Though the Middle East has many specific regional and national cuisines, one item ties them all together: aromatic spices. Middle Eastern cooking also features many ingredients in common, like pita, honey, sesame seeds, sumac, chickpeas, mint and parsley.
Food in these countries is far from being "fashionably trendy" but rather retains the ancestral heritage of its peoples. Tradition is at the root of these cultures, and the foods they eat are no different.
It is important to look at the foods of the Middle East as they developed within the entire region, ignoring present-day political boundaries. Keep in mind this area is known as the cradle of civilization, the Fertile Crescent, flanked by the Nile River to the west and the Tigris and Euphrates to the east. Ignore today's images of barren, dry hot land, and imagine the former richness of the soil, the lush vegetation and sites like the Garden of Eden itself, believed to have existed in this region.
What has the Middle East given us? Here, some 12,000 years ago hunters became farmers. Wheat was first cultivated, followed by barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates and other regional staples. Fermentation was discovered and used not just to make beer, but also to leaven bread. The barter system and the earliest writing systems were created here by the Sumerians. Commercial markets and commercial trade proliferated.
In their invasions of other lands beginning around 700 AD, the Arab tribes spread their diet to the conquered peoples. As Muslims, they drank goat's milk instead of water, feeding too on dates, nuts and other foods that could be transported easily. When the Persians evolved their own cuisine using fresh fruits, rices, duck and other meats, the predominant Middle Eastern cuisine as we know it today began to emerge, a synthesis of these influences and the new exotic spices the Arab traders were garnishing from the Orient.
As time went on, more influences fell upon the region, introduced by Turkey's Ottoman Empire. They brought, among other foods, the sweet pastries of paper thin phyllo dough and the dense, sweet coffee drunk nowadays throughout the Middle East.
While these are the core contributors to Middle Eastern cuisine, other countries and peoples left their mark. Yogurt from the Russians; dumplings from Mongol invaders; turmeric, cumin, garlic and other spices from India; cloves, peppercorns and allspice from the Spice Islands; okra from Africa; tomatoes from the New World, via the Moors of Spain.
Just as Buddhism plays a hand in determining the diets of many Asian countries, so to do religions of the Middle East affect the cuisine. Lamb is the main meat eaten, as both the Jewish and Muslim faiths forbid the eating of pork. The Koran forbids alcohol, so consequently the region is not generally noted for its wines.
from Kate's Global Kitchen
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This page modified January 2007
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