There are not many cultures that can boast a cuisine that is packed with flavor and freshness, is heart-healthy and wholesome, and is full of mouth-watering vegan choices. But the culinary contributions coming out of the Middle East tick all these boxes and more.
Europeans have long enjoyed the savory and sweet dishes of their geographical neighbors; thankfully Middle Eastern cuisine has now found a solid foothold in the American culinary foodscape. In 2017, Middle Eastern cuisine’s popularity began soaring, becoming one of the fastest growing ethnic cuisines in the United States. What used to be thought of as exotic and hard to find is now more commonplace, with delectable fare such as hummus and falafel available in your grocery store and, of course, served up by Middle Eastern restaurants whose mission is to introduce you to the best foods that this historical region has to offer.
What are we talking about when we talk about the Middle East?
The Middle East is an area which includes countries spanning North Africa through Asia. Included are the countries of Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. If you were to travel to each of these countries, you would find a common cuisine, with each place providing its own personal spin on national dishes. This is due to local tastes and the specific availability of native ingredients, especially herbs and spices. So don’t be surprised if the tabouleh you taste in Israel looks different from what you’d find in Lebanon.
What makes Middle Eastern food so unique?
All cultures have their trademark foods that are part of their culinary footprint. The French have their butter and cream-based sauces. The Italians distinguish themselves with their infinite variety of pastas. When we think of German cuisine, the sausage comes to mind. What are some of the identifying characteristics of Middle Eastern food?
Spices. The first time you taste Middle Eastern food, you will remark on the inimitable mix of spices that sets this cuisine apart. These spices are deep, rich, penetrating—almost saturating—the food they are flavoring. Coriander, turmeric, saffron, garlic, cinnamon, cardamon, sumac, Aleppo pepper, mint, cumin, Ras el Hanout and Za'atar are among some of the typical enhancers found in the Middle Eastern chef’s spice rack. At one point in history, Arab spice traders controlled the spice routes between Asia, India, Africa and Europe, so access to these elixirs was easy for them!
Ingredients. Historically, Middle Eastern cooking relied on local ingredients, and as such was influenced by seasonal availability and what was found at the marketplace. Geographically, the region is rich in olive trees, and legume-producing plants which grow chickpeas, fava beans and lentils. Citrus grows well in this region so lemons, especially preserved lemons, are often highlighted in Middle Eastern dishes. Vegetables are a main feature, served boiled, stewed, grilled, stuffed or marinated. Meat is eaten, usually in the form of lamb, mutton, beef or chicken. Because pork is forbidden in both Islam and Judaism, you won’t find any pork coming out of the Middle Eastern chef’s kitchen. Bread is in the form of a pita or flatbread, which is used to scoop up scrumptious spreads like hummus, or as a wrap for falafel. Bright red pomegranate seeds add a pretty sparkle to many dishes, and desserts are often honey and nut-based sweet pastries, wrapped in thin layers of crispy phyllo dough.
Cooking methods. Tradition calls for slow roasting over a fire or on a vertical spit. This method produces the extraordinary melt-in-your-mouth tenderness found in the beef, lamb or mutton. Slow roasting also allows for the spices to penetrate the meat adding to its rich flavour. Stews are slowly simmered over an open fire in a clay pot. More contemporary cooks will use a wood fired oven for cooking meats, flatbreads and the heavenly dessert known as baklava. While hot oil frying is rare, it is used to make fluffy falafel balls or kibbeh.
Seven Vegan Middle Eastern Foods
While not exclusively vegan, Middle Eastern cuisine is a natural go-to for those following a vegan eating plan. Let us have a look at seven enticing vegan Middle Eastern dishes and learn about their health benefits. Of course you don’t need to be following any special diet to enjoy these!
Falafel is a deep fried ball, flat or doughnut-shaped patty made from ground chickpeas, fava beans and an array of flavorful spices such as cumin, coriander, garlic and onion. The falafel sandwich is one of the most widely consumed and recognized foods from the Middle East. It is a common street food, available from stands everywhere. One could say that falafel stands are the Middle Eastern equivalent of the New York hot dog stand!
Food anthropologists claim falafel originated in Alexandria, Egypt, but today one can find versions of it all over the world. The fried balls are tucked inside pita bread, along with a drizzle or more of tahini sauce (made from sesame seeds and lemon juice). One can add tomatoes, lettuce, marinated red cabbage, pickles, hummus—whatever suits your fancy. It is the perfect wrap and go vegan lunch, providing you with an impressive amount of protein, complex carbohydrates and soluble fiber. Other healthy nutrients include calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamin C, thiamine, pantothenic acid, vitamin B, and folate. In that respect, falafel is a perfect substitute for meat.
Some interesting facts about falafel:
In Arabic, “falafel” means crunchy, and that is precisely the sensation you’ll get when you bite into one of these balls or patties.
It is the national dish of Israel
Depending on where you are, falafel can be spelled felafil, filfil and felefel.
If you find yourself in a McDonald’s in Egypt, you can order a McFalafel.
The Egyptian variety is made from ground fava beans. Other countries, such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine use ground chickpeas. The chickpea version is what you will usually find in the United States.
Middle Eastern cuisine features many stuffed vegetable dishes, and grape leaves, or dolmas, is one of the most popular. Often eaten cold, stuffed vegan grape leaves are a tantalizing mixture of rice, pine nuts, mint, parsley and aromatic spices such as dill all wrapped up in a grape leaf and cooked in olive oil and lemon juice. This dish is found in all Middle Eastern cultures, but the original grape leaves came from Aleppo, Syria, where, when stuffed with rice, the dish was known as yalangi.
The grape leaf itself is a super food. Low in calories—around 14 calories for five leaves—it is packed with nutrients such as vitamins C, E, A, K and B6. (A stuffed grape leaf is higher in calories, averaging around 42 calories a piece.) You’ll also get niacin, iron, fiber, riboflavin, folate, calcium, magnesium, copper and manganese with each leaf. Additionally, they possess anti-inflammatory properties, reduce dema and have a low-glycemic load. So don’t hesitate to load up on this delicious finger food!
The spread known as hummus is most likely the first Middle Eastern delicacy that Americans experience. There are many variations on the base recipe, but it all starts with cooked and pureed chickpeas—“hummus” means chickpea in Arabic-- blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt. According to food anthropologists, hummus originated in Egypt back in the 13th century. You’ll see many different spellings for this creamy appetizer, including houmous, humus, hommus and hommos.
Hummus is a great food for vegans. When paired with flatbread or pita, it makes for a complete protein. It delivers a super healthy dose of iron and vitamin C as well as vitamin B6 and folate. Hummus is packed with fiber, manganese and potassium, making it a favorite for those seeking a filling and delicious spread that is low in calories (170 calories per 100 grams) and high in nutrients.
Hummus’ popularity soared in American between 2006 and 2016, as Americans sought out and embraced ethnic cuisine. The Sabra Dipping Company is the leading manufacturer of hummus in the world, producing 17 different variations on the classic hummus recipe. This is the brand that put hummus in American grocery stores and now can be found in most American’s refrigerators. The demand for the chickpeas needed to produce hummus has become so great, many former tobacco farmers have made the shift to growing chickpeas instead of tobacco. Yay!
Originally from Aleppo, Syria, muhammara is a hot pepper dish made from ground roasted Aleppo peppers and walnuts, then drizzled with olive oil. Rich and tangy, it is traditionally served as an appetizer, with plenty of pita bread for scooping. It can also be used as a sauce for kebabs, grilled meats and fish.
Centuries ago muhammara was considered a luxury dish, only for royalty and the wealthy due to the cost of the ingredients which were expensive at that time. Fortunately, this is not the case today, and muhammara is available to everyone! With its bright red color, this a lovely spread to serve side by side with hummus. It’s a great balance of spicy and nutty, with 130 calories per tablespoon serving, and 1 gram of protein. Vegan and gluten-free!
A staple in Middle Eastern kitchens, and showing up at picnics and other occasions where a fresh, cold and colourful salad is a welcome addition, Tabouleh is another of those dishes that is spelled and prepared differently according to the country serving it. The common base for this salad includes finely chopped flat parsley with tomatoes, mint, onion, soaked bulgur or couscous (semolina) all seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Food anthropologists tells us that tabbouleh originated in the mountains between Syria and Lebanon. Today it is seen as Lebanon’s national dish, with locals eating it at least once a week.
The preparation of the tabbouleh salad differs per region. Some make the mint and parsley the star ingredients, with little grain (bulgur or semolina). Others are heavy on the grain, and add raisins to sweeten the finished product. Others add cucumbers, which were never part of the original recipe but which do add a nice crunch to the cold salad. What they all have in common is finely chopped vegetables, small pieces so that they are spread out equally in the mix. Tabouleh is packed with great nutrients, including complex carbohydrates (from the grain), iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium, copper and fiber, all with a low calorie count of 190 calories per one cup serving.
Fattoush, also spelled fattush, fatush, fattoosh, and fattouche, is a vibrant chopped salad made with mixed greens and other fresh vegetables and tossed with toasted pieces of pita or flatbread. It’s a frequent star on Middle Eastern tables. Sumac spice gives this salad its unique, complex taste. Fattoush is a perfect way to use up stale pita or flatbread. There are many ways to compose this salad, but favorites include adding radishes, cucumber, pomegranate seeds, cherry tomatoes, red and green peppers and spring onion. The dressing is a simple lemon and olive oil mixture. The only two must-have ingredients for a Fattoush salad are the sumac spice and the toasted flatbread.
Lentils are plentiful in the Middle East, and are the world’s oldest cultivated pulse, or legume. This hearty, heart-healthy vegan soup is typically composed of lentils, carrots, onions and garlic; there is no fat, milk or cream in it. It is the cooked lentils that lend the velvety texture to this great-tasting hot soup. Pita chips can be served on this side or crumbled directly into the bowl. Squeezing fresh lemon juice directly into your bowl of lentil soup adds a nice fresh touch, balancing the delicate, earthy flavor.
Because lentils are the star ingredient here, this soup is low in calories and high in protein. Heart-healthy nutrients include fiber, folic acid, folate, iron, manganese and potassium.
If you are a vegan traveling around and need to find a restaurant that will offer you a plethora of vegan choices, head for your nearest Middle Eastern restaurant. You can be sure to find a vast array of tasty dishes which will not only satisfy your dietary requirements, but leave you feeling happy and well-fed.
To learn more about Middle Eastern and Mediterranean vegan dishes feel free to contact us at Aleppo’s Kitchen.