I seem to go through phases with food.
I don’t mean the chocolate phase that I am about to commence this weekend courtesy of the Easter Bunny, nor do I mean the clean eating green smoothie phase that will commence on Easter Monday morning.
I mean that I go through phases where I crave a certain dish or a certain cuisine. The phase can last a few days to a few months. Sometimes the phase is inspired by overseas travel, a television show or a dining experience. At the moment I am infatuated with the flavours, aromas and textures of Middle Eastern food. I am pointing the finger at Ottolenghi for this phase. I can’t get enough of the aromatic spices, the vibrant colours and the nourishing feeling I experience when I sit down to an abundant mezze, a couscous bejeweled with pistachios and pomegranate or a cooling salad featuring the tang of sumac.
Lately I have been playing around in the kitchen with some popular Middle Eastern ingredients in my pantry and I came up with my own recipe for Middle Eastern Lamb Cigars. They’re far from the traditional, elegant variety that comes wrapped in wafer thin brik pastry. My version is rather more robust and generous; the spiced lamb mince filling is wrapped in a spring roll pastry and deep fried for serving with my versatile and highly addictive Tahini dressing. Seriously you will want to dress any salad or grilled meat with the stuff!
So what exactly is Middle Eastern Food? It’s a hard one to sum up as it includes a variety of cuisines from the various countries that make up the region including Turkey, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran. While each of these countries uses similar ingredients and shares similar recipes, there are often slight variations. Common ingredients throughout the Middle East include tahini paste, pomegranate molasses, za’atar, lemon, sumac, olive oil, couscous, chickpeas, dukkah and spice blends such as ras el hanout and baharat.
In Australia we are very fortunate to be able to access most Middle Eastern ingredients quite readily – in our supermarkets, in specialty grocers and even online – but do you know how do you use them?
To help you on your way, I have put together a list of 10 popular Middle Eastern dishes that are easy enough to make at home using some of the incredible ingredients and flavours that the region has to offer. And at the end I have shared with you my Middle Eastern Lamb Cigars recipe!
A popular dip made from cooked chickpeas blended with olive oil, tahini paste, lemon juice and garlic. Tahini Paste is made from ground sesame seeds and it is a key ingredient in so many Middle Eastern recipes. It is very versatile and can be used in savoury dishes as well as sweet dishes such as cakes.
A deep fried ball made from mashed chickpea and sometimes fava beans with the addition of flavourings such as sumac, coriander, parsley and garlic. Sumac is a deep red coloured ground spice that adds a tangy but balanced citric flavour to foods. The felafel can be served on their own or wrapped inside a pita bread with salad and dressing.
A refreshing side dish made from finely chopped parsley and onions, tomatoes, mint and bulgur dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Bulgur is a type of cracked wheat that has been par boiled and dried and is also used in dishes such as pilafs, soups, stuffings and breads.
- Baba Ganoush
This is a delicious dip that forms part of a mezze. Eggplants are charred over flames before their flesh is removed and mixed with ingredients such as garlic, lemon juice, olive oil or tahini and various seasonings. It has smoky flavor thanks to the charring. Chopped Mint is often one of the seasonings used to flavour the Baba Ganoush.
If you’ve been watching My Kitchen Rules you will now know what Shawarma is. Remember Rosie and Paige’s version a few weeks ago when fellow contestants likened the dish to a deconstructed kebab? They were pretty much right – but it is ‘gobsmacklingly’ delicious! Traditionally, Shawarma is seasoned meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie and shaved for serving with a salad or wrapped in pita bread as street food. You can buy Shawarma Spice Mix or Shish Kebab Spice Mix from Lebanese food shops and butchers and I have also found it online.
Hand shaped balls of minced lamb or beef that are traditionally fried or grilled. They are sometimes moulded into flattened cylinders and shaped around metal skewers before char grilling. The meat is seasoned with a variety of spices or a Baharat; an exotic and traditional spice blend that may include cumin, paprika, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, cloves, cardamon and nutmeg and is used to flavour many Middle Eastern dishes, particularly lamb.
I got horribly sick after eating a Fatoush salad in Kuala Lumpur once. For some reason I momentarily forgot my rule about avoiding salads in Asian countries. A mostly bad decision on my part, although it was incredibly delicious! To make a Fatoush you simply assemble a salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion and fresh mint, dress it with oil and lemon and rain over a generous amount of sumac. For crunch you add croutons of fried Pita bread – a great way to use any leftover pita. It simply wouldn’t be a Middle Eastern meal without Pita!
Shakshouka is the Middle Eastern version of baked eggs. In a terracotta dish, eggs are poached in a tomato-based sauce flavoured with onion, chilli and cumin and sometimes featuring roasted capsicum and saffron. Saffron adds a vibrant yellow-orange colour to foods and is widely used in Middle Eastern dishes to colour rice and couscous dishes.
This dish makes the perfect student food as is it both wholesome and light on the budget. It’s a simple rice and lentil pilaf topped with spiced, caramelised onions. Green and brown Lentils are an important addition to Middle Eastern cooking and form the foundation for many popular dishes.
I had to include something sweet and Baklava would be one of the best known Middle Eastern sweets. It’s made with layers of buttered filo pastry, pistachios and a drenching of sugar syrup. There are many recipe variations throughout the Middle East – the Iranian version is flavoured with rosewater, the Armenian version is flavoured with cinnamon and cloves while the Greek version is meant to have 33 layers. Pistachios are the most commonly used nut to make Baklava although almonds and hazelnuts are sometimes used. Pistachios are also used in Middle Eastern cooking to add crunch and colour to dishes such as couscous and pilafs.
- 2 tablespoons Olive Oil
- 1 small Brown Onion, chopped
- 2 Garlic Cloves, finely chopped
- 500g lean Lamb Mince
- 1/4 cup Pine Nuts, toasted
- 1 teaspoon Fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground Cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground Cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons fresh Mint, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh Coriander, finely chopped
- Zest from 1 Lemon
- Salt and Pepper
- 1 packet Spring Roll Pastry
- Oil for deep frying
- Heat Olive Oil in a fry pan over low heat and gently cook the Onion and Garlic for 10 minutes until soft and golden.
- Add the Lamb Mince and, using a fork to break up the pieces, cook for a further two - three minutes until the Lamb is just cooked.
- Drain away any excess liquid from the Lamb Mince.
- Stir in the Fennel seeds, ground Cumin and ground Cinnamon and cook for a further minute or two until the mince is dry.
- Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the fresh Mint, fresh Coriander and Lemon zest.
- Season with Salt and Pepper and allow to cool.
- Take a spring roll pastry sheet and, with one corner pointing at you, spoon two tablespoons of the lamb mixture into the corner. Roll the pastry corner over the mince and fold in the sides before continuing to roll the filling into a cigar shape. With water on your fingertips dab the pastry corner and seal well.
- Repeat 11 times.
- Heat your frying oil in a wok or deep fryer and cook the cigars in batches of three or four until they are golden and brown. Allow to cool slightly and enjoy with the Tahini Yoghurt Sauce below.
- Tahini Yoghurt Dressing
- In a bowl whisk together 200g Natural Yoghurt (one small tub) with 2 tablespoons Tahini Paste and 1 tablespoon Lemon Juice. Stir through 1 tablespoon chopped Mint, top with a generous sprinkling of Sumac and serve.
- Tip: Cover the Spring Roll Pastry with a damp tea towel while you are working to prevent it from drying out.