Get to know The Essentials of Middle Eastern CookingOctober 13, 2016
For a quick guide to the essentials of Middle Eastern cooking that will transport you to the bustling markets of Turkey or Iraq, or a welcoming banquet in Lebanon, look no further than this handy visual guide!
How could we start this list with anything else? Ancient olive trees grow in abundance around Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Syria… right across the Middle East. Well and truly established in most Aussie kitchens, its worth reminding yourself what olive oil is most suited to. High heats and deep frying aren’t where it’s at, but when used in vinaigrettes for salads, in hummus, or for gentle frying, olive oil is your guy.
Also known as halaby pepper or pul biber, this mild dried pod is dried and crushed to create a sweet, lively flavour similar to that of sundried tomatoes. If you’ve never tried it before, a sprinkle on top of freshly made hummus or baba ganoush is exceptional.
Couscous is actually the name of the North African dish in which a meal of cooked meat and vegetables with steamed balls of semolina was traditionally prepared. In modern times and Western grocery stores, most of us know couscous as the the grains of durum wheat semolina themselves. Our instant store bought version is pre-steamed and dried, which means it’s ready in just 5 minutes. For a side, we reckon that’s a pretty impressive PB.
Ras El Hanout
Ras El Hanout is translated from Arabic literally as “the head of the shop” – or top shelf – and refers to a blend of a spicemaster’s very best. While the exact makeup of the spice blend is debated (some purists demand exactly 12, which sounds a little finicky to us), it’s commonly agreed that coriander seeds, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, nutmeg and turmeric are all in this delightful mix that’s great as a marinade or base for a stew.
My Lebanese relatives look upon a kitchen with no lemons and despair! For sweet dishes and savoury, in salad dressings, roasted, preserved, added to dips and marinades, lemons provide the hit of acidity for a huge number of Middle Eastern dishes. Don’t neglect the zest for a bitter edged tang.
Powdered sumac as you can find in Middle Eastern spice shops is actually the dried, crushed version of small, reddish purple fruits that grow on stalks a little like wattle. Their condensed crushed form is citrussy and bold. Traditionally added to rice and kebabs in Iran, it’s also excellent with fresh pita or Lebanese bread, dipped in olive oil and then sumac as a snack. Divine!
Both thyme and lemon thyme are essential to Middle Eastern flavours. For a very special side, try garnishing fried halloumi with fresh thyme, some olive oil and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses. The armoatic, almost sweet quality of thyme makes it an easy addition to loads of dishes.
Another hard working spice blend, za’atar is commonly comprised of oregano, lemon thyme, dired sumac, salt and sesame seeds. za’atar is perfect enjoyed uncooked or used as a rub or seasoning for roast veggies.
The unusual acidic makeup of halloumi means it doesn’t respond like other cheeses to heat – hello, fried slices of delight! Halloumi’s mild, salty flavour is beautiful when paired with something sweet, or even a little fresh mint.
A few strands of this precious floral stamen will transform rice into a vibrant yellow dish fit for a king.
Absolutely delicious and a real hero for anyone having a vegan or plant based diet, tahini is actually a paste made from crushed sesame seeds! Add it for creaminess in dips like hummus, drizzle it over salads, use it as a crust on roast chicken, and even enjoy in sweet dishes – it pairs amazingly well with honey and chocolate!
A huge favourite in Australian households, especially in Greek cooking, we love it in an Israeli inspired bowl bursting with vegetarian goodness like chickpeas and pearly Isreali couscous.
A refreshing hit in so many dishes, mint has to be an essential of Middle Eastern cooking, adding its green, fresh note to countless garnishes and salads like tabouleh and fattoush.
Intense, ruby red, acidic and fruity, pomegranate molasses is like the reduced balsamic vinegar of the Middle East. Try it in your next vinaigrette and see if you don’t enjoy the subtle difference!
Bulgur wheat is a clean, parboiled, whole grain that is versatile and loaded with nutrition. It has a mild, nutty flavour with a size similar to quinoa and a coarse texture like that of brown rice. Served with plenty of fresh parsley, ripe tomatoes, and lemon juice, this is a great, healthy twist on a Middle Eastern mezze.