The Middle East’s polarizing history and politics arouse and inflame passions in a way few other topics of conversation do. Sometimes, the sensitivities even extend to food.
The great thing about viewing the Middle East through the prism of food is that, falafel aside, the region’s cuisines are both a celebration of the qualities that make each nation distinct and unique, as well as a tribute to everything the countries and the people have in common. In his 2009 tome International Cuisine, author Jeremy MacVeigh wrote: “This region has made some of the most important contributions to the culinary world. It was here that agriculture is believed to have originated, bread was first produced, beer was first fermented, yogurt was accidentally made, and the three major religions and their dietary restrictions originated.”
MacVeigh goes on to mention some of the specific qualities that distinguish Middle Eastern cuisines from those of neighboring regions, including the skillful combining of sweet and sour ingredients that “balance the acidity of one with the sweetness of the other”; the prevalence of cooking techniques such as fire-roasting, stewing, baking, and simmering; the outsized roles of wheat and rice; and the liberal use of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, peppercorns, tamarind, ginger, turmeric, chilies, and allspice.
While certain Middle Eastern cuisines have already achieved a measure of prominence and popularity here in the U.S., a few more have been waiting in the wings for some time and now are beginning to make their presence felt, especially in limited service.
Israeli • As we at CCD Innovation noted in a trend report released last year, contemporary Israeli fare is getting respect—and getting reimagined—in unprecedented ways.
Here in the U.S., high-end renditions of hummus and falafel, as well as less familiar fare like shakshouka (a traditional breakfast dish featuring poached eggs in a tomato stew) and labneh (a dip made by straining the liquid from yogurt so it effectively becomes a soft cheese) have begun to inch toward the mainstream. That progress is thanks in part to establishments such as New York’s Bar Bolonat, with its popular fried olives and harissa oil; Philadelphia’s Zahav, which serves a spiced eggplant dish accompanied by lentils, crispy wheat, and garlic tehina; and a very highly regarded charred beet and lentil dish at Zizi Limona in Brooklyn.
As for creative quick-serve applications of this delicious, melting-pot cuisine, an adventurous chain might consider featuring tahini as a dip for bread in place of butter or olive oil, or replacing a meat patty with a spicy, flavorful falafel version.
Persian • Scented, spiced dishes with Silk Road roots also have been gaining favor in recent years, thanks to independent chefs with Iranian backgrounds. Piquant, fragrant ingredients—pomegranates, rose water, sumac, pistachios, saffron, turmeric, tamarind, fenugreek, and dried limes—are the distinguishing features of Persian cuisine, and at Taste of Tehran in Los Angeles, they’re front and center on a diverse and delicious menu. The restaurant’s Mast O Khiar—essentially yogurt with Persian cucumber and mint—along with its various kebabs and skewers, have earned it favorable reviews and a loyal clientele.
At Maykadeh in San Francisco, the menu is highlighted by Ghorme Sabzee, or lamb shank cooked with chopped onions, leeks, scallions, chives, and dried lime. As to how these exotic flavors might work their way into quick-serve or fast-casual settings, I’d recommend choosing signature Persian flavors such as pomegranate molasses, dried mint, or sumac and integrating these into well-known American fare. Sumac, for instance, goes well in salads or as a meat tenderizer, or on grilled fish or chicken.
Turkish • In Susheela Raghavan Uhl’s Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, & Flavorings, the author notes that Turkey’s cuisine is characterized by ingredients such as garlic, Aleppo peppers, bay leaf, paprika, pomegranate juice, yogurt, walnuts, turmeric, and vinegared chile pepper as flavorings for kebabs, dips, soups, fish, or meats.
At Oleana, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Turkish delights on parade include Sultan’s Delight—consisting of tamarind beef, smoky eggplant purée, and pine nuts—and a summer vegetable borek (flaky pastry) highlighted by tomato brown butter, yogurt, and Turkish spices. And at Seattle’s Café Turko, the signature dishes include manti, a kind of Turkish ravioli with beef, garlic, and yogurt sauce drizzled with tomato sauce and butter.
Possible quick-serve applications include creative condiments with Turkish twists, including tamarind ketchup, or a spiced yogurt dip for french fries. More generally, chains might consider combining contrasting elements—from spicy peppers to acidic tomatoes to grilled, smoky vegetables and meats—in the context of a single dish, sandwich, soup, or platter.
It’s these sorts of contrasts that make eating interesting today. The adventurous palates of millennials and Gen Z consumers are at ease with exotic flavors and flavor combinations. And this fondness for the foreign gives quick serves greater license than ever before to delve more deeply into ethnic cuisines like those of the Middle East.