The average Indian has a myopic view of Middle Eastern cuisine. Shawarma, grilled chicken, hummus, kebabs. This is perhaps what he thinks makes up the cuisine from this region.
One of the biggest myths in our country is that Middle Eastern cuisine refers to Arabian food. But the fact is that Middle Eastern cuisine is a rather broad term to refer to the vast and rich culinary heritage of several different countries (Turkey, Iran, Gulf countries, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco etc.) that make up the geographical region referred to as Middle East today.
There is a very valid reason why this myth exists. The largest number of migrants from India used to reside in the Gulf countries like U.A.E, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc and the initial Middle Eastern restaurants in India were opened by some of the migrants who returned back home and discovered that there is a huge market for this food in the country.
It is only in the recent times that Indians have started to explore more Middle Eastern countries which has not only broadened their understanding of the cuisine but also indirectly encouraged restaurateurs to open more eateries specializing in the cuisine from a particular region like Morocco or Turkey.
One of the first Middle Eastern foods to become a rage in India, especially in South India was the shawarma. Slow roasted, succulent meat encased in a soft flat bread with sliced onions, pickled vegetables and drizzled generously with garlic sauce, hummus or tahina, the shawarma has become extremely popular among the masses, both young and old.
What we know as shawarma originated from the Turkish dish, ‘doner kebab’. Both are quite similar except for the choice of meat or dressings. A Greek equivalent to this dish is the gyros; again meat slow cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Unlike in the Arab region, Greeks love pork and so it is not uncommon to find pork gyros especially served with feta or halloumi cheese and also tzatziki (a delicious cucumber yoghurt dip).
Meze or Mezze is a very important aspect of all Middle Eastern meals; in fact it is the traditional way to start a meal. Meze refers to a selection of small dishes that is served together either to accompany alcoholic drinks or as a starter/appetizer to begin a meal. The dishes included in a meze platter vary widely between regions but there are some dishes that are commonly shared between different types of Middle Eastern cuisine.
One of the most popular mezze dish in India is the hummus. It is essentially a dip or spread made from chickpeas, tahina (sesame seed paste), olive oil, lemon juice and sometimes, yoghurt. A creamy spread that deliciously pairs with all kinds of flat bread, hummus has a big fan following in our country.
Another very popular item of the mezze is baba ghanoush, a roasted eggplant based spread. This one has not received much recognition in the Indian food scene except at some specialty restaurants. An equally delicious one like the hummus, baba ghanoush can be enjoyed both as a vegetarian and non-vegetarian dish. It is healthy, easy to make and one of the most appetizing ways to start off a Middle Eastern meal.
For most people, Middle Eastern food is all about kebabs. True that meat skewers are much loved in Middle Eastern cuisine but it is just one type of dish. There are so many interesting ways meat is cooked in this cuisine and one my personal favorites are the stews which are so similar to our curries but lighter and more flavorful. Murag is a traditional and very famous Iraqi meat stew generously spiced by Baharat, a very popular spice blend in Middle Eastern cuisine.
Lentils are an integral part of Middle Eastern cuisine and enjoyed in several forms like soups, salads, meat and vegetable stews etc. A common soup that you will find in most restaurants especially in the Gulf countries is the Arabian lentil soup or Shorbat Adas. Lentils are slow cooked in a meat broth which imparts a unique flavor and also high in nutrients. Many restaurants serve this for free in the Arab countries.
Another common myth is that Middle Eastern cuisine is all about meat. Totally false!
With many regions enjoying enviable coast lines, seafood holds a prominent place in Middle Eastern cuisine. A traditional seafood preparation is ‘Samak bi Tahini (Fish with sesame seed paste)’; this is especially common in Emirati cuisine as well as other region of the Arab countries. Another famous seafood dish is ‘Sayadiah (Arabian Fish with Rice)’ especially common along the coastal regions of Yemen. A variation of this dish can be found in Lebanese cuisine where the fish is grilled or fried and then layered with yellow saffron rice.
Another misconception is that only flatbreads are eaten for daily meals. But the truth is that rice holds a very important place in the cuisine. In fact our much loved pulao (known as pilaf in Middle East) and biryani originated in Persia. But there is one rice dish that is slowly becoming famous in India too and that is Kabsa which has its origins in Yemen but now enjoyed in other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia. In many other regions like UAE, Iraq and Kuwait, it is often referred to as Machbus but both dishes are cooked and served in a very similar manner. An almost lighter version of our meat biryani!
And no Middle Eastern meal would be complete without a selection of sweets. A very interesting point is that many Middle Eastern desserts or sweets have influences on Indian sweets, all thanks to the Arab traders who visited our country in the yesteryears. Some notable ones include Al Lugaimat (sweet dough balls famous in Saudi Arabia), Oyoun El-Maha (similar to our peda), Jazar Halwa (of course, our very own carrot halwa), Omani Khabeesa (a type of semolina based kheer) and ofcourse, the infamous Baklava famous from the times of the Ottoman Empire.
Dhanya Samuel, a food writer, recipe developer, blogger and freelance journalist. Her creative playground is ‘The Spice Adventuress’ where food becomes a medium to bridge cultural, social, religious and geographical differences. She is a dreamer and an avid reader. When she is not cooking up a storm in the kitchen, you can find her experimenting with spices, exploring the local library or wandering around local farmer’s markets.
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About Relishious:Relishious, the App that will help you look up signatures at restaurants around the city. Wait no more. Explore curations of foods that you can try when you dine out next. Download App . This blog is all about good food and it’s related experiences. You’d find just about everything that’s got something to do with good food!