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Manaeesh a guide to middle eastern ingredients
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A Beginner’s Guide to Middle Eastern Ingredients

The ingredients used in day-to-day Middle Eastern cooking have risen in popularity over recent years. We went from explaining what hummus and falafel were made of to finding thousands of recipes of everyone’s takes on our dishes. More recently, spices like Zaatar have become commonly known and used in non-Middle Eastern contexts.

The way Middle Eastern ingredients are used by us versus others differs greatly. I’ve seen incredibly complex and innovative uses for our simple spices, in ways that we probably wouldn’t even consider trying. Middle Eastern cooking is actually quite simple – our techniques aren’t out of the ordinary. We like to let the main ingredients shine, but what makes Middle Eastern cooking unique are the actual spices and ingredients we use.


zaatar Middle Eastern ingredients

Zaatar, at its core, is a herb. It’s best described as a combination of oregano and thyme, used differently based on whether it’s fresh, dried, or in its spice format. Zaatar is also a spice – the herb is dried and mixed with sumac, salt, and sesame seeds. Nowadays you’ll find Zaatar sprinkled into a brunch dish, but in the Middle East, it’s really used in one of two ways. Grab some warm bread, dip it into olive oil, then into the Zaatar, and enjoy. This is still one of my favourite ways to eat it – you can delight in the flavour of the Zaatar and olive oil; simplicity at its finest. The other way is to mix the Zaatar with olive oil until it forms a runny paste, and spread it on top of dough to make Manaeesh. These are Middle Eastern flatbreads, similar to pizza, and can also be topped with cheese or meat. Paired perfectly with a cup of fresh mint tea, Zaatar Manaeesh is one of life’s truest pleasures.

I must admit, when I first started seeing Zaatar get used beyond these ways, it was a little frustrating. I wanted people to use it ‘properly’, but really, is there a proper way to eat anything? Once it tastes good, used with respect, and the ingredient isn’t being butchered, it’s fair game.

Something as simple as adding Zaatar to this roast chicken recipe works perfectly – we would normally add thyme to our chicken, so why wouldn’t Zaatar work? Another idea is to toss some Zaatar onto homemade popcorn – it’s a wonderful savoury combination.

Other ways that would be more stereotypically Middle Eastern would be sprinkling it over Labneh with some olive oil, or making Zaatar pita chips in the oven. A snack I absolutely love to make is Greek yogurt, olive oil, cucumber and Zaatar – delicious.


sumac Middle Eastern ingredients

Sumac is a crimson red spice that’s very tart, similar to lemon juice, but a little more floral. Because it has such a strong sour taste, it has very specific uses. One of them, which is my favourite way to use it, is mixed into a fattoush salad. Fattoush is a salad with added zhuzh. You have the basic ingredients – lettuce, cucumber, onion, tomato, bell peppers – plus a few more non-traditional salad ingredients, like fresh and dried mint. Finally, it’s topped with crispy fried bread, and sometimes with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses (Middle Easterns love their tart flavours, clearly). The dressing is simple, just olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Sumac is mixed in at the end, which is what separates fattoush from a regular mixed salad. In my family, we make fattoush during the month of Ramadan, and dare I say, my dad’s fattoush is the best.

We also use Sumac in Palestine’s national dish, Msakhan. This is where the sumac flavour really shines. The traditional way begins with a few layers of taboon bread (very thin flatbreads), topped with a rather comical amount of caramelised onions that have been cooked down in Sumac, followed by a sumac-rubbed roast chicken. Traditionally eaten with your hands and shared with a large crowd of people, Msakhan emulates Middle Eastern hospitality by essentially feeding a village. An easier method of cooking and eating Msakhan is by adding the above ingredients into the bread and roll them up like a wrap. Less messy to eat, but also less fun.

Because of Sumac’s strong taste, you’ll have to be okay with it outshining a lot of the flavours you use in a particular recipe. Something as simple as baked potato/ sweet potato wedges sprinkled with Sumac would work perfectly. I’ve seen a few dessert recipes using sumac – possibly a little adventurous, but I could understand how Sumac’s tang would cut through a decadent caramel sauce, so I wouldn’t be opposed!


tahini Middle Eastern ingredients

Tahini works in both savoury and sweet contexts, making it a much more versatile ingredient. Tahini is a thick and nutty paste made of ground sesame seeds. It’s typically mixed in with hummus, giving it that creamy texture. Alternatively, we mix tahini with lemon juice and water and we drizzle it on falafel or lamb shawarma. We also like to use it as a dip for fish by adding tomatoes, parsley and lemon.

Middle Eastern cooking wouldn’t typically use tahini in desserts, but mixed with date syrup, it’s the perfect dip for some crunchy toast. This is the kind of thing my parents would make us eat if we had a sore throat – the thick tahini and date syrup are extremely soothing!

I first came across tahini in a dessert context when it was used in a chocolate cookie recipe. It was baffling – tahini was only ever eaten with falafel! Tahini is very similar to peanut butter, which is a common ingredient in desserts, so why can’t tahini be too? Swirling tahini into brownie batter before baking sounds like an absolute treat.


chickpeas Middle Eastern ingredients

Probably the most popular ingredient on this list, chickpeas have never been exclusive to Middle Eastern cooking. In our context, chickpeas are used to make hummus and falafel. They’re also used whole into some stews and rice dishes we’d have for dinner, but are always the ingredient pushed aside by kids, until they realise it’s the same ingredient used to make hummus and falafel!

A dish that is not as well known but is my personal favourite way to use chickpeas is Msabaha. It’s served warm, and the chickpeas are mostly left whole with a few mashed up for texture. It’s drizzled with tahini, lemon, garlic, chilli and lots of olive oil, and served with warm pita.

Since the flavour of chickpeas is quite mild, they take on seasonings quite well – most popularly, cumin. Chickpeas are used in a variety of cuisines, and since they’re a great source of protein, they make regular appearances in vegetarian and vegan cooking. No waste is produced if you’re using canned chickpeas either, since the liquid in the cans (called aquafaba) can be used as an alternative to egg whites. Chickpeas are the most versatile ingredient, and can be used in anything from simple roasted, crispy chickpeas that are added into a salad bowl, to a hearty chickpea curry, to the base for a wholesome veggie burger.


dates Middle Eastern ingredients

Dates are quite a sacred ingredient in the Middle East. They’re used to break fasts during the holy month of Ramadan, and then again to stuff into Maamoul for Eid.

Maamoul is a sweet treat made in bulk to celebrate Eid – it’s made from semolina flour and ghee and stuffed with either dates, pistachios or walnuts. Beautifully patterned and uniquely textured, they mark the end of Ramadan with a nod to the humble dried fruit used to break our fasts at the end of each day.

It’s heartwarming to see dates used in a number of desserts nowadays – you’ll catch them in smoothies, protein balls, or just straight up stuffed. Dates are also unique in that despite having a high sugar content, they have a low GI, meaning they’re less likely to spike your blood sugar. Because dates are such a natural sweetener, they’re great to use as an alternative to sugar in dessert recipes, like these Peanut Butter Apple Blondies with Salted Date Caramel. Using dates in brownies also works great, but my favourite non-Middle Eastern dessert to use them in is Sticky Toffee Pudding. When I first made this I was so surprised to find out that dates were such a prominent ingredient, but it made me that much happier to add it to my regular dessert rotation.

Whether you’re just discovering these ingredients for the first time, or you’re looking for a way to expand your horizons, Zaatar, Sumac, Tahini, Chickpeas and Dates are just scratching the surface of the myriad Middle Eastern ingredients out there for you to experiment with.

Article by Sara Abdulmagid

I’m a Palestinian who grew up in Cyprus and moved to Dublin in 2013, so I’ve had a mishmash of different cultures and cuisines surrounding me my whole life. I’m an avid foodie, and after realising that life as a lawyer was not for me, I studied media and became a radio host for Dublin City FM. I’m now writing for TheTaste full time, but I also have my own food blog where you can find a mixture of restaurant reviews and the occasional recipe. I talk a lot about being Palestinian; to be honest, I talk a lot in general. That’s why I did radio!

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