Beautiful is too basic a word to describe the world of Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s rich with a vibrancy that only fruits and vegetables enjoyed at the height of their season can provide. Add to that warming spices, cooling labaneh, and flavors that have crossed cultures and cuisines for centuries—and you might scratch the surface of this style of dining.
When you dive into Middle Eastern dishes, prepare yourself to fully embrace carbohydrates and all their flavor transferring glory! You can find recipes for grain and pulse salads made with freekeh or lentils, or test your hand braided breads and seeded crackers. Toss in generous amounts of olive oil, fresh herbs, and dairy, and prepare yourself for a feast of the senses.
Not to be outdone by the other ingredients, meat and fish are also prominent guests. Get ready to embrace beef, chicken, lamb, and fish of all kinds.
Ask an Expert! Adeena Sussman
To get a deeper understanding of the foundation of Israeli cooking, I sought out Adeena Sussman, co-author of 11 books, and author of Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen, which was named best fall 2019 cookbook by The New York Times, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine.
I’ve compiled a list below of recommended kitchen essentials. The suggestions are summarized from her most recent book, Sababa, and a recent interview I had with her from Tel Aviv, where she lives.
Essential Ingredients for Israeli Cooking
If you’re new to Israeli cooking, Adeena recommends spices to keep on hand, pantry staples to store, proteins to buy, and an approach to cooking that anyone can master.
“Focus on finding nice, in-season produce. Keep it simple. Make the salads, the baba ghanoush, the dips, and remember tahini is a flagship ingredient,” Adeena says. “Try to find three ingredients you haven’t had much experience with, find some recipes featuring those ingredients, try them, and approach cooking that way.”
That seems easy enough! Here’s the guide to make sure you have everything you need on hand.
Spices & Spice Blends
- Baharat: A spice blend used in both sweet and savory dishes. It’s most commonly a mixture of warming spices such as cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, and ginger, among others, but also has earthy combinations of black pepper and marjoram. Like many spice blends, the formula varies by region. You can purchase the blend at specialty stores or use the recipe in Sababa.
- Hawaiij: This turmeric forward blend is used to season chicken, soups, and red meat. Adeena describes it as a “flavor lightbulb”!
- Za’atar: Za’atar is both an individual spice and a blend. Stand-alone za’atar is the leaf of hyssop, a member of the mint family and has long been used in both culinary and medicinal applications. Za’atar, the spice blend, is a combination of the hyssop leaves (za’atar), salt, thyme, sumac, and other herbs and seeds. You can find both versions of za’atar in most grocery stores in the U.S., and definitely at specialty spice shops.
- Fenugreek: In the US, this bitter seasoning is usually found ground and in the spice section of the supermarket. It’s used mostly in savory applications.
- Sumac: This sour, reddish ground berry is used to top dips, brighten soups, and sprinkle over meat. It’s widely available at specialty spice shops.
Harissa: In the U.S., you usually see harissa either as a ground powder in the spice aisle or as a paste in a tube or a jar in the global foods section of the grocery store. It varies considerably from household to household (if made from scratch) and from brand to brand. It can be mild or hot. It’s best to sample and find your favorite.
Preserved Lemons: Essential in Middle Eastern and North African kitchens, preserved lemons are used to add a salty, acidic brightness to soups, stews, sauces, and braises. Adeena has a recipe to make them from scratch, but if you’d rather buy them, she recommends the brand New York Shuk. You can also find preserved lemons at Trader Joe's stores.
From the Pantry
Freekeh: Freekeh is roasted wheat, and it’s high in both fiber and protein. You can find it both cracked and whole. It has a chewy texture and can be used to make grain salads with chopped and/or roasted vegetables or added to soups and stews.
Couscous: Couscous is a staple of North African and Middle Eastern dishes. Though many people assume couscous is a grain or seed similar to farro or quinoa, it’s actually closer to pasta in that it’s made with semolina or Durum wheat.
Chickpeas: The chickpeas of Israel are not the same as the more commonly found garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas) available in the U.S., but they can be used the same way. To get smooth, creamy hummus, it’s important to start with dried chickpeas and simmer them with baking soda to soften and release the skins.
Tahini: Good tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, is creamy, nutty, and rich. Quality tahini shouldn’t separate, meaning you shouldn’t have sludge on the bottom and oil floating on the top. It’s shelf stable and can sit in a cool, dry cabinet for up to a year. Use it in anything from hummus to dressing to sauce. Adeena’s favorite brand is Soom.
Pomegranate Molasses: This is a common ingredient in many cuisines from Vietnam to the Middle East. You can buy it at specialty shops, or make it yourself by following our recipe for Pomegranate Molasses.
Produce and Proteins
When it comes to cooking, quality counts. Buy fruits and vegetables ready and bursting at the height of their seasons to elevate any dish on your menu. Israeli dishes make good use of fresh herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, pomegranate arils, and more.
If you want to attempt certain Middle Eastern staples like preserved lemons, it’s best to wait until the winter months when they are in season. Try to buy organic lemons if possible to avoid the waxy coating on their skin.
Adeena has some gorgeous salmon recipes in her book, but don’t be afraid to embrace other fish varieties such as yellowtail tuna, snapper, or halibut.
If things that swim don’t suit you, you still have plenty of choices. Explore lamb, a delicious but underutilized protein, or keep it simple and stick with chicken or beef.
Labaneh is strained yogurt. It’s easy to make at home and used as the foundation for many Israeli salads in Sababa. It can also be rolled into spheres and stored in olive oil or used in desserts like panna cotta.
To make labaneh, you want to use plain yogurt. Adeena’s version also calls for sour cream, but it’s not essential. Depending on the brand of yogurt you may have more or less yogurt to strain.
If choosing three ingredients to explore feels like two too many, then start with one and work from there. The techniques are relatively simple, and the payoff is extraordinary.