Arabic cuisine is a rich tapestry of flavours and textures, reflecting the diverse cultures and centuries-old traditions of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula. As you explore the vast array of dishes in this culinary domain, you’ll encounter mouth-watering spice blends, tender grilled meats, and scrumptious vegetarian options.
At the heart of Arabic cuisine lies an array of spices that elevate every dish to new heights. Baharat, a blend featuring seven or eight spices, including nutmeg, cardamom, coriander, and cumin, is the most widely used mixture in the region. You’ll also come across Ras el Hanout, a vibrant spice mix that imparts deep notes of warmth to enhance your dining experience.
Featuring dishes like Mansaf, a traditional lamb dish with yoghurt and rice, Manakeesh, often referred to as the pizza of the Arab world, and Kebabs offering grilled meat and vegetables, Arabic cuisine boasts a plethora of must-try delights that will leave your taste buds craving more. So, embark on this culinary journey and prepare to be entranced by the unique and exquisite flavours of Arabic dishes.
History of Arabic Dishes
Arab cuisine has a rich and diverse history, spanning centuries and incorporating various regional cuisines of the Arab world, from the Maghreb to the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The foundation of Arab food can be traced back to the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Hittites, Arameans, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Nabateans.
You will find that the history of Arab food is closely linked to trade, agriculture, and conquests. The Fertile Crescent, including Mesopotamia, was where wheat was first cultivated, followed by rye, barley, lentils, beans, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, and dates. These regional staples formed the basis of Arab dishes, which evolved as new ingredients, spices, and techniques were introduced due to trade and cultural exchanges.
In the 7th century, when Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula arrived at the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and eventually occupied North Africa, they encountered a wide variety of foods, some of which dated back to the beginnings of civilisation.
As the Arab people spread across the region, they absorbed culinary influences from the countries and cultures they encountered, such as the Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Byzantines. This led to the development of a unique and distinct Arab cuisine that integrated flavours, ingredients, and dishes from these different cultures.
Throughout the medieval period, recipes and cooking techniques moved between cities and regions within the Arab world, much like stories from One Thousand and One Nights. These recipes were collected, tested, and adjusted to suit local tastes and ingredients. Classic Arabic dishes like kibbeh, falafel, and shawarma can trace their origins back to these historical culinary exchanges.
Today, Arab cuisine continues to be a reflection of the region’s history, showcasing the vibrant flavours, aromatic spices, and diverse ingredients that have shaped its culinary evolution.
Hummus and Pita
Hummus, a popular Middle Eastern dish, is made from mashed chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. It’s often served with pita bread, which is perfect for dipping. This versatile dish can be enjoyed as a snack or appetiser and is also a great option for vegetarians.
Falafel is a delicious and nutritious dish made from chickpeas or fava beans that have been ground and mixed with onions, garlic, and spices before being formed into small balls or patties. These are then deep-fried until golden and crispy. You can enjoy falafel on its own, in a sandwich, or paired with a salad. Don’t forget to try it with tahini sauce for an extra burst of flavour!
Shawarma is a famous and flavourful Arabic dish that consists of thinly sliced marinated meat – often chicken, beef, or lamb – cooked on a vertical spit. The slow roasting process ensures the meat remains tender and succulent. Once cooked, the meat is shaved off the spit, typically served in a wrap or atop a plate of rice, accompanied by vegetables and a variety of sauces, such as garlic sauce or tahini. This mouth-watering dish is a must-try for any food lover.
Levantine cuisine originates from the Eastern Mediterranean region, including countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. This region boasts a wide variety of dishes characterised by the abundant use of olive oil, fresh vegetables, lean meats, and flavourful herbs. Some of the most popular dishes you may encounter in Levantine cuisine include:
- Hummus: a creamy dip made from mashed chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.
- Tabbouleh: a refreshing salad consisting of bulgur wheat, finely chopped parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions, and seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice.
- Shawarma: a delicious wrap filled with thinly sliced, marinated and cooked meat (typically lamb, chicken or beef) combined with vegetables and various sauces.
The Levantine region is also known for its flavourful and vibrant mezze, a selection of small appetizers like falafel, baba ghanoush, and stuffed grape leaves.
Egyptian cuisine is heavily influenced by its location at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean. Staple ingredients include legumes, rice, and vegetables, with a focus on seasonal and locally sourced produce. Here are some iconic Egyptian dishes you may wish to try:
- Koshari: a hearty dish of rice, pasta, lentils, and chickpeas, topped with a spiced tomato sauce and caramelised onions.
- Ful Medames: a wholesome breakfast meal made from slow-cooked fava beans, seasoned with spices, olive oil, and lemon juice.
- Ta’ameya: the Egyptian version of falafel, made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, giving it a unique and delicious taste.
Egyptian cuisine is also known for its delicious flatbreads, such as the soft and chewy “baladi” bread, often used as a utensil to scoop up dips or accompany meals.
In both Levantine and Egyptian cuisines, you’ll experience a rich tapestry of flavours, textures, and cultural influences that showcase the diversity and culinary skills of the Arab world. So relish your opportunity to taste these delightful regional dishes, and explore the nuances that set them apart.
Modern Arabic Cuisine
In this section, we will explore the exciting world of modern Arabic cuisine. Drawing from its rich culinary heritage and incorporating new influences, modern Arabic cuisine is an innovative fusion of traditional flavours with contemporary techniques and ingredients.
Arabic Fusion Foods
Today, you’ll find a wealth of Arabic fusion dishes that combine the best of authentic Middle Eastern flavours with international cuisines. For example:
- Baharat-infused pasta: Taking inspiration from Italian cuisine, this dish uses the aromatic Middle Eastern spice blend, Baharat, to flavour pasta dishes with a unique twist.
- Fattoush tacos: A playful fusion of Levantine bread salad, Fattoush, and Mexican tacos. This dish features crispy Arabic bread, fresh greens, and tangy pomegranate dressing tucked into a soft taco shell.
- Ras el Hanout hummus: A delicious blend of the North African spice mix known as Ras el Hanout, mixed into creamy hummus, making for an adventurous take on the beloved Middle Eastern dip.
Presentation plays a significant role in the appeal of modern Arabic cuisine. Chefs are using innovative plating techniques to turn their dishes into edible art. Here are a few contemporary plating ideas for you to try at home:
- Deconstructed falafel: Instead of serving traditional deep-fried falafel balls, arrange the chickpea mixture in a crescent shape on one side of the plate, and artistically place the accompanying vegetables, drizzles, and dips around the main element.
- Citrus and avocado salad tower: Create a visually striking salad by placing thin slices of citrus fruits and avocado in an alternating pattern and stacking them vertically on a plate. Drizzle orange water vinaigrette around the tower for a burst of flavour and a beautiful presentation.
- Molecular gastronomy: Experiment with modern culinary techniques such as incorporating foams, gels, and spheres into your Arabic dishes, adding to both their visual appeal and taste sensation.
As you explore the world of modern Arabic cuisine, remember to embrace creativity and infuse your dishes with a mix of traditional and innovative flavours. By doing so, you’ll take your culinary endeavours to new heights and impress your guests with your unique twist on Arabic classics.
Arabic desserts are known for their unique flavours and rich taste. In this section, we will discuss two popular Arabic sweets: Baklava and Kunafa.
Baklava is a well-known dessert originating from the Middle East. It consists of layering nuts, such as walnuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts, between sheets of thin phyllo dough. The dessert is then sweetened using a simple syrup made from sugar or honey. This traditional sweet is famous for its delicate and flaky texture combined with the rich flavours of the nuts.
To enjoy Baklava, you can follow these simple steps:
- Choose your favourite nuts, such as walnuts, pistachios, or hazelnuts.
- Layer the thin phyllo dough and your chosen nuts in a baking dish.
- Bake at a moderate temperature until golden and crisp.
- Drizzle the sugar or honey syrup over the warm baklava and allow it to soak in.
- Allow the baklava to cool before indulging in this delicious treat.
Kunafa is another popular Arabic dessert, considered one of the most beloved sweets in Arab nations. It is made of a speciality cheese pastry soaked in a sweet, sugar syrup. This dessert is known for its creamy, cheesy filling and the crunchy texture of the dough.
Here’s how you can make Kunafa:
- Prepare a sugar syrup by combining sugar, water, and a touch of lemon juice.
- Create the cheese filling using soft white cheese, such as Akkawi or Mozzarella.
- Make a dough mixture using shredded phyllo dough (kataifi), melted butter, and a pinch of food colouring if desired.
- Assemble the dessert by layering the dough mixture on the bottom of a round baking dish, followed by the cheese filling and finally, another layer of dough.
- Bake until the Kunafa is golden brown and crispy.
- Pour the sugar syrup over the warm Kunafa and let it absorb the sweetness.
So go ahead, enrich your taste buds with the delightful flavours of Baklava and Kunafa, and immerse yourself in the rich world of Arabic sweets.
In Arabic cuisine, a variety of cooking techniques are used to create the rich flavours and textures that make these dishes so unique. Here are some key techniques utilised in the preparation of many popular Arabic dishes:
Roasting is a popular method in Arabic cooking, especially for meats. This technique involves cooking the food in an oven or over an open flame, resulting in a delicious, tender texture. For example, preparing shawarma involves roasting marinated meat on a vertical spit.
Like roasting, grilling is another technique used to cook meats and vegetables, but over an open flame or under a grill. Kebabs are a prime example of Arabic dishes cooked using this method, where the meat or vegetables are skewered and grilled to perfection.
Slow-cooking meats and vegetables in a seasoned liquid is another common technique in Arabic cooking. This method infuses the flavours of the spices and herbs throughout the dish and creates a tender, succulent result. A popular example of a stewed dish is tagine, often made with a variety of meats, vegetables, and spices.
Frying is another technique often used to cook ingredients quickly while achieving a crispy exterior. For example, falafel is a popular Arabic dish where chickpea balls are deep-fried until they become golden and crunchy on the outside.
In Arabic cuisine, ingredients such as chickpeas and vegetables are often mashed to create dishes like hummus and baba ganoush. This technique brings out the flavours of the ingredients and produces a smooth, creamy texture.
By incorporating these techniques into your cooking, you can experience the exquisite flavours and textures of traditional Arabic dishes. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ingredients and methods to discover which techniques work best for your preferred dishes, and enjoy the delicious results.
Signature Spices and Ingredients
Za’atar is a popular Middle Eastern spice blend consisting of thyme, sesame seeds, sumac and salt. It is used extensively in Arabic dishes to add a tangy, herbal taste to many recipes. You can incorporate za’atar into your cooking by sprinkling it on top of flatbreads, mixing it into dips such as hummus, or using it as a seasoning for roasted vegetables and meat.
Sumac is a vibrant, dark brick-red spice that imparts a tart, fruity flavour to various Arabic dishes. Commonly found in Lebanese cuisine, sumac adds a pop of bright acidity that elevates the taste in dishes like fattoush salad, tabbouleh, and even as part of the za’atar blend. To include sumac in your cooking, try sprinkling a small amount on top of salads, using it to season grilled meats or fish or even adding it to rice dishes for a unique flavour profile.
Saffron, a precious spice derived from the stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower, is highly prized in Arabic cuisine for its intense aroma, golden colour, and subtle flavour. Known as زعفران (Za’faran) in Arabic, it’s often used in dishes like rice pilaf, stews and desserts.
To make the most of its delicate taste and beautiful hue, steep a few saffron threads in warm water or milk before incorporating the liquid into your dish. Make sure to use it sparingly, as a little goes a long way.
In summary, these are just a few examples of signature spices and ingredients found in Arabic cuisine. By incorporating za’atar, sumac, and saffron into your cooking, you can easily elevate the taste and authenticity of your dishes. Happy cooking!