A Guide To Middle Eastern Cuisines

April 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Crossroad of Asia, Feature Highlights, Gourmet

Food is one of the most unique item pertaining to one’s culture, and one that is an important part to traveling nowadays. Here at Unearthing Asia, we are all for wacky eats and local street food, as you can see from our recent coverage of HK Street Food, Khmer Cuisines, Macau’s Food Guide and India’s Culinary Adventures. Here’s another food guide for your perusal, this time, to Middle Eastern Cuisines!

Middle Eastern cuisines come in a wide variety of taste, shape and color. Each country adds their own distinct touches to the mix, completing a vibrant map of culinary delights throughout the region. A common bond between them however, is the usage of aromatic spices. Honey, sumac, sesame seeds, parsley, mint and chickpeas – these are a few of the common ingredients you’ll find throughout the region. While a meal may exclude meat, it is almost never without the region’s staple food, bread.

Mezze. Photo credit - Kake Pugh and patrn.

Mezze. Photo credit - Kake Pugh and patrn.

Mezze (or Appetizers)

When you are in Lebanon, order a course of mezze and you’ll realize right away why the tables are all super large. You’ll be served with dozens of small dishes with exotic tidbits all placed on the table at once. Some of the more common mezzes are the baba ghanouj, an eggplant dip; borek, feta-stuffed phyllo pastries and dolmas, stuffed grape leaves. The baba ghanouj is especially tasty, but be warned – it can be quite spicy!

Khoresh and Iskender. Photo credit - roboppy and Serdar's.

Khoresh and Iskender. Photo credit - roboppy and Serdar's.

Main Courses

Depending on the country you are in, the main course could vary between kebabs of grilled chicken or lamb; felafels, deep-fried chickpea balls; khoresh, lamb stew in a sweet-sour sauce. It may even contain a number of rice dishes that is mixed with meats, vegetables, fruits and nuts.

For the uninitiated, kebabs are generally grilled or broiled meats over skewer or sticks. Since Muslims do not consume pork, the most commonly used meat are chicken, beef and lamb. It has become a part of everyday multicultural cuisines around the globe. Iskender kebab is a famed specialty from Bursa, northern Turkey, in which thinly cut grilled lamb is basted with tomato sauce over pide bread and generously slathered with melted butter and yogurt.

Bread and Vegetables. Photo credit - Sifu Renka and chota.

Bread and Vegetables. Photo credit - Sifu Renka and chota.

Vegetables, Salads and Breads

This is the usual companion of meals. Among the common ones are Tabboulleh (tart parsley), sautéed tomato and eggplant with yogurt, spinach, pita, flat breads and the traditional Jewish Challah.

Baklava. Photo credit - NotLiz and su_lin.

Baklava. Photo credit - NotLiz and su_lin.

Desserts and Snacks

You are normally served a small cup of sweet, thick, coffee. One thing I learned is to leave the sludge at the bottom. It can give your throat an itchy, uneasy feeling, unless if you are in Iran where you are normally served tea. Other desserts include baklava and perhaps almond crusted cookies as well. Desserts are usually served only when entertaining, but for those who fancy desserts on their own, most bakeries tend to sell sweet pastries and the likes to curb your sweet tooth cravings.

Brides Fingers (Asabia el Aroos) are slender crisps of filo filled with sweetened nuts that are popular with the locals. They are comparable to the likes of baklava, but with lower calories and fat. Protein and fiber are in abundance due to the inclusion of nuts.

Meals in the Middle East are often eaten using your hands, following the Islamic tradition that is prevalent in the region. If you’re uncomfortable with this, don’t hesitate to ask for a fork and spoon, but if you are to try using your hand, avoid eating with the left hand. It is forbidden in Islamic tradition to do so, and because you usually share a communal plate with the rest of the guests you will unwittingly spoil the whole plate.

Enjoyed this article? Check out our other food-related travel inspirations –
Dim Sum GuideMalaysian CuisineUnusual Asian Delicacies

About the Author. Char Magalong. Char Magalong, freelance web designer and programmer, spent two years living, working and traveling in Singapore. Another two years stint right after that in Malaysia led to homesickness, after which she promptly returned to the Philippines. With her myriad of treasured experiences for apt comparison, she comments regularly on the beauty of Philippines and its surrounding country side.