The Middle East’s cuisine is, perhaps the largest unifying factor in an otherwise disparate part of the world. Far more than just ‘the land of milk and honey’, the region is rich in oils, spices, fruits and flowers.
Nicknamed the granary of the Roman Empire, flours, pulses and grains have been embedded into Middle Eastern cuisine for centuries. They are still the backbone of most dishes: couscous, bulgur wheat, freekeh, rice, semolina, fava beans and flat bread. Chickpeas for hummus and falafel and sesame seeds for oil, tahini and halva.
Far more than just ‘the land of milk and honey’, the region is rich in oils, spices, fruits and flowers.
Spices are important in colouring and flavouring dishes. Sumac, za’atar and baharat are rubbed into meat before cooking. Cumin and coriander are used in lamb koftas, and tagines are infused with saffron. Main courses mix sweet and savoury – lamb with prunes, chicken with orange and couscous with sultanas. Desserts are sticky and sweet from atar syrup, flower water and nuts, and are often enjoyed with black coffee or herbal tea.
Both the Ottolenghi and Moro have revolutionised Britain’s perception of Middle Eastern cuisine. For a more academic understanding, try Claudia Roden’s Arabesque. Arto Der Haroutunian’s Middle Eastern Cookery also contains some great recipes, as does Malouf, which is targeted at more ambitious cooks.