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Middle Eastern Spices, Seasonings and Food
An interesting facet of food culture is that when there are wars across the world, the people who return home from war have often developed a taste for the foods of the place they have just come from. After WWII, the GIs who had been stationed in Europe brought home with them the flavors of the Mediterranean, and the demand and use of Mediterranean oregano shot up exponentially from the 40s to the 80s. This was mainly due to the love of pizza, which is often topped with oregano in Europe. Today, we have something similar happening with the rise of popularity in the foods from the Middle East with our current day GIs returning home from the various wars in the middle east and bringing their new food loves. 

The Middle Eastern region covers a large expanse of land. It ranges across where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge and includes countries like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Food in these countries comes from the deep ancestral heritage of the region's people. The heart of these cultures is deeply rooted in their traditions, and their traditions are reflected in the foods they eat.

Wheat was first cultivated in the Middle East, followed shortly by barley, dates, figs, pistachios, and pomegranates. Fruit, poultry, and rice were introduced during the Persian Empire from 550-330 BC. With the Mongol invaders came dumplings. Russians contributed yogurt. Cumin, garlic, and turmeric were all thanks to India and okra came from Africa. Allspice, cloves, and peppercorns were brought from the Spice Islands. Religion played a part too; as many people in the Middle East are either Muslim or Jewish, and pork is not consumed as part of these religions, lamb is a primary meat. As the world continues to grow smaller thanks to technology and travel, we will continue to enjoy the influence of other culture's cuisines on our own. 

This influence extends past restaurants. When you want to have Middle Eastern food, you can make your own with easy to replicate recipes discovered through a simple search on the internet. If you are daring enough to try one of these recipes out for yourself, you may want to look at the difference spices and seasonings used in the Middle East to make food as delicious and authentic as possible. 

Middle Eastern Spices

Most Middle Eastern spices are familiar to the American palette but have uses that Americans normally wouldn't think about. The Middle Eastern diet is full of foods like lamb, feta cheese, and flatbreads. Wheat or rice is available at every meal, whether as bread, pilaf, or matzoh and it is seasoned according to what the meal it is going accompany tastes like. Eggplant is the most popular vegetable in the Middle East and it is seasoned with things like chile flakes and cumin. These foods are not as common in the United States, with the exception of wheat and rice. 

  • Aleppo Pepper- This pepper is a mild, fruity pepper that lends those qualities to a lot of savory dishes in Middle Eastern cooking.

  • Anise Seed- Used frequently in breads, fruit dishes, and in cakes. It has a licorice flavor that is popular to people in the Middle East. Not so much in America.

  • Crushed Maras Pepper- Popular for its fruity aroma and rich flavor, this crushed chile is as common on tables in the Middle East as Black Pepper is in the United States.

  • Ground Nutmeg- With its warm and spicy aroma and flavor, nutmeg is wonderful in desserts and in savory cooking. While we in America typically associate nutmeg with the holidays, people in the Middle East use it year-round.

  • Caraway Seed- This is an ingredient in the popular dessert meghli. Caraway Seed has a spicy yet sweet flavor that is used in desserts and meat dishes.

  • Sumac- Most commonly used in a dish called fattoush, this spice is also popular for meats, rice, and salads. Sumac is thought to be sour and a good lemon substitute in the Middle East.

  • Cardamom- This is used in a wide variety of dishes, whether savory or sweet. You can find cardamom in Middle Eastern desserts, in coffees, and sometimes even in breads. Cardamom is also used in many beverages.

  • Turmeric- Predominantly a spice used in rice, Turmeric gives food a lovely yellow hue and tastes delicious, too.

  • Cumin- A favored spice in the Middle East that is used on everything from falafel to soups.

  • Cinnamon- This spice has a unique purpose in the Middle East, and that is to season chicken.

Seasoning Blends Used in the Middle East

Seasoning blends in the Middle East are not made with unified recipes. Often times they are created differently in each household, depending on that family's interest and flavor needs. This is true for stores and brands as well, so no matter where you go every version of the spice blends will be slightly different. Usually ingredients are the same, with the amounts of each spice being the varying factor. 

  • Ras-el-Hanout- This blend is very versatile and when roughly translated, the name means "top shelf.

  • Baharat- Used in stews, tomato sauces, and with lentils, Baharat is an important spice blend in Middle Eastern cuisines.

  • Za'atar- There are actually two versions of this blend, a Syrian blend which has salt in it, and an Israeli blend that is salt free. It is used most frequently on pita bread.

Middle Eastern ingredients can be a little hard to come by sometimes. If you are venturing into cooking Middle Eastern food a good place to start would be with recipes like tabbouleh, chicken shawarma, or falafel where you can get a feel for the flavors of the Middle East with some approachable and easier to find ingredients. The Middle East is full of wonderful flavor adventures. What are you waiting for? 

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