Which home cook doesn’t have a tome by Yotam Ottolenghi on their bookshelf? The Jerusalem-born, London-based chef, restaurateur and author can probably be credited for single-handedly introducing the form and flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine to the wider public, especially in the UK. But even if the Ottolenghi brand of cuisine has passed you by, it’s unlikely you’ll remain immune to the temptations of the culinary traditions of the Middle East for long. The varied and vibrant cuisine is all the rage right now and has been named among the top food trends for 2018. Below, we look at the fundamentals of the food and enlighten you in the joys of feasting à la Middle East. Rachel Duffell is a freelance writer and editor, and the founder of #MiddleFeastern, a supper club that brings together food lovers to cook and share dishes inspired by the flavours and techniques of the Middle East.

1. The Middle East is broad, and its influence broader yet

Diversity is inherent in the Middle East, which encompasses nations as far afield as Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Yet over thousands of years, while many of its borders have changed frequently, culinary traditions have often remained rooted. Trade has taken culinary influences with it – to the southern Mediterranean and to Libya, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa, where culinary characteristics of the Middle East can be found, as well as to Armenia, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Names may differ but the essence of many a dish spans borders and seas.

2. Spice is life

Middle Eastern cuisine is known for its use of spices and herbs, from the better known cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, mint and parsley, to less common fenugreek (its seeds and leaves are used), sumac (its fruit is dried and powdered and lends dishes a citrusy tang) and za’atar, which refers to thyme-like herbs but is also the name given to a spice blend comprised of dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds, salt, and sometimes sumac.

Spice blends, in fact, are common, though their constituents and quantities vary. Ras el-hanout can include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dried ginger, chilli, coriander seed, pepper, paprika, fenugreek and turmeric, while Lebanese baharat might mix black pepper, allspice, coriander, cumin, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Harissa is a paste usually made from chilli, garlic, lemon, olive oil and spices such as caraway, coriander and cumin.

But spice is not the only thing that makes Middle Eastern cuisine stand out—there are a host of pantry essentials that make its dishes distinctive, from rose water, tahini and pomegranate molasses to vine leaves, bulgur wheat, orange blossom and date syrup. This can be challenging for home cooks who will often require a host of hard-to-find ingredients to ensure they hit all the right notes on the palate. 

There’s a time for technique

Some Middle Eastern dishes take time and technique, whether it’s soaking chickpeas, preserving lemons or pickling various vegetables. There’s also the slow-braising of meats and vegetables for a tagine. An extensive selection of variations of this traditionally North African dish, which is named after the receptacle in which it is cooked, is on offer at Le Souk.

Yet for all the traditions and techniques, Middle Eastern cuisine is open to interpretation—with so much diversity and so many influences, there have inevitably been adaptations and the use of artistic license.

Le Souk, 4 Staunton Street, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2522 2128; aldentegroup.co

3. Flatbread for the win

Throughout time and across the world, cuisines have incorporated some form of flatbread. Pita in particular, a common accompaniment to a Middle Eastern feast, is widely considered the oldest bread in the world, thought to have originated in Western Asia as early as 2500BC. Today, flatbread remains a familiar side dish in the Middle East. Its baba ganoush and hummus begs to be scooped up with warm airy bread in place of a spoon, while grilled, spiced meat is elevated when ensconced in soft dough.

4. Middle Eastern food for all

Middle Eastern cuisine is one of the easiest for those with dietary requirements to enjoy. With lots of legumes (chickpeas are the basis of hummus and falafel – Mama Malouf excels at the latter) and vegetable-based dishes, there’s a wealth from which vegetarians can choose. Vegans don’t fare badly either. Middle Eastern cuisine does not make much use of eggs or dairy, aside from cheese in the form of feta or halloumi (the latter is grilled with an earthy coating of wild oregano and a dash of sweet pomegranate molasses at Francis), and yoghurt in some marinades and dips or to make labneh, a tangy, salty strained yoghurt more closely akin to cheese (don’t miss it at Maison Libanaise).

There’s one meat rarely found on a Middle Eastern menu. As many of the countries where Middle Eastern food is found are predominantly Muslim, pork hardly features as Islam prohibits its consumption.

Mama Malouf, 93 Catchick Street, Kennedy Town, Hong Kong; +852 2817 3828; mamamalouf.hk 

Maison Libanaise, 10 Shelley Street, Central, Hong Kong; +852 2111 2284; maisonlibanaise.com.hk

5. There are perfect pairings

From Turkish coffee to various teas, hot drinks make a worthy match. For something stronger, look to Lebanon’s wine-producing Bekaa Valley. The list at Francis sees Domaine des Tourelles and Chateaux Kefraya and Ksara represent, while Maison Libanaise has a particularly strong wine menu featuring the renowned Chateau Musar, which has been making wine since 1930, alongside an impressive selection of vintage bottles dating back almost as far.

Francis, 4 & 6 St Francis Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; +852 3101 9521; francis.com.hk

6. Treats for the sweet of tooth

Sweet treats certainly have their place, from baklava (layered pastries of filo, nuts and honey) and lokum (Turkish delight) to halva (a nougat-like confection) and cakes making the most of ingredients such as pistachios, olive oil and flower waters (the traditional knafeh at Francis incorporates fragrant orange blossom to great effect). The Middle East produces the majority of the world’s dates, too, and these dried delights have an important part to play in desserts, often adding a sticky sweetness to indulgent puddings and bringing a Middle Eastern feast to the sweetest of conclusions.

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