Food Exploration: The Flavors of the Middle East
The ancient Egyptians loved food. You can still see proof of this in the many well-preserved wall paintings and carvings on the walls of tombs and temples. And, since many of the foods that were eaten in Ancient Egypt are still popular today, you can still eat those beloved foods.
Like many other cultures, Egyptian cuisine varies by region. Typically, the foods of southern Egypt tend to be spicier than those in the north. Overall, though, the food tends to be highly vegetarian with lamb, poultry, and fish as the most common sources of meat.
While the centuries have brought influential flavors and techniques from other parts of the world—first from the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans, and more recently from the Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians—Egyptian cuisine has remained unique. And that makes for some exciting cuisine opportunities for you to sample–and share with your family or friends!
Authentic flavors and ingredients
While methods of food preparation vary as you travel up and down the Nile River, the ingredients remain relatively similar.
- Bread. As one of the most essential staples to the Egyptian diet, bread, comes in a few different forms. Common types of bread are pita (either stuffed with food or consumed plain) and other loaves that are similar to French bread. There are even breads that are left outside to let the dough rise in the heat.
- Beans. Almost every Egyptian eats some kind of bean every day. Legumes are an essential source of protein in the diets of Egyptians, especially since their dishes are heavily vegetarian. Lentil and fava beans are two of the most common beans that are native to the region.
- Fruit and vegetables. Despite only 2 percent of the country being suitable for farming, fruit and vegetables make up the majority of an Egyptian diet. Fruit grows year-round in Egypt, making it available in markets and at street stands. Bananas, dates, oranges, melons, grapes, and peaches are all popular.
- Meat. Since meals are traditionally served without cutlery, meat is generally served as a kebob so it is ready to eat without cutting. Lamb and chicken are frequent favorites, while seafood such as bass, calamari, scallops, eel, and shrimp are usually fried or grilled with veggies.
Eat like an Egyptian
Traditionally, Egyptians eat seated on layered decorative rugs around a low table that is heavily laden with foods that can be eaten by hand or scooped with pita bread. You could try this around, say, the coffee table in your living room, for an authentic experience.
But, even if you go with the typical American preference—taller tables that require chairs—you can still enjoy a family-style meal that feels authentic. Prepare several dishes of food your friends and family can share around the table—and provide no utensils, just pita triangles. After dinner, enjoy some fresh fruit for dessert or a nice cup of Arabic coffee to finish off the meal traditionally.
A variety of dishes, because of their wide consumption regardless of region, are considered to be “national” cuisine. While the flavorings and methods of preparation may vary, the majority of Egyptians enjoy these meals:
- Tahini is a sesame paste usually served as a spread or dip with pita bread.
- Koushari is a popular dish made with lentils, macaroni, rice, and chickpeas.
- Kofta is similar to a meatball and, at its simplest, is a ball of minced meat—usually lamb—mixed with spices and onions.
- Kebabs are typically pieces of lamb meat grilled on a skewer over a charcoal grill. Chicken is often an alternative meat for kebabs as well.
- Hummus is a dip or spread made from chickpeas and is often served with pita bread or vegetables.
Depending on where you are in Egypt—the Upper or Lower Nile or the coast of the Mediterranean or Red seas—the seasonings and additional ingredients will vary to reflect the diets and cultures of that part of the country.
If you want to spice up your next cookout with a little Egyptian flavor, kebabs are definitely the way to go!
3 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into chunks
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
4 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, minced
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, minced
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
16 bamboo skewers, soaked [http://www.chefscatalog.com/product/29408-chefs-bamboo-skewers.aspx?sourcecode=EW1SM1093]
In a bowl combine olive oil, garlic, parsley, oregano, ginger, coriander, paprika, turmeric, and season with salt and pepper.
Add the lamb (cut into chunks).
Thread the lamb pieces onto soaked bamboo skewers and marinate for 2 to 12 hours.
Preheat the grill to medium high heat. Grill until medium rare about 2-3 minutes on each side, or to your desired doneness.
2, 15-ounce cans chick peas (garbanzos), one drained, one with liquid
1/4 cup (35 g) raw sesame seeds
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup (60 ml) lemon juice
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 teaspoon ground cumin
salt, to taste
Place all ingredients, except salt, into the Vitamix container in the order listed and secure lid.
Select Variable 1. Turn machine on and slowly increase speed to Variable 10, then to High. Blend 1 minute, using the tamper to push the ingredients into the blades. Season to taste with salt.
Baba Ghanouj (Eggplant Dip)
1 large, black, firm eggplant
2 tablespoons lemon juice (more to taste if desired)
1 to 2 tablespoons tahini*
1 clove garlic (optional)
Take eggplant and wash. Score or pierce and roast in oven at 400 F. May cover with aluminum foil to keep skin soft. (This can also be cooked in the microwave for 6-8 minutes depending on size, but the flavor will be richer if roasted in the oven.)
After roasting, scrape inside away from skin (or you may choose to cut off top and bottom, and include the skin.)
Place eggplant in food processor. Add lemon juice, tahini, garlic clove (if desired). Process until smooth.
Spread on platter and garnish with Sumac**.
*Tahini is a sesame seed paste. It may be purchased at a Middle Eastern grocery. It will separate, and become very thick at the bottom, with a layer of oil on the top. Just stir occasionally to mix.
**Sumac is a red spice with seeds. When ground, it makes a pretty garnish to Humus and Baba Ghanouj. It is slightly tart, like lemon, only not as intense. May be found at a Middle Eastern grocery.
Recipe courtesy of Gerry Faraj.
Foul M’dammas (Fava Bean Dip)
1 15 ounce can of small fava beans*
1 tablespoon Tahini**
1 clove minced garlic
The juice of 1 small lemon
A pinch of salt
Drain can of small fava beans, drain and reserve liquid. Place the beans and remaining ingredients in a food processor and spin coarsely.
If it is stiff at first, add the reserved liquid 1 tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired consistency. (If you do not have a food processor, this dip turns out well by mashing the beans with a fork or potato masher, then stirring in the rest if the ingredients.)
Spread over a platter and garnish with chopped tomatoes and parsley. Serve with pita bread.
*Fava beans come large and small. The large ones are good warmed with fresh garlic, lemon, and cumin, and used as a side dish. Small ones work best for the dip.
**Tahini is sesame seed paste. It (and the Fava beans) may be purchased at a Middle Eastern grocery. Tahini will separate, becoming very thick at the bottom, with a layer of oil over the top. Just stir occasionally to mix.
Recipe courtesy of Gerry Faraj.
Red Cabbage Salad
The smallest red cabbage will make enough salad for a two quart bowl. It is best to see if 1/4 cabbage will make enough for your family. The ingredient amounts are for 1/4 cabbage.
1/4 of one red cabbage head
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
2 small, or 1 large, clove garlic, minced.
1/4 c water
A food processor may be used for fine chopping, but I prefer to chop with a knife. It must be fine chopping, but not mushy.
Place chopped ¼ head cabbage in a bowl.
Mix other ingredients together then toss with cabbage. Cover and refrigerate for two hours before serving. It is nice to make this the day before. Stir before serving.
Amounts of garlic, lemon, and salt may vary according to taste.
Increase amounts for larger amounts of chopped cabbage.
Recipe courtesy of Gerry Faraj.
Your turn: What is your favoriate Middle Eastern dish? Share the recipe!