Food from the Middle East has risen in popularity over the last few years, both in the number of restaurants and its overall popularity online. Middle Eastern Instagram food bloggers, TikTokers and YouTubers alike have become increasingly mainstream, demonstrating the variety and ranging flavours of the different regions. Our spices, cooking techniques and dishes are now admired instead of ignored for being different, proving to us that the internet can, at times, be a thing of beauty.
One thing to note about Middle Easterns – we will argue about where a dish originates. Falafel has been claimed by countries across the Levant, as has Shawarma, Biryani… the list continues. Despite this, our hospitality and need to feed our loved ones is unanimous. Whether it’s Tagine from Al Maghreb, a Jordanian Mansaf, an Egyptian Koshari or a Levantine Shawarma (I will not specify a country for fear of upsetting another), our recipes have one thing in common: flavour.
The simplest way to address recipes from the Middle East is by acknowledging that most of us will agree on a country’s national dish (will I regret this statement?). In Jordan, Mansaf is a no brainer. Funnily enough, you will not often find people who live in Jordan making their Mansaf at home anymore. The number of places that make this fantastic dish to order is astounding, and given that it truly is a labour of love, if you can order it and it tastes even better than the homemade version, saving you hours of arm-aching yogurt stirring, you’d take it. Abroad, sadly, we must endure the stirring and make it at home, but the result is always a crowd pleaser.
Mansaf begins with a layer of shrak bread, which is an ultra-thin flatbread. It’s then topped with a layer of yellow rice (stained with some gorgeous saffron). The aforementioned arm-ache causer is the liquid fermented yogurt – Jameed. This is a traditional Bedouin ingredient; it comes in a hard ball format and is grated into water or stock, mixed for what seems like an infinite time to thicken it, and creates the liquid that is then ladled over the rice and bread. This is all topped with lamb, fried pine nuts and almonds, then given another ladling of the yogurt, with bowls of it on the side for extra drenching.
Some will argue that this is a Palestinian-Jordanian dish, but to be honest, I feel like each country should have one national dish to make it fair, and in Palestine, it’s Msakhan.
Before I begin, let me note that some may say that Palestine’s national dish is Maqloubeh (translates to upside down!). Since this is a dish made across the Levant, I don’t want to anger anyone and claim it, and Msakhan is more widely believed to be exclusively a Palestinian dish, so let’s leave it at that.
Sumac, the crimson, tangy spice that is so dearly loved in the Middle East, is the star of the show here, as is olive oil – in fact, this is why Msakhan is so important in Palestine. The dish was created as a way to use all the olive oil we produce year round, and Msakhan is certainly a great way to let it shine.
If you dislike caramelised onions, look away now. Msakhan begins with a layer of shrak bread, just like Mansaf. It’s then topped with an abundance of sweet, caramelised onions cooked down in sumac. Finally, this whole affair is finished with roast chicken, rubbed in sumac. If you want to be traditional, this is the kind of dish that’s served in a large tray, in the middle of a table, where everyone eats with their hands. In my house, admittedly, we will choose the easier route and just wrap the chicken and onions in the shrak bread, toast them, and eat them like wraps. They taste just as good, but arguably not as fun to eat.
We’ve covered 2 dishes from the Levant, but the Middle East spreads across Asia and North Africa, and we cannot forget about our brothers and sisters from Al Maghreb, so let’s talk about Tagine.
Tagine from Al Maghreb
Tagine refers to both the dish, and the stunning clay pots that it’s cooked in. You could cook this dish in a regular pot, but one thing I love about Tagine is that it maintains its origins through its cooking method, plus, the clay pot infuses the flavours into the food delectably.
You’ll notice I call it Al Maghreb. Since North Africa includes countries like Egypt, where Tagine is not typically cooked, you can’t really call it North African Tagine. Al Maghreb includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya – plus Mauritania, but they don’t tend to serve Tagine their either.
North African flavours differ to the ones we use in the Levant – Ras el Hanout is one that stands out, and they also like to mix sweet, briny, and savoury flavours together, which is why you’ll often see prunes or preserved lemons used. Cooking Tagine is quite simple – onions and garlic are often fried in the clay pot over the stove, then topped with seasoned meat, topped with water and covered until cooked, or finished in the oven. Different meats call for different toppings – chicken is often served with preserved lemons and green olives, and lamb or beef are served with prunes, or peas and olives. This isn’t definite though, as each family, and each country, has their own take on how they serve their Tagine. What I do know is that little clay pot is mighty, and makes a hearty stew perfectly paired with some warm bread for dipping.
Saudi Arabian Kabsa
The majority of countries have some kind of chicken and rice variant, and in Saudi, it’s Kabsa. Kabsa (and its other versions) differ across the Gulf and the Arab Peninsula, so once again we are faced with the debates experienced in the Levant, but I digress.
The appealing part of Kabsa is that it’s a one-pot dish, where the spiced rice and succulent chicken are piled on top of each other, creating an aromatic dish that’s full of flavour. A lot more spices are used in this dish – you can buy Kabsa spices, but you can make these at home too. Kabsa uses spices like cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, 7 spices, coriander and black pepper. It’s also encouraged to use whole spices where possible, for the added flavour. The stand out ingredient in Kabsa is dried lemon or black lime powder, which add a complex, sour element to this dish. Kabsa is also traditionally made with Basmati rice.
Onions and garlic are fried in ghee before topping with the chicken and spices, then adding tomato paste and water, and boiling until the chicken is cooked through. The chicken is then removed and broiled in the oven for colour, while the rice is added to that same pot and cooked in the broth. The result is a fluffy, flavourful dish that can be served with salad, yogurt and shatta (a red chilli paste).
Lebanon (and the Levant)
This heading proves exactly what I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
To the Western world, and really any non-Middle Easterns, ‘Lebanese food’ is often just used as an umbrella term for dishes like falafel, hummus and shawarma. Really, these dishes don’t have an agreed-upon origin, so each country in the Levant argues that their version is the best. To be honest, this theory applies across the board to not only Middle Eastern food, but any cuisine – each family has their own way of making a dish, and we just need to accept that.
Arguably, Kibbeh is (one of) Lebanon’s national dishes. Shaped like a hybrid of a rugby ball and an American football, Kibbeh is filled with a mixture of minced meat, onions and spices, where the outer layer is made up of bulgur wheat. They are then deep fried, and the result: crispy, crunchy goodness. Another dish argued to be Lebanon’s national dish is Tabbouleh, a tangy salad consisting mostly of parsley, bulgur, olive oil and lots and lots of lemon juice.
Knafeh is a good example to demonstrate what I mean when I say that each country has their own take on a dish. Knafeh itself is a layer of melted cheese topped with either fine semolina or kataifi (shredded phyllo pastry), and drenched in orange blossom syrup. Palestinian Knafeh alone has it’s own variations, most well-known for their Knafeh Nabulsi, which originates from the city of Nablus. Lebanese Knafeh is usually the fine semolina version, except they stuff it between 2 layers of warm kaak bread, for the ultimate indulgence.
The dishes we serve in the Middle East vary greatly across the regions, countries, cities and even people’s homes. Middle Eastern food encompasses everything from hummus, to Kabsa, to Tagine, to Mansaf. The quality we maintain across the board is that we welcome everyone with open arms and feel nothing but joy when we get to cook our food for someone new, because hospitality and kindness is at the core of every Middle Eastern dish you try.
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!