Middle Eastern food is diverse as well as fresh, rich and vibrant. Similarly, the restaurants that their food is served in are lively and full of entertainment and warm hospitality. This culture didn’t come from just anywhere. There’s a reason that Middle Eastern food and restaurants around the world share commonalities in their food and restaurant atmospheres. It is a result of the rich history of Middle Eastern countries and the traditions embedded in its people.
Though Middle Eastern food varies slightly from country to country, they still share many of the same basic ingredients and techniques. Similarly, their restaurants always have similar qualities: vibrance and hospitality. In this article, we’ll discuss the rich history of the foundation of Middle Eastern cuisine and why it is important to know.
Why should we pay attention to the origin of Middle Eastern cuisine?
Learning the history of Middle Eastern food is extremely important in honouring the countries and people who have contributed to this cuisine. Though it may not appear important or necessary, deepening your knowledge of the food you eat can have many benefits such as:
- greater appreciation for the food you eat,
- understanding of the ingredients used to make your food,
- ability to cook Middle Eastern dishes or use Middle Eastern ingredients in your home cooking and,
- better etiquette at Middle Eastern restaurants.
6 elements of Middle Eastern food and their history
Regardless of the specific country, all Middle Eastern food has historically incorporated grains as a major part of their diet. Wheat, rice, barley and freekeh (a grain made from immature green wheat) are commonly seen in many of the popular dishes coming out from this region. With regards to bread, wheat is used to make pita and lavash. Grain supply in the Middle East was extremely important in preventing food riots. Additionally, in many countries, bread made with wheat and softened with olive oil was used to feed people.
Popular dishes such as tabbouleh, kibbeh and riiz bi sh’arieh contain grains.
Excavations in the Middle East discovered trade was driven by spices thousands of years ago because some of the spices found could have only reached those regions through trade. Therefore, it’s no surprise that spices play a major part in Middle Eastern cooking. There are many spices specific to the Middle East that form the identity of many of the dishes. Za’atar, one of the most popular and commonly used spices in the Middle East, has been used since medieval times. Other common spices used in the Middle East include sumac (crushed sour berries), dried thyme, cinnamon, cumin, cloves and coriander.
If you’ve ever visited a Middle Eastern restaurant or eatery, you’d notice that pork is not on the menu. Lamb has always been the preferred meat of choice in the Middle East, especially since both Islam and Judaism, two common religions in the Middle East, prohibit the consumption of pork. Thus, this meat is rarely eaten in the Middle East.
Meats are usually grilled in some fashion or ground and mixed with spices (such as lamb kofta). Kebabs are usually eaten as street food or in a restaurant and not prepared in domestic kitchens in the Middle East. Another way to consume meat is in kibbeh which can be stuffed with camel meat, chicken or lamb. Kibbeh is also served raw by pounding raw meat with burghul and seasoning (called kibbeh nayyeh).
In the Middle East, fruits and vegetables are eaten seasonally. Their cuisine was also formed around what was locally grown and available: chickpeas, fava beans, lentils, olives, eggplant, root and bulb vegetables and parsley. This is one of the reasons why many vegetable-forward dishes were created. Pulses and beans are a crucial element of the diet in the Middle East and thus has made its way into many dishes. For example, fava beans are used in dishes such as traditional falafel and foul medamas or eaten green and dried. Additionally, chickpeas are eaten with hummus, in soups, over rice and of course, in the popular but adapted, falafel.
The Middle East’s dishes are formed around their tradition of mezza. Many dishes are designed to share and do not come as a set meal. Often, they will complement each other and are designed to be picked at. Hummus, muttabbal, pickles and tabbouleh are perfect examples of this.
We hope that this article shed some light on the rich origins of Middle Eastern food. If this inspired you to try authentic Middle-Eastern food then Zahli, Modern Middle Eastern restaurant can gladly provide a memorable and authentic meal. Zahli is here to provide you with a culinary experience like no other. Call us on (02) 9318 2228 to reserve a table or for pick-up orders.