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10 Middle Eastern Dishes You Need to Know

Hummus, tabbouleh and beyond
May 27, 2015
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by Megan Giller

Fifteen years ago, most Americans hadn’t heard of hummus, and they certainly didn’t douse carrots in the dip for an afternoon snack. Yet over the past decade Middle Eastern food has grown in popularity, and in the past year or so, it’s become a full-on dining trend. Back in December 2014 Food & Wine hypothesized that Middle Eastern would be the new It food of 2015, with chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, Michael Solomonov and Sara Kramer launching new Middle Eastern-inspired restaurants and cookbooks. Why? Food from countries like Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey often use whole grains and lots of fresh vegetables, nailing the health market while also allowing curious diners to try exotic ingredients and expand their palate.

In other words, these days you’re just as likely to find ingredients like mint, chickpeas and tahini as truffle oil, lardo and cream on restaurant menus. Of course, since chefs fancy it up by swapping staples (like avocado for tomatoes in a new take on fattoush), it’s sometimes hard to recognize a traditional dish. That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide to 10 classic Middle Eastern dishes. 

Hummus

The most common Middle Eastern dish in the U.S., this dip made its way into grocery store aisles a long time ago. Typically made of mashed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and garlic with a splash of lemon juice, it’s often served as an appetizer accompanied by pita bread or crudité, but you’ll also find it smeared on wraps and other sandwiches. The best kinds come with a drizzle of olive oil on top and a sprinkling of spices like za’atar, paprika or cumin.

Where to Try: Dizengoff in Philadelphia offers rotating daily selections of hummus (think heirloom zucchini with mint and toasted hazelnuts), and Shaya in New Orleans boasts an entire hummus section on its menu, including one topped with lamb ragu, pine nuts and spring peas.

Falafel

Chickpeas find their way into many Middle Eastern dishes, including this beloved fried dish. Kind of like the Middle Eastern hushpuppy, falafel are deep-fried rounds made of chickpeas, garlic, fresh herbs like parsley, and cumin. The balls can be eaten on their own or as part of a meze plate. But they're most often devoured in a pita sandwich or wrap, accompanied by a spicy sauce, a tahini sauce, lettuce, tomato, pickled vegetables and onion.

Where to Try: Kebabalicious in Austin makes a mean traditional version for a late-night pick-me-up. Meanwhile Madcapra in LA serves two types of falafel, both with unusual ingredients: red (tomato, cabbage, pickles, tahini and basil) and green (cauliflower, fennel, labneh and cilantro).

Tabbouleh

Yet another addition to a traditional meze appetizer feast and a side dish often accompanying a bigger plate of meat and hummus, this vegetarian salad is dominated by parsley, but also contains diced tomato, cucumber, onion, bulgur wheat, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Of course, chefs are changing things up with ingredients like cauliflower, yogurt and pistachios, creating new versions of an old standard.

Where to Try: Find a traditional version at Mazzat in San Francisco. Or go for something unusual at Zahav in Philadelphia, which serves an asparagus-and-kale version with aged sheep’s milk cheese, apricots and black olives.

Baba Ghanoush

The second-most-common dip after hummus, this smooth paste is made of roasted eggplant, olive oil and a rotating cast of other ingredients. You’ll most often find it mixed with tahini and garlic, but other versions forgo the tahini in favor of a lighter dish, sometimes even dressed with pomegranate seeds.

Where to Try: The aptly named Baba Ghanouj in Los Angeles serves the classic dish, while Glasserie in Brooklyn combines charcoaled eggplant with black tahini and tomato for a more modern take.

Fattoush

Before we move onto mains, let’s talk about another standard salad. Made of lettuces, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, and toasted or fried pieces of pita, fattoush is another common side dish. Like all of the foods mentioned here, it has many variations. But the crisp pita in the salad is a dead giveaway of fattoush, as are the larger chunks of vegetables, herbs like mint and plenty of sumac.

Where to Try: Bar Bolonat in New York City pairs common ingredients like cucumber and mint with lavash, arugula, avocado and feta, while Mourad in San Francisco adds cucumber, oregano, pepper, flatbread and za’atar to the eggplant. And Oleana in Boston makes its version with fennel, cucumber, peas, sumac and crispy pita.

Shawarma

Meat, glorious meat! The Middle Eastern version of rotisserie, shawarma refers to a big block of lamb, beef, chicken or some combination of the three that is placed on a spit with spices and slowly roasted over a flame, yielding tender shavings to be devoured on their own or, more likely, in a pita wrap with tahini, hummus and pickled vegetables. Sound like a doner kebab or gyro that you've devoured before? Right you are: those two are shawarma's cousins.

Where to Try: Zizi Limona in Brooklyn serves a traditional plate with chicken, lamb, charred onion and chickpeas over hummus. Meanwhile the Kebab Shop in San Diego makes it more American by serving the meat on a crusty roll with garlic-yogurt sauce.

Labneh

Kind of like the Middle Eastern version of Greek yogurt, labneh is also sometimes called “yogurt cheese,” because it’s that thick and creamy. It's made by straining regular yogurt for hours into a thick, delicious spread. Use it as a dip on a meze plate with hummus and baba ghanoush, or spread it on a pita or anything, really, to make it even richer. It’s often topped with za’atar or dolloped on top of dishes as a finishing touch.

Where to Try: Launderette in Austin serves the traditional labneh with beet hummus and millet crunch on top with everything crackers for dipping. Meanwhile Madcapra in LA makes a new-school snack: celery sticks with “ranchy” labneh.

Simit

This bread is often called a “Turkish bagel” because of its shape, but simit are much lighter and airier, with a slightly flatter shape and a dense exterior of sesame seeds. Eat them plain, or try them as the base of a sandwich. Specialty simit shops are popping up across the country, bringing a lesser-known food into the limelight.

Where to Try: Simit & Smith in New York serves simit with a schmear of black olive paste, and Pera in San Francisco offers brunch with simit, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.

Kibbeh

Falafel’s meaty cousin, kibbeh is usually served as a fried croquette of ground beef or lamb, bulgur wheat, minced onions and a dazzling array of spices. The Lebanese love a version called kibbeh nayeh, which is raw, but most often you’ll find the meat dish deep-fried and served with hummus, labneh or other sauces for dipping.

Where to Try: Tanoreen in Brooklyn serves a traditional version with ground lamb, bulgur, pine nuts, almonds and onion. Find the raw version at Zahav in Philadelphia, which combines raw lamb with the traditional ingredients as well as artichokes and olives.

Shakshuka

Move over, eggs Benedict. These days everyone is eating shakshuka for brunch. The recipes vary wildly, but one thing stays constant: poached eggs in some sort of tomato sauce. We’ve seen versions with harissa and red bell pepper, eggplant, potatoes — you name it, it can go in shakshuka, which is the beauty of the dish.

Where to Try: The Hummus Place in New York offers an Israeli version of the tomato stew with peppers, eggplant and two eggs. Meanwhile Zizi Limona in Brooklyn makes the traditional shakshuka as well as cowshuka: grilled skirt steak with poached eggs, roasted-tomato-red-bell-pepper sauce, sautéed spinach and chickpeas with harissa.

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