It is easier than ever to explore the flavours of Middle Eastern cuisines at home, with more gourmet and online stores stocking their cupboard essentials. Here is a primer:
• Fats: Olive oil and clarified sheep or goat butter are traditional cooking fats, the former typically preferred for vegetable, seafood and lighter dishes, the latter for meat dishes and pastries. Some cuisines age and infuse clarified butter with spices to develop its flavour. Also traditional, but less common, are nut oils and rendered fat from lamb or other meats.
• Pasta: Dried durum wheat pasta, including granular types such as couscous, and long types such as vermicelli, are staple Middle Eastern carbohydrates. They may be toasted dry or with oil before liquid is added and are often partially or wholly cooked in seasoned broth or gravy rather than water, for maximum flavour. Shown here is pelletsized couscous (photo 1), just smaller than peppercorns, used in Israeli and Lebanese cuisine.
• Grains: Besides being milled into flour for baked goods, wheat is parboiled, dried and cracked to make bulghur and used in salads, kebabs, stuffings for vegetables or meat, and pilaf. Shown here is smokytasting freekeh (photo 2), immature green wheat that is fire-roasted, threshed, dried and lightly cracked, then used in pilaf and salads. Both long-grain and short-grain rice types are enjoyed, the former more often in pilaf and meat dishes and the latter more in desserts and stuffings.
• Pulses: Fresh and dried legumes have been Middle Eastern staples since antiquity. Chickpeas (roasted ones shown in photo 3), fava beans, red and yellow lentils, split peas, haricot beans and black-eyed beans, among others, are most frequently used. They are stewed until tender, often with meat or meat broth; mashed into dips, porridges and soups; cooked together with rice or other grains; and partnered with vegetables in side dishes. The Malay dish kacang phool originates from ful, stewed fava beans enjoyed across the Arabic-speaking world.
• Nuts: Versatile almonds are the most ubiquitous Middle Eastern nut, used blanched, toasted or ground in myriad recipes. These range from pastries and mains to drinks and condiments. Walnuts and pine nuts (photo 4) are valued for their oily richness and pistachios for their green hue and subtle but elegant flavour.
• Spices: Sweet, warm aromatic spices such as cinnamon, clove, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg and ginger feature in sweet and savoury dishes, as is the highly prized saffron (photo 5). Earthy or pungent spices, including coriander, cumin, fennel, pepper, fenugreek and chilli, see more savoury use. Also shown here is za'atar (photo 6), a mix of dried thyme, ground sumac, sesame, coriander, cumin and sometimes other spices, used as a seasoning or a dry dip for bread. Many Arab cultures use baharat, a multipurpose blend of sweet and strong spices, to season meats, stews and soups. Unani, traditional Middle Eastern medicine, ascribes healing properties to most spices, much like Chinese medicine.
• Preserved fruit: Grapes, dates, figs (shown dried in photo 7), berries, citrus fruit, stone fruit such as apricots and peaches, and other fruit, such as apples and quinces, are dried, candied or made into preserves. Also shown here is ground sumac (photo 8), a dried berry with a bright, refreshing sourness, used as a seasoning accent. More pulpy fruit may be pureed and dried into sheets, such as amardeen, a Syrian apricot leather. It is dissolved in water to make a nourishing drink popular during Ramadan.
• Fruit concentrates: The juices of fruit such as pomegranates, grapes, dates, carob, figs and berries are reduced to thick, intensely sweet or sweet-and-sour syrups and used to sweeten and/or acidify many dishes, dressings and sauces. Shown here is tart, very fruity pomegranate molasses (photo 9).
• Flower waters: Distilled flower extracts perfume desserts, drinks and some savoury dishes, the most widely used being rose water and orange blossom water.
Text and photos: Chris Tan