Arabic Cooking

Arabic Cooking – Expert Guide to Authentic Middle Eastern Dishes

Arabic cooking boasts a rich history and diverse flavours that have been influenced by various cultures and culinary traditions. This exquisite cuisine can be traced back thousands of years to ancient nomadic tribes and has evolved by incorporating elements from other regions, such as India and Persia. 

At its core, the most significant feature of Arabic cuisine is the array of spices and fragrances, ensuring a tantalising experience for your senses.

As you explore the world of Arabic cooking, you’ll notice that dishes often feature ingredients such as lamb, rice, and vegetables. 

In addition, a range of spices, such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and cinnamon, plays an essential role in delivering the unique flavours that distinguish Arabic cuisine. Meanwhile, sumac, lemon, pomegranate syrup, sour cherry, and plum add a signature zest to many dishes, leaving you wanting more.

To get started with Arabic cooking, consider trying popular and easy-to-prepare dishes like cauliflower hummus, which puts a twist on traditional hummus, or perhaps mansaf, a traditional dish in countries like Palestine and Jordan that symbolises the warm hospitality of Arabic culture. 

As you become more confident in your ability to create these delicacies, you’ll surely enjoy a culinary adventure that transcends borders and cultures.

History of Arabic Cuisine

You might be interested to learn how Arabic cuisine has evolved over the centuries. Its rich history can be traced back to the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Hittites, Arameans, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Nabateans. 

Each of these civilisations contributed to the development of the Arab kitchen, resulting in the diverse culinary traditions of the Arab world today.

As you explore the different dishes, you will see how this cuisine developed by combining regional ingredients, spices, herbs, and commodities, which played a vital role in shaping the Arab culinary landscape. 

Additionally, Arab traders facilitated the exchange and spread of these ingredients and cooking techniques, further enriching the cuisine.

During the 10th to 13th centuries, there was a surge of cookbooks written in Arabic, reflecting the importance of cooking knowledge in that era. 

These cookbooks provide valuable insights into the culinary traditions of the Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman, and Safavid empires, offering glimpses of a rich and diverse cuisine.

From the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula, Arabic cuisine incorporates various regional cooking styles, reflecting the vast and diverse territories of the Arab world. 

As you taste and learn more, you will appreciate the historical and cultural factors that have shaped this exquisite culinary tradition.

Key Ingredients in Arabic Cooking

Arabic cuisine boasts delightful flavours, heavily influenced by the variety of herbs and spices found in the region. In this section, we will introduce you to some essential ingredients in Arabic cooking that you can confidently incorporate into your dishes.

Flatbreads 

These are a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. They’re versatile and can be enjoyed with an array of flavours, both simple and complex. Consider dipping flatbreads in olive oil and za’atar, a tasty spice blend, to elevate their taste.

Baharat 

It is a popular spice blend in Arabic cooking. It is similar to curry, with many different varieties ranging from sweet to floral to spicy. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to specify the desired flavour profile when purchasing it, as it can contain a combination of various spices.

Za’atar 

This spice serves as both the name for the herb oregano and a unique spice blend. The blend consists of dried oregano, sesame seeds, sumac, salt, and ground caraway seeds. Za’atar, the herb, is commonly used in salads, flatbreads, and pastries, and as a flavourful addition to hot winter drinks.

It’s impossible not to mention sumac when discussing Arabic cooking. The sumac shrub brick-red, finely ground berries add a tangy, lemony brightness to many dishes. A sprinkle of sumac can invigorate even the simplest ingredients like steamed rice and cooked meats.

By integrating these key ingredients into your Arabic cooking repertoire, you’ll be better equipped to create diverse and delicious recipes that showcase the exceptional flavours of the Middle East.

Famous Arabic Dishes

In this section, we’ll explore some popular Arabic dishes you may encounter or want to try. The dishes are part of a rich culinary tradition, with a variety of flavours and ingredients to satisfy your taste buds.

Mezze

Mezze is a selection of small appetiser dishes that are popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. These dishes are often served before a main meal and are meant to be shared. Here are some common mezze dishes:

  • Hummus: A creamy dip made from mashed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.
  • Baba Ghanoush: A smoky, savoury dip made from roasted eggplant, tahini, and garlic.
  • Falafel: Deep-fried patties or balls made from ground chickpeas or fava beans, often served with tahini sauce.
  • Fattoush: A Levantine bread salad made with mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and crispy pieces of fried Arabic bread, often topped with pomegranate seeds.

Mansaf

Mansaf is a traditional Jordanian dish made with lamb, yoghurt sauce, and rice. The lamb is cooked in a unique yoghurt sauce called jameed, which gives the dish its distinct flavour. 

Mansaf is traditionally served on a large platter, with the rice forming a base and the lamb placed on top. It is garnished with toasted almonds, pine nuts, and parsley, and is often eaten with flatbread.

Shawarma

Shawarma is a popular Middle Eastern street food dish consisting of thin slices of marinated meat (usually chicken, lamb, or beef). 

The meat is roasted on a vertical spit and shaved off as it cooks. It is then typically served wrapped in Arabic bread with a variety of toppings, such as tahini sauce, garlic sauce, pickles, and vegetables. Shawarma is a quick and satisfying meal that can easily be enjoyed on the go.

Tagine

Tagine is a slow-cooked Moroccan stew made with meat (such as lamb, beef, or chicken) and various vegetables, spices, and fruits. 

The dish gets its name from the traditional earthenware pot it is cooked in, which features a conical lid that traps steam and returns the moisture to the stew. Some popular variations of tagines include:

  • Chicken and Olive Tagine: Chicken simmered with olives, preserved lemons, and a blend of spices.
  • Lamb and Prune Tagine: Tender lamb cooked with prunes and flavoured with cinnamon, honey, and almonds.
  • Vegetable Tagine: A meat-free version featuring a medley of vegetables cooked with fragrant spices and often garnished with fresh herbs.

As you explore these dishes, you’ll find a world of flavour and tradition waiting for you. Satisfy your curiosity and taste these delicious Arabic dishes to experience a whole new world of culinary delights.

Arabic Cooking Techniques

In this section, we will explore three common techniques used in Arabic cooking: roasting, simmering, and braising. By mastering these methods, you can create delicious and authentic Arabic dishes at home.

Roasting

Roasting is a dry-heat cooking technique that uses high temperatures to create a golden brown crust and juicy, tender meat. 

In Arabic cuisine, roasting is commonly used for preparing whole or large cuts of meat like lamb or chicken. To roast meat, simply:

  1. Preheat your oven to a high temperature, usually around 200°C (392°F).
  2. Season the meat with a blend of spices such as baharat, salt, and pepper.
  3. Place the meat on a roasting rack or tray to allow air circulation around the meat for even cooking.
  4. Cook the meat in the preheated oven until it reaches the desired level of doneness. The cooking time will vary depending on the size and type of meat.

Simmering

Simmering involves cooking food gently in liquid, typically at a temperature just below boiling point. This method is ideal for preparing flavourful stews, soups, and sauces in Arabic cuisine. To simmer a dish, follow these steps:

  1. Prep your ingredients by cutting vegetables and meat into bite-sized pieces.
  2. Add some oil to a large pot or saucepan and heat it over medium heat.
  3. Cook aromatics such as onions, garlic, and spices until fragrant.
  4. Add your main ingredients (meat and vegetables) and cook for a few minutes to brown them slightly.
  5. Pour in the liquid (water, broth, or tomato sauce) and bring it to a gentle boil. You may need to adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.
  6. Cover the pot and let your dish cook slowly until the ingredients are tender and the flavours have melded together.

Braising

Braising is a combination cooking method that involves searing meat or vegetables at a high temperature and then finishing them slowly in a small liquid. 

This technique is perfect for tenderising tough cuts of meat, like lamb shanks or beef short ribs. To braise a dish, follow these steps:

  1. Season your meat with salt, pepper, and a mix of spices like nutmeg, cardamom, coriander, and cinnamon.
  2. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  3. Sear the meat on all sides until it develops a brown crust. Remove it from the pot and set it aside.
  4. Cook your aromatics, such as onions, garlic, and spices, in the same pot until softened and fragrant.
  5. Add your liquid, such as broth or tomato sauce, along with any vegetables. Remember to keep the liquid level low – only about halfway up the meat.
  6. Return the meat to the pot, bring the liquid to a simmer, and cover the pot.
  7. Transfer to a low-heat oven (around 150°C or 300°F) and cook for several hours, or until the meat is tender and easily falls apart.

Kitchen Equipment Used in Arabic Cooking

When delving into the world of Arabic cooking, it’s essential to have the right kitchen equipment at your disposal. This ensures that each dish is prepared authentically and with the utmost care. 

Having the proper tools in your kitchen can significantly improve the quality of your Middle Eastern culinary creations.

Couscoussier: 

A Couscoussier is a vital addition to your kitchen for preparing couscous, a staple dish in Arabic cuisine. The Couscoussier consists of two compartments, with the lower perforated compartment allowing steam to rise to the upper part, ensuring perfectly cooked grains.

Roasting Pan: 

A solid roasting pan is key for dishes that require roasting or baking, such as leg of lamb, chicken, or turkey. The use of a roasting rack ensures that your meat remains tender, juicy, and cooked evenly, while also making clean-up a breeze.

Rakwah Qahwah: 

Arabic coffee plays an integral role in Middle Eastern culture. Therefore, a small coffee pot known as a Rakwah Qahwah is necessary for brewing Arabic coffee to perfection. This coffee pot has a long spout, making it suitable for traditional serving.

Skewers (Sebkh, Safoud, Shish): 

For cooking dishes like kebabs, having metal or wooden skewers on hand will help you achieve the desired result. These skewers hold pieces of food together, allowing for even grilling or roasting.

By investing in these essential kitchen tools, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle a variety of Arabic recipes, impressing both yourself and your guests with delicious Middle Eastern dishes. 

Don’t hesitate to experiment and explore the rich, nuanced flavours of this regional cuisine in your kitchen.

Healthy Aspects of Arabic Cuisine

Arabic cuisine is considered one of the healthiest in the world due to its emphasis on plant-based proteins, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, spices, seeds, grains, and herbs. Let’s explore some of the healthy aspects of this flavourful and nutritious cuisine.

A focus on plant-based ingredients: 

Arabic cuisine utilises a wide variety of plant-based ingredients, such as legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables. 

These ingredients form the base of many dishes and are rich in fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Consuming a diet rich in plant-based ingredients has been associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases and improved overall health.

Healthy fats: 

Arabic cuisine often incorporates healthy fats from sources like olive oil, nuts, and seeds. These fats are predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, which can help improve heart health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

In contrast to unhealthy fats like trans and saturated fats, these healthy fats can protect against inflammation and improve cholesterol levels.

Nutrient-dense spices and herbs: 

Spices and herbs are fundamental in Arabic cuisine, giving the dishes their distinctive and unique flavour profiles. Spices such as cinnamon, cumin, and turmeric provide more than just flavour—they also have health benefits, such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. 

Herbs like parsley, mint, and cilantro are packed with vitamins and minerals, adding both taste and nutrition to a myriad of dishes.

Balanced protein sources: 

Arabic cuisine incorporates a mix of both plant-based and animal-derived proteins, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, chicken, and fish. This balance ensures you are consuming an optimal mix of essential amino acids, vital for muscle building and maintenance. 

Additionally, plant-based protein sources also provide important nutrients like fibre, iron, and magnesium, contributing to a well-rounded diet.

Arabic cuisine is not only flavourful and diverse, but it also offers a plethora of health benefits. By incorporating these dishes into your meal plan, you can enjoy delicious food while also reaping the nutritional benefits that Arabic cuisine has to offer.

Regional Variations of Arabic Cuisine

Arabic cuisine is incredibly diverse, as it spans across numerous countries and regions. Each region has its unique flavours and cooking techniques, often reflecting the local histories, environments, and cultural influences. 

In this section, we will explore some notable regional variations within Arabic cuisine.

Maghreb Cuisine: 

The Maghreb region consists of the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. Cuisine in this area is known for its use of couscous, a staple grain commonly served with meat and vegetable stews. 

The aromatic spice blend Ras el Hanout is also characteristic of Maghreb cuisine, adding warmth and depth of flavour to many dishes. Popular dishes in this region include tagine (a slow-cooked stew) and b’stilla (a savoury pastry filled with meat and spices).

Mashreq Cuisine: 

The Mashreq region encompasses the Eastern Mediterranean countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq. The cuisine in this area is heavily influenced by the fertile soil and abundance of fresh produce. Rice and bread are common staples, with dishes often featuring flavourful herbs and spices such as sumac, za’atar, and cumin. 

Mezze, a selection of small dishes served as appetisers, is particularly popular in this region, as are dishes like kibbeh (bulgur wheat and meat croquettes) and stuffed vine leaves.

Arabian Peninsula Cuisine: 

The Arabian Peninsula is home to the countries of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain. The cuisine in this region is characterised by its reliance on rice, dates, and meat, particularly lamb and chicken. 

Traditional cooking techniques, such as cooking in an underground sand oven (known as a tandoor), are still used today. Common dishes include mandi (a flavourful rice dish with slow-cooked meat) and machboos (a spiced rice dish cooked with meat and vegetables).

Eastern Arabian Cuisine: 

Also known as Khaleeji cuisine, Eastern Arabian cuisine encompasses the coastal regions and areas around the Persian Gulf. Seafood is an essential component of the diet in these areas, with fish being a popular ingredient. 

Spices such as saffron, cardamom, and turmeric are often used, providing vibrant flavours and colours to dishes like sayadieh (rice and fish cooked with caramelised onions) and hammour salona (a spiced fish stew).

As you can see, Arabic cuisine is incredibly varied, with each region offering its distinct culinary traditions and flavours. While this is only a brief overview, it gives you a taste of the rich cultural and culinary heritage that exists within the world of Arabic cooking.

Arabic Desserts

Arabic desserts are known for their rich flavours, unique textures, and exquisite taste. In this section, we will explore three popular Arabic desserts: Baklava, Basbousa, and Kunafa.

Baklava

Baklava is a sweet pastry made of layers of filo dough, filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey. It is popular across the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. Here’s a brief description of how to make Baklava:

  1. Prepare the filling: Combine chopped nuts (such as pistachios, walnuts, or almonds) with sugar and spices like cinnamon or cardamom.
  2. Layer the filo dough: Brush each sheet of filo dough with melted butter and layer them in a baking dish. After a few layers, add some of the nut filling and continue layering until all the filo and filling are used.
  3. Bake and add the syrup: Bake the Baklava until golden and crisp. While it’s baking, prepare a simple syrup flavoured with lemon juice, orange blossom water, or rosewater. Pour the hot syrup over the warm Baklava and let it absorb.
  4. Serve: Allow the Baklava to cool and soak up the syrup before cutting it into individual servings.

Basbousa

Basbousa is a traditional Egyptian dessert made from semolina, soaked in a sweet syrup flavoured with lemon, rosewater or orange blossom water. It is often garnished with almonds or coconut. Here’s a brief overview of how to make Basbousa:

  1. Prepare the batter: Mix semolina, sugar, yoghurt, melted butter, and baking powder to form a thick batter.
  2. Bake the cake: Pour the batter into a greased baking pan and level with a spatula. Cut the Basbousa into diamond or square shapes before baking. Place an almond on top of each piece and bake until golden brown.
  3. Add the syrup: As soon as the Basbousa comes out of the oven, pour the prepared syrup over it and let it soak up the syrup.
  4. Serve: Allow the Basbousa to cool down before serving.

Kunafa

Kunafa is a popular dessert across Arab countries, made from shredded filo dough (kataifi) filled with sweet cheese or cream, and soaked in sugar syrup. Here’s a brief guide to making Kunafa:

  1. Prepare the dough: Start by loosening and spreading the kataifi dough and mix it with melted butter or ghee.
  2. Prepare the filling: You can use sweet cheese or cream (such as ricotta or mascarpone) as the filling. Some recipes also include nuts or fruits for added flavour.
  3. Assemble and bake: Place a layer of the buttered kataifi dough at the bottom of a baking dish, add the filling, and then top with another layer of the dough. Bake until the top is golden and crispy.
  4. Add the syrup: Prepare a sugar syrup flavoured with lemon juice, rosewater, or orange blossom water, and pour it over the hot Kunafa as soon as it comes out of the oven.
  5. Serve: Allow the Kunafa to cool slightly before cutting into individual servings and enjoy.

Arabic desserts, such as Baklava, Basbousa, and Kunafa, are not only delicious but also showcase the rich and diverse culinary heritage of the region. Take the time to explore these desserts and experience the unique flavours and textures they have to offer.

Pairing Arabic Dishes with Drinks

When enjoying Arabic cuisine, finding the perfect drink pairing can elevate your meal to new heights. Let’s explore a few suggestions for pairing drinks with popular Arabic dishes.

For starters, when indulging in mezze such as creamy baba ganoush, lemony tabbouleh, or tangy fattoush salad, consider a refreshing and crisp white wine. 

Sauvignon Blanc offers a bright contrast that complements the earthy flavours of hummus and other starters. Look for a 2011 Rock Hollow Winery from Santa Barbara, or try an Old World-style wine like the 2012 90 to enhance your dining experience.

If you’re savouring seafood dishes, particularly white fish fillet with tahini sauce, opt for a wine that pairs well with these flavours. Lighter white wines, such as a Chardonnay or a Pinot Gris, accentuate the taste of seafood without overpowering the delicate mixture of garlic, lemon juice, and tahini paste.

When tucking into spicy Middle Eastern dishes, think pink. Rosé-style wines from Provence, or those made in a similar style, are particularly refreshing when served well-chilled. The acidity in these wines helps to balance the heat and bring out the flavours of the ingredients used in Middle Eastern cuisine.

For meat dishes like grilled lamb kebabs or spiced chicken shawarma, a medium-bodied red wine would do the trick. A versatile and fruity Grenache is an excellent choice, as its smooth tannins and moderate acidity complement the rich, fragrant flavours of grilled or roasted meats.

Following these suggestions will ensure that you have a delightful experience with your Arabic meal, accentuating the nuances of every dish while quenching your thirst. Enjoy!

Conclusion: The Influence of Arabic Cuisine in the Culinary World

Arabic cuisine has had a significant influence on the culinary world throughout history. With the spread of the Islamic Empire, several ingredients, techniques, and dishes that were developed and refined in Arabic kitchens made their way to Western countries, shaping their culinary landscape.

You may not realise it, but many dishes and ingredients commonly found in today’s Western kitchens can be traced back to Arabic cuisine. 

For instance, the Middle East’s long-standing trade and cultural connections with Persia had a profound impact on Abbasid-era dishes as evident in al-Baghdadi’s cookbook, which features 160 recipes inspired by Persian food traditions.

One of the primary ways Arabic cuisine has influenced the West can be seen in the widespread adoption of ingredients such as spices, rice, and citrus fruits. These ingredients were initially more common in Arabic dishes, and their introduction to European cuisines played a major role in the development of Mediterranean and European food culture.

Moreover, the diverse array of flavours, textures, and culinary techniques in Arabic gastronomy has been integrated into kitchens worldwide. 

For example, the Ottoman Empire, which comprised Arabs, Persians, and Byzantines, played a crucial role in shaping contemporary Arab cooking and introducing these traditions to a wider audience.

In conclusion, the influence of Arabic cuisine in the culinary world is vast and far-reaching. Its rich history and the seamless fusion of cultures have significantly shaped the way food is prepared, enjoyed, and continuously reinvented across the globe. 

As you explore the flavours and techniques of Arabic cooking, you’ll undoubtedly see the echoes of its influence within many international dishes and ingredients.

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