Ask a chef to cite the geographic boundaries of the Middle East and he'll carve out the answers on a map. Ask for the cultural boundaries of the cuisine, and the lines will blur, made hazy by a spice trail that spans centuries and continents.
Similarities exist, but each country retains individual touches. Seafood and Indian influences are more prevalent in Oman, for instance, because of its coastal proximity. Rice is more common in Iran than in Israel, the only country to feature beets in its falafel sandwiches. And though North African countries from Morocco to Egypt are geographic outliers, their food is still embraced as part of Middle Eastern cuisine.
This culinary tapestry lends itself to an immense creativity that has been dormant for the most part until now. Following the salty, heavy flavors of the charcuterie and gastropub craze and the high acidity and heat of Southeast Asian dishes, the wide-reaching, perfumy aromatics of contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine are beginning to pique interest among chefs and diners.
"There is a pantry the size of the region full of wonderful ingredients to experiment and introduce flavor."
-Chef-author Yotam Ottolenghi
“We often see individual elements or ingredients move faster through the trend cycle than does the entire cuisine,” says Maeve Webster, senior director of Datassential, a Chicago-based foodservice research firm that follows dining trends, explaining that dishes and ingredients of a trending cuisine are the first to appear. “Think curry versus Indian food; Sriracha versus Thai food; banh mi versus Vietnamese food. All of these individual elements are much farther along on the trend cycle than is the cuisine overall. That’s the case with Middle Eastern cuisine at the moment.”
Dishes such as fattoush and shakshuka (eggs poached in tomatoes and herbs) are appearing alongside the classic falafel and shawarma. Spices like za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend that often includes thyme leaves, toasted sesame seeds, sumac and other herbs), dukkah (a nut- and seed-filled spice mix) and sumac are becoming as mainstream as tahini or tabbouleh. Chefs around the world continue to prove that the modern kitchen is no longer confined by geographic boundaries, dreaming up global mash-ups unheard of a decade ago.
Following the Spice Trail
Historically speaking, the trade routes of the Ottoman Empire are largely responsible for the international culinary connection.
“The Ottoman Empire stretched through North Africa into Spain. There are a lot of similarities in the cuisine, but with more Berber influence,” says Sameh Wadi, owner of Saffron Restaurant & Lounge in Minneapolis. “We showcase Eastern Mediterranean and North African flavors and recipes with some Midwestern influence.”
At Aziza in San Francisco, a more traditional lamb shank with barley, prune and saffron shares menu space with a lamb loin with shiitake, cucumber, eggplant and cumin. Tel Aviv native and Chef-owner Einat Admony piles on flavors from across the Mediterranean and Middle East at her restaurant Balaboosta in New York, as seen in dishes such as braised short ribs with sauteed okra, oven-dried tomato, spinach, chickpea cake, hawaij (a Yemenite spice blend) and a white wine reduction.
The combination of these flavors manifests in dishes such as ras el hanout (a North African spice blend) duck meatballs in a sweet and spicy tomato sauce with egg yolk and chickpeas, and saffron stewed chicken and almond pie wrapped in a phyllo pastry with cinnamon sugar. Surprisingly, lamb brains have shown staying power at Saffron, remaining on the menu since day one. “At first it was only my treat for the VIPs, and about three to four months later it got a permanent spot on the menu,” Wadi says. “They sell great and people love them.”
“You want to keep it interesting, not only for my customers but also for myself,” says Chef-owner Rawia Bishara of Tanoreen in New York. Bishara often works with greens that aren’t available overseas, like kale or arugula, or uses Japanese panko crumbs for a Middle Eastern-inspired eggplant napoleon.
The New Vocabulary
The growing interest in Middle Eastern cuisine has led to the widespread availability of niche ingredients ranging from preserved lemons, astringent ground sumac and dried barberries to spice mixes like dukkah. Superfoods’ surging popularity spurred the comeback of ancient grains like freekeh and bulgur, and the growth of Greek yogurt paved the way for Middle Eastern dairy products like labneh(yogurt) and haloumi, a semihard cheese made from sheep and goat milk.
While Middle Eastern ingredients are more readily available than a few years ago, chefs still have trouble sourcing specific or quality products. “Good tahini is still tough to come by,” says Chef Danny Elmaleh of Cleo in Hollywood, California. “A lot of brands aren’t pure and end up separating over time, or have salt in them as a form of preservative.”
Chef-owner Miranda Kaiser says it’s not easy to obtain bulk ingredients like pomegranate molasses for her Tulsa, Oklahoma, restaurant, Laffa. But even though it requires extra work to source quality ingredients, the challenge is often part of the reward. “As more products from the Middle East are becoming available, it gives all chefs an opportunity to develop new flavors for their repertoire,” Elmaleh says.
Ten years ago, when Kaiser and her husband, Phillip, emigrated from Israel, the timing didn’t feel right to open a Middle Eastern restaurant in her husband’s hometown of Tulsa. “We started another restaurant that was similar to one that we had in Jerusalem but more geared towards Tulsa. Middle Eastern food wasn’t popular and sadly because of 9/11, it wasn’t something that we felt would be well received at that time.”
Now, their 1-year-old, 135-seat “Medi-Eastern” concept, Laffa, averages 500 covers on weekend nights. Laffa’s menu draws inspiration from across the Middle East, serving up meze such as harissa carrot salad from North Africa and Greek lamb keftadakia (meatballs) in a sweet and spicy tomato sauce with feta. “Once upon a time, you would just have that kebab or that pita with the meat in it and tzatziki,” Kaiser says. “Now you’re finding more elevated food—fun things like pickled turnips, sumac onions and marinated artichokes turn up in those once boring pitas.”
But after seeing shawarma show up on TV shows like “Chopped” and “The Great Food Truck Race,” Kaiser and her husband realized the timing might finally be right. “We thought, if the rest of the country can get on board with Middle Eastern food, why aren’t we doing this in Tulsa?” she says.
Even with gastronomically aware guests, some familiar foods should be included. We're in Oklahoma; we have to have a burger, Kaiser says. It's a lamb and beef burger with Middle Eastern spices such as cumin, coriander and mint, served with tzatziki slaw, a spicy pomegranate ketchup and garlic labneh, but it's on a bun. I even have a macaroni and cheese on the menu, with orzo, feta, pine nuts and cherry tomatoes. It’s like Korean BBQ tacos—that’s how Americans are playing with Middle Eastern foods.”
Geopolitical relations may have made some Americans hesitant to embrace Middle Eastern cuisine, but that attitude is starting to change. Crossover dishes from Mediterranean cuisine are a sell for the health-conscious crowd, and the communal, small plate concept of meze is a palatable introduction to many Middle Eastern dishes.
Such trends are happening at the white-tablecloth restaurants such as Levant in Portland, Oregon, Bar Bolonat in New York, and Sarma in Somerville, Massachusetts, which have all gained national acclaim. Niche popularity lends itself to experimentation at Etch in Nashville, Tennessee, where Chef-owner Deb Paquette serves mash-ups like Moroccan spiced venison with sweet potato guava, ginger grits, pear butter and cranberry sumac relish. At The Thomas Restaurant in Napa, California, Chef-owner Brad Farmerie’s truffled baba ghanoush with seasonal crudite makes a regular cameo.
“The word is spreading about all the exciting ways that flavor is brought in to play in the food of the Middle East,” says British-Israeli Chef Yotam Ottolenghi, author of the best-selling cookbook “Jerusalem.” “Without an over reliance on cream or butter to bring richness to a dish, there is a pantry the size of the region full of wonderful ingredients to experiment and introduce flavor.”
A Labor of Love
From the business side, there is a lot to love about Middle Eastern cuisine. Vegetable-heavy dishes mean lower food costs, an abundance of seasonal product and seamless catering to diners with dietary restrictions and health concerns. However, consistency often requires considerable labor. Here's help:
“Middle Eastern food is time- and labor-consuming, so I always prepare ahead of time. Brussels sprouts can take 10 minutes to make. But if you’re doing stuffed squash and grape leaves, it can take four to five hours.”
—Rawia Bishara of Tanoreen, New York
“The Middle Eastern spices and mixes that we use a great deal add stacks of flavor without contributing heavily to the cost of the dish.” Use seasonal vegetables to reduce the cost of non-grain dishes or yogurt to stretch more expensive ingredients, such as tahini.
—Yotam Ottolenghi, chef-author
The Middle Eastern Pantry, Explained
British-Israeli Chef Yotam Ottolenghi of the best-selling cookbook “Jerusalem” and the highly anticipated “Plenty More” helps explains five essential Middle Eastern ingredients beyond olive oil, garlic, fresh lemon juice and Greek yogurt.
Preserved lemon: Fresh lemons preserved with salt for several weeks provide a burst of flavor. Chop and add to grain or leafy salads, stews or meatballs and fish-destined salsas. Or blitz up a sauce or mayonnaise to disperse the flavor throughout a dish or spoon on top.
Iranian lime: Ground or whole, this dried lime gives soups and stews a unique depth of flavor. Whole limes are tough to grind down, so simply pierce them and add to soup. The aroma is wonderfully aged and citrusy.
Sumac: This gives a welcome astringency and burst of flavor to a range of dishes. If an egg-based dish is missing something, a sprinkle of sumac will brighten flavors.
Za’atar: A blend of dried and crushed za’atar leaves, toasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt. Great for sprinkling on top of any legume dip or finishing off salads and roasted vegetables.
Pomegranate or date molasses: A spoonful or drizzle of this adds rich sweetness to a range of sweet and savory dishes, including braised lamb meatballs, sauteed Swiss chard, beetroot dip or roasted butternut squash.
Tell Me A Story
If cookbook sales are any indication of consumer interest in Middle Eastern cuisine, it's definitely on the rise. Yotam Ottolenghi's “Jerusalem” has sold 172,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan’s U.S. Consumer Market Panel, which covers approximately 85 percent of the print market. That's nearly the total of the combined sales of David Chang’s “Momofuku” cookbook and Thomas Keller's “Bouchon Bakery” cookbook. Excitement is already building for Ottolenghi's next cookbook, “Plenty More,” due for release in October.