Traveling Through Middle Eastern Food

Living for 16 months in the Arab world allowed me to delve deeply into Middle Eastern food and enjoy dishes that many tourists have never even heard about. For this reason, today we’re traveling through Arab cuisine, sampling my favorites from the plethora of dishes found when wandering through the region. Indeed, there’s more to Middle Eastern food than hummus and falafel!

Makdous (المكدوس)

Makdous is a dish you probably won’t find unless you visit the Levant region (Syria in particular). It consists of eggplants bathed in oil, stuffed with chopped red peppers, walnuts, garlic, then sprinkled with olive oil, salt and chili powder to taste. The eggplants are tangy and bite-size — a perfect first course!

Kibbeh (كبة)

To my surprise, there are many types of kibbeh: Middle Eastern, Kurdish, and even Brazilian. Before I visited the Middle East, though, I did not even know what the word meant. But when my Lebanese friend introduced me to this croquette, it quickly became my favorite Middle Eastern snack! The Arab kind, which is actually pronounced koubba,  is a torpedo-shaped appetizer made of bulgur, stuffed with minced beef and then deep fried until brown. It is an essential part of mezze in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine/West Bank, Israel), Egypt (koubeiba), Iraq, Iran, Cyprus (koupes), and Arabia.

Baba ghanoush (بابا غنوج)

I did not like eggplant until I tried this garlic-infused side dish at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant Taza in Dokki, Cairo. The recipe is simple: Roast, peel and mash some eggplants; then blend them with tahini, garlic, salt, vinegar, lemon juice, finely-chopped onions, tomatoes, and top it all off with an extra dash of cumin and chili powder. This flavorful mezze may be eaten cold as a salad or slightly warm as a pita dip. An insider’s tip? Spread baba ghanoush on your lamb kebab (my personal favorite)!

Kushari (كشرى)

Kushari is one of Egypt’s signature dishes. At first sight, it looks like several leftovers mixed together in one plate. Don’t let its looks fool you, though: Once you take a bite, you are in heaven. This flavorful dish consists of macaroni, rice, lentils, fried onions, garbanzo beans, vinegar, garlic and hot sauce. The best part? Kushari stands can be found all over Cairo and it is one of the cheapest meals you can buy in the country. The most infamous locations to try this staple Egyptian dish, though, are Koshary Abou Tarek (16 Maarouf St., Champollion, Cairo) and Koshary El Tahrir (12, Youssef El Gendy St. , off of Bab El Louk St.). Backpackers galore!

Kabsa (كبسة)

I’m not a big fan of rice, but the aromatic, flavorful Middle Eastern spices changed all that. Kabsa is the dish that best exemplifies this fact! Typically known as Saudi Arabia’s national dish, its origins may actually trace back to Yemen. However, it is eaten in most Gulf countries. My favorite thing about kabsa, though? Its endless possibilities! Bay leaves, black lime, cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg, raisins, pine nuts…you name the spice and garnish to top it all off. As long as it is made with basmati rice, mixed vegetables, Middle Eastern spices, meats and/or seafood, it is fair game. Thus, recipes and spice mixes may vary greatly from country to country, household to household. Chances are, two kabsas will never be the same.

In addition to impressive desert landscapes and extensive history, you have yet another reason to visit the Middle East: It’s delicious food!

This article was originally published on Art of Adventuring, then moved to WW in February 2017.

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