The Middle East was where wheat was first cultivated, followed by barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates and other regional staples. Fermentation was also discovered here to leaven bread and make beer. As a crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, this area has long been a hub of food and recipe exchange.
During the Persian Empire the foundation was laid for Middle Eastern food when rice, poultry and fruits were incorporated into their diets. Figs, dates and nuts were brought by Arabian warriors to conquered lands.
These were only the first influences on the area. During Turkey’s Ottoman Empire the sweet pastries of paper thin phyllo dough and the dense, sweet coffee was brought to the area; coffee is now consumed throughout the Middle East.
The area was also influenced by yoghurt from Russia; dumplings from Mongol invaders; turmeric, cumin, garlic and other spices from India; cloves, peppercorns and allspice from the Spice Islands; okra from Africa; and tomatoes from the New World, via the Moors of Spain.
Religion has also changed the cuisine as neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork, making lamb the primary meat. In addition, the Qur’an forbids alcohol, so consequently the region is not generally noted for its wines.
Many Middle Eastern dishes are made with a paste called tahini. Tahini is a sesame paste made with hulled seeds, unlike its Asian counterpart. It is used to make such popular meze, or appetizers, as baba ghanoush and hummus along with pungent dipping sauces served with falafel, keftes or kofta and vegetables. Hummus is made from chickpeas, which are staples of the diet.
The rich history of Middle Eastern cuisine affords much balance and depth to the variety that is presented at the table. Try out the rich spread that is the Middle Eastern cuisine and get a taste of the best from the past.