Growing up with middle eastern decent, I am used to eating a “mediterranean diet” or essentially a diet rich in meats, grains, vegetables, fruits, and olive oil being my primary source of fat. Arabs, Persians, and Turks enjoy eating different kinds of stews made with vegetables like okra, grean beans, black eyed peas, and cannilini beans with juicy chunks of lamb over rice. This is a staple household meal that is loved by many because it encompasses all the facets of being a full complete wholesome meal.
Dolmas: A very common mediterranean food staple, literarily meaning stuffed. Dolmas can range from stuffed grapevine leaves, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, cabbage, and many MORE! We LOVE stuffing anything we can get our hands into and most often the stuffing we use is a mixture of rice and fresh herbs, olive oil, lemon, spices, and maybe sometimes even ground meat. One of my absolute favorites are the yaprak dolmas, or the stuffed grapevine leaves because I love their tanginess and bright crips flavor from the pomegranate molasses. The grapevine leaves are very labor intensive and require lots of time to make, but they are absolutely worth it. It is traditional and thought of to be stress relieving when making dolmas because ladies get together to chat and catch up all while rolling up approximately 100’s of these tiny dolmas. I know I help my mom a plenty when doing this;)
Salads are another food staple for almost any dinner table and they range from an extremely simple tomato cucumber salad with olive oil and lemon to more elaborate salads like fatoush, tabbouli, and the famous Turkish patlicanli salatasi. Our salads are colorful and hearty and often times enhanced by bright flavors of mint, lemon, and drizzled with olive oil.
Kebabs- we love eating meat…thats an understatement actually. It would almost be a sin for any Arab to be vegetarian because our cuisine revolves around meat…kebabs, koftes, and used as a stuffing. Theres nothing better than a family barbecue that includes big juicy chunks of lamb marinated and grilled to perfection and heavily spiced beef koftes.
Grains- Rice, couscous, and bulgur are the most commonly used grains in the Middle Eastern cuisine. Rice types vary based on the meal, but the most popular is the basmati because of how light and fluffy it is making it applicable and appropriate to use with a wide variety of dishes. Couscous is consumed more by the Moroccans and Tunisians as they treat this fragile grain as rice. However, couscous can also be consumed as a sweet dish and is known in Egypt as dessert that is cooked and sautéed in butter and topped with sugar, cinnamon, nuts, and raisins. Bulgur is another versatile grain and is actually one of the most nutritious because of its high fiber content and whole grain qualities.
It is often used in the Kisir, turkish salad that mixes bulgur with red pepper paste, onions, pomegranate molasses, lemon, olive oil, tomatoes, and parsley. In addition it is also the primary ingredient in the famous tabouli salad. This grain is also cooked plain and consumed with stews, vegetables, as a side to kofte and kebabs, and many more.
Spices- We love using plenty of spices in our food and nothing more is despised by Arabs than bland food. Lemony zaater, fragrant cumin, and enticing sumac are some of the most common spices used in our cuisine. In addition, we also use chili powder, red pepper flakes, and paprika. The use of these spices when added to a couple of ingredients can make a meal incredibly flavor despite its simplicity. Try drizzling some olive oil on pita bread and sprinkling zaater on top and place in the oven for 5 minutes for a delicious mezze/ light lunch known as a “manoush” and be prepared for an incredibly delicious explosion of flavors in your mouth! 😉
Dairy Products- we love a wide variety of dairy products and even drink a form of minty milk known as Persian doogh with our meals. Using fresh and the best quality dairy products is crucial to obtaining the best flavor. In creating labnah, a Lebanese dip made from cream and topped with olive oil, olives, and more zaater (picture to the left). The Persian doogh is made from yogurt that has been watered down and mixed with dried mint(picture to the right). In addition, we also LOVE our feta cheese and use it for everything. Added to salads, sandwiches, a breakfast staple, and even sometimes on pizzas. We love yogurt so much and often times eat it plain as a side with many of our foods because of its ability to clean the palate and make and cut down through any grease/ heaviness that can be present. In fact, the CEO of Chobani, the # 1 selling greek yogurt brand in America, is a Turkish man who grew up on a farm and wanted to bring the authenticity of yogurt to America!
With any cuisine and with any food, it is important to keep in mind that MODERATION is key! Yes you can eat red meat, grains, dairy, and fat. The most important thing is to enjoy the food with those you love. Its about enjoying the food in the presence of loved ones or in the case of yaprak, rolling the dolmas with those you love 😉 The Middle Eastern cuisine features some of the most beautiful combinations of food and spices the are enticing and fragrant. This cuisine is actually very heart healthy and low in fat because of our frequent use of olive oil as our choice of fat. We love making vegetable stews, eating plentiful of meats that are grilled and eating hearty grains like bulgur.
Here is a recipe for one of my favorite salads ever! It is is called Kisir, a Turkish bulgur salad, that makes a wonderful side to fish, chicken, kebabs, or even served in lettuce leaves as a mezze! This salad is high in fiber, protein, heart healthy fats, and plenty of nutrients from the vegetables! Hearty, tangy, and delicious! Afiyet Olsun as the Turks would say 😉
2 Cups of Bulgur
2 cups hot water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons red pepper paste
1 teaspoon red peper flakes
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 green onions
1 medium yellow onion
salt & pepper
juice of 2 lemons
Mix the bulgur wheat, salt, ground black pepper, red pepper flakes, tomato paste, red pepper paste and the chopped onion and mix very well. Pour the hot water over this mixture and stir, then leave to stand for about 15 minutes. It should absorb all the water by the end of this period. The bulgur should be of a dry consistency. Add the lemon juice and the pomegranate syrup together with the extra virgin olive oil and mix well again. Stir in the remaining ingredients and combine thoroughly.
Check out Maureen Abood’s blog, an American- Lebanese who posts delicious authentic Lebanese/ Middle Eastern recipes!