The Middle East makes up a large swath of the globe, spanning parts of three continents. But the region’s cuisine is often misidentified as simply Mediterranean food.
While there are certainly similarities, the culinary traditions of the Middle East—from Egypt in the west and Turkey in the north to Iran in the east and Yemen in the south—embody tastes and textures different from those of the Mediterranean foods of Europe and North Africa. In some ways, identifying Middle Eastern cuisine as Mediterranean is similar to lumping the wide array of Asian cuisine under the Chinese banner, or various Latino foods as Mexican.
“It’s like saying the difference between lo mein and pad thai is indistinguishable,” says Neath Pal, a chef who teaches international cuisine and several other courses at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. “It’s ridiculous.”
Many foods are shared by the Middle East and other Mediterranean regions, including flatbreads, roasted skewered meats, and filled dough items, he adds. That in part has to do with history, wars, and cultures rising and falling.
Leila Hudson, associate professor of modern Middle East culture and political economy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, considers the use of “Mediterranean” as a catch-all term as “mostly a marketing decision” when considering the American restaurant scene.
“Mediterranean is a much more popular selling point. People generally understand what that means,” she says.
Tamim Shoja noticed this trend when he and his cousin were planning to launch the fast-casual kebab eatery SKWR Kabobline in Washington, D.C., last year.
“We did a lot of research, and what kept sticking out was how many restaurants represented themselves as Mediterranean when they were not,” he says. “I came to the realization it was a marketing thing. Mediterranean is something that is approachable.”
For Sahar Sander, cofounder of Chicago-based Naf Naf Grill, which has 30 units in five states, there is nothing Mediterranean about Middle Eastern’s signature items, including falafel, hummus, shawarma, baba ghanoush, and specific sauces and spice combinations.
“We are 100 percent Middle Eastern,” he says, adding that the restaurant chain’s menu includes many items he grew up with in Israel—flavors influenced by the cuisine of immigrants brought to that country from elsewhere in the region.
Of course, hummus and falafel have become mainstream in America and are served by many restaurants that don’t have any ties to Middle Eastern cuisine. They are often added to the menu as one more way to provide vegetarian or vegan offerings.
Falafel is typically made with ground chickpeas, onions, parsley, garlic, spices, and other ingredients, rolled into a ball and typically deep fried. Hummus is mashed or puréed chickpeas with garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and tahini.
According to food industry market research firm Datassential, hummus appears on the menu at 12.7 percent of U.S. limited-service restaurants, a 24 percent increase during the past four years. Falafel is served at 4.6 percent of these units, a 40 percent jump over the same period, while tahini and harissa sauces have also shown strong growth.
Many Middle Eastern dishes rely on chickpeas and other legumes, because “they are very inexpensive, an easily grown agricultural product, and very versatile,” says Johnson & Wales’ Pal. Vegetables, spices, herbs, and grains make up a huge part of Middle Eastern cuisine.
There is meat in many of the region’s recipes, but pork is not one of them due to halal and kosher laws. Lamb and other meats are often cooked as kebabs on skewers or as vertical rotisserie–cooked shawarma.
In recent years, chicken has become a major meat in Middle Eastern street food. “When I was a kid, shawarma was just lamb,” Hudson says. “From my generation on, it’s been chicken [as well].”
Numerous spices and herbs are identified with Middle Eastern cooking.
“We see cumin, turmeric, anise, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cardamom—warm, earthy flavors,” says Kimberly Cornelius, a food technologist with seasoning company Wixon. That differs from the sweet, aromatic spices of the Mediterranean, she adds, and creates a more pungent flavor that is also comforting but not necessarily hot. Some spice-herb combinations, such as za’atar, a condiment made largely from dried thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, are favored across the region. Thyme and parsley are particularly popular herbs.
Naf Naf Grill—“naf naf” is Israeli slang for starting a fire—touts its house-made Middle Eastern menu, from the shawarma and falafel to sauces and condiments like Iraqi-style amba, which is pickled mango with vinegar, salt, turmeric, fenugreek, and other ingredients.
One of Sander’s favorite sauces is s’khug, a Yemeni hot sauce his grandmother made. It combines cardamom, cloves, cilantro, red chile peppers, and more. “It is really, really exotic, and it is the most popular hot sauce in Israel,” he says.
Like many other American fast casuals, Naf Naf dishes are created along an assembly line. Guests choose a pita or bowl with a base of Persian-style basmati rice, lettuce, hummus, or couscous, adding chicken or steak shawarma or falafel, and then garnishes and sauces.
“We keep it simple,” Sander says. “We don’t mix in dairy and there’s no pork—not by religious choice, but that’s how much of the food is in the region.”
Halal is at the heart of Halal Guys, which began in 1990 as a food cart catering to New York City cabbies. The enterprise now has 20 brick-and-mortar locations, with franchise deals for hundreds more across the country.
The company was launched by an Egyptian immigrant. “All of the recipes we use are those the founder’s family adapted to be more familiar to Americans,” says Andrew Eck, director of marketing. “All of the flavors and spices and menu items are those you would find in a Middle Eastern community or town.”
To make it easier for Americans to understand, beef shawarma served in a pita with lettuce, tomato, and a hot or white sauce is called a gyro—a Greek sandwich popular in the U.S. There are also chicken and falafel pita sandwiches, and all three of the proteins are available in platters with rice, pita slice, lettuce, and tomato.
Eck says the most popular menu item is the Halal Classic, a platter featuring chicken marinated for 12 hours.
Mamoun’s Falafel had similar humble beginnings, opening in a 225-square-foot space in New York. Featuring a traditional Syrian falafel blend, it now has five units.
“My father talked to his mom about the best way to make it, and it turned out to be a big hit,” says Galal Chater, who owns the company with his brothers. “The big difference with our falafel is our traditional recipe and maintaining its freshness.”
Even as recently as a decade ago, falafel was not something particularly popular outside of some big U.S. cities, he says. “It was bohemian food. If your palate was confined to American food, then it was seen as exotic. What has happened is there’s been a shift to healthier eating and a shift to expand the flavor palate in the United States.”
While falafel is Mamoun’s most popular item in sandwiches and plates, there are many options. Other vegetarian choices include hummus, baba ghanoush, and tabbouleh, while the meats are lamb shawarma, chicken or lamb kebabs, and a ground lamb patty.
Mamoun’s also features grape leaves as a side dish and baklava as a dessert, both Middle Eastern dishes that have traveled to Greece and across the Mediterranean.
The menu at SKWR Kabobline—the name comes from “skewer” without the vowels, and kebabs served in a fast-casual assembly line—shows that Middle Eastern flavors can expand. Served as a bowl, wrap, or plate, the base—one of either two rice or three salad choices—starts the process, followed by one or more items among each of the following groups: six spreads, five proteins, 10 toppings, and five sauces.
Beyond the lamb, chicken, and steak kabobs, Shoja says, SKWR cooks with a twist. It has a white-bean falafel that’s baked rather than fried. The pesto employs Persian ingredients like mint and pistachios rather than the Italian basil and pine nuts.
SKWR’s take on za’atar is as a sauce rather than a condiment, combining the spices with yogurt and olive oil to create an aioli. Another sauce is Afghan-influenced chutney.
“I want to keep the flavors as bold and in your face as possible,” he says. Traditional fare is one part of the spectrum, “but we are also trying new ideas to differentiate ourselves. Consumers are willing to try something new if it’s bold and properly executed.”
Another Washington, D.C., restaurant, Shouk, features Middle Eastern food in a vegetarian setting.
“Middle Eastern cuisine, more so than others, and certainly more than Western culture, is a cuisine that relies on plants,” says Ran Nussbacher, founder of Shouk, which is Hebrew for “market.”
Middle Eastern food is deeper than how it is often viewed in America, he adds. “It is flavored more boldly, playing with mixing and matching different ingredients—taking something like pomegranate and injecting that into savory dishes.”
Shouk features pitas, rice and lentil bowls, and salads. While the menu features many classic ingredients, such as amba with the mushroom pita or bowl, there are twists like jalapeño oil with the popular cauliflower offering and ratatouille with chickpeas, tahini, and Middle Eastern spices as part of this traditional French dish.
Some restaurants serving Middle Eastern fare will use “Mediterranean” as a reference point. That’s the case with New York’s Semsom’s Eatery, which is heavily inspired by cuisine from Lebanon.
“We define ourselves more as Mediterranean because a lot of the food is similar,” says Carine Assouad, who oversees American operations for Semsom (Arabic for “sesame”), a Lebanese-based restaurant company created by her sister, Christine Sfeir. “It’s seasonal and very fresh, healthful, and from a similar climate.”
The recipes are derived from across Lebanon and also span three generations of Sfeir’s and Assouad’s family: their grandmother’s hummus; their mother’s taouk chicken, which mixes chicken breast cubes with red vinegar, tomato sauce, and paprika; and their own wild thyme cauliflower, which features oven-roasted cauliflower florets seasoned with sumac and dried wild thyme.
Served in a wrap or bowl with a base of turmeric brown rice, lettuce, or both, guests then choose one of six main offerings, like the taouk chicken or wild thyme cauliflower, and two flavors, including hummus, pickled cabbage or mushrooms, and sweet and sour eggplant, which features pomegranate molasses.
“Our spices are a huge part of our food,” Assouad says, adding that sumac, tumeric, cumin, and za’atar are the stars. “Most Middle East food is not hot and spicy, even though it uses a lot of spices. But it is very flavorful, so we don’t need to add fat or salt.”