Geographically, the Middle East is a broad group of many regions that range from North Africa though Asia. Its culinary landscape reflects the diverse cuisines of Afghan, Arab, Armenian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek (partly), Israeli, Iraqi, Iranian (Persian, partly), Lebanese, Moroccan, North African, Palestinian, Turkish, and Yemeni heritage.
The recipes native to each of these regions differ based on the availability of ingredients in the past, commodities available today, and a chef’s personal interpretations and reflections on family classics. For many chefs in the U.S., Middle Eastern menu inspiration comes from those cozy neighborhood restaurants “just around the corner,” each with its own rendition of hummus, kebobs, and baklava on the menu.
There is no denying that Middle Eastern cuisine is simple and satisfying. But if you want to more effectively feature it in your menu promotions, take a look at how chefs around the U.S. meld Middle Eastern standards with specific regional ingredients and influences found throughout this vast culinary mecca. Here are just three examples: Chef, restaurateur, teacher, and cookbook author (see below) Zov Karamardian was born in Israel to Armenian parents, then raised in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Her bistro and café offer up a comforting repertoire of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Asian-inspired dishes, each of which “conjure up memories of a special family occasion or a culinary journey to an exotic destination.”
A lunch entrée at Zov Bistro might include the Lamb Shishlik, marinated skewered lamb loin grilled over jasmine rice pilaf, and served with eggplant garbanzo stew with yogurt mint sauce. The Soujouk Arrabbiata, combines penne with dried Armenian beef sausage in a spicy peppery sauce of fresh herbs, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes and goat cheese. While at the cafe, customers might indulge in the Wild King Salmon Salad with Moroccan Spices on a bed of M’Jaddarah (cooked green lentils with caramelized onion and rice), feta cheese, tomatoes and baby mixed lettuces with balsamic vinaigrette.
The cuisine of Morocco is a mix of Arab, Berber, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean African, Iberian, and Jewish influences. One of its signature characteristics is the cooking of meat with fruit (think quince with lamb or apricots with chicken). Additionally, spices are used extensively in Moroccan food.
For Moroccan flair, look to the Imperial Fez in Atlanta, GA. Here Chef Rafih Benejelloun offers Cornish Hen M’hammer baked in Garlic Paprika Sauce with a side of African Rice or a Lamb Tagine Morozia with Plums baked in a Cinnamon Ginger Sauce and garnished with roasted almonds and sesame seeds.
Turkish cuisine can be described as a fusion and refinement of Turkic, Arabic, Greek, Armenian and Persian cuisines And although there are common dishes found throughout Turkey (kebobs, pilaf) each region has it’s own particular specialties. The Black Sea region’s cuisine is based on corn and anchovies. The southeast— Urfa, Gaziantep and Adana—is famous for its kebabs, mezes and dough-based desserts such as baklava, kadayıf and künefe. And in the West, where olive trees grow abundantly, olive oil is the major type of oil used for cooking. Frequently used ingredients in Turkish dishes include meat, eggplant, green peppers, onions, garlic, lentils, beans, tomatoes, and nuts (especially pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts). The preferred spices and herbs include parsley, cumin, black pepper, paprika, mint, oregano and thyme.
You can get a good sense of how these ingredients are melded together in Turkey at Turqouise Restaurant in Chicago. Dishes here reflect a Med-Turkish mix. For example, the Spicy Cashew Chicken is paired with green peas, chestnuts, bok choy, sun dried apricots, scallion, sesame seeds and rice pilaf. The Lamb Begendi is simmered with onions, cherry tomatoes and banana peppers and is served over eggplant purée and mozzarella. For a seafood specialty consider the grilled Ahi Tuna and sautéed white beans, finger lake potatoes, arugula anchovies and caper berries.
For a great recipe:
Couscous with Lamb and Olives