread together with vegetables and dressing. Vegetables found in shawarma include cucumber, onion, tomato, lettuce, eggplant, parsley, pickled turnips, pickled gherkins, cabbage, and in some countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Jordan, Israel, or the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, french fries.
Dressings include: tahini (or tahina), Amba sauce (pickled mango with Chilbeh), hummus, or flavored with vinegar and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Chicken shawarma is served with garlic mayonnaise, toum (garlic sauce), pomegranate concentrate, or skhug (a hot chili sauce). Once the shawarma is made, it might be dipped in the fat dripping from the skewer and then briefly seared against the flame. In Israel, Syria and Lebanon, chicken shawarma is toasted after being made, whereas those made of lamb or beef are immediately eaten.
Beef can be used for shawarma instead of lamb, and turkey is used instead of chicken. In Saudi Arabia, goat is as common as beef or lamb. Less common alternatives include fish and sausage. Some shawarma stores use hot dog buns or baguettes, but most have pita and lavash. Sometimes, beef shawarma—despite its name—contains some lamb in addition to the beef, to ensure juiciness.
Baba ghanoush is an Arab dish of aubergine (eggplant) mashed and mixed with various seasonings. A popular preparation method is for the eggplant to be baked or broiled over an open flame before peeling, so that the pulp is soft and has a smoky taste. Often, it is eaten as a dip with khubz or pita bread, and is sometimes added to other dishes. It is usually of an earthy light-brown color. It is popular in the Levant and Egypt.
Hummus is a Levantine Arab dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. It is a popular food throughout the Middle East and elsewhere.
Falafel is made from fava beans or chickpeas or a combination of the two. The Egyptian variety uses fava beans, while the use of chickpeas is predominant in other Middle Eastern countries. The word is derived from the Arabic word for nourishment. Palestinians and Yemenite Jews in Jerusalem have historically prepared falafel only from chickpeas. The beans are not cooked prior to use. Instead they are soaked with baking soda, then ground together with various ingredients including onion, parsley, sesame seeds, and spices such as cumin and coriander. The mixture is shaped into balls or patties. This can be done by hand or with a tool called an aleb falafel. The mixture is then deep fried.
Dolma is a family of stuffed vegetable dishes in the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and surrounding regions such as Russia, Iran and the Caucasus and Central and South Asia. Perhaps the best-known is the grape-leaf dolma. Common vegetables to stuff include zucchini, eggplant, tomato and pepper. The stuffing may or may not include meat. Meat dolma are generally served warm, often with sauce; meatless ones are generally served cold.
The filling generally consists of rice, minced meat or grain. In either case, the filling includes onion, parsley, herbs and spices. Meatless fillings are cooked with olive oil and include raisins, nuts or pulses.
Baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. It is characteristic of the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and much of central and southwest Asia.