May 20, 2012
I always find it strange when Americans tell me they think Middle Eastern food is “exotic.” Perhaps this is because I’ve been eating it since I was 12 years old. Or, more likely, it’s because I lived in a Middle Eastern country for two years and nearly forgot what a decent cheeseburger tastes like (don’t even get me started on bagels and pizza).
But the main reason I don’t understand why Americans are so puzzled by Middle Eastern food is that it has such a similar flavor profile to our pseudo-European cuisine: We have BBQ, they have kebab. We have donuts, they have zalabiyah (fried dough balls soaked in syrup). We have macaroni and cheese, they have macarona fil forn (baked macaroni with béchamel). Granted, French fry sandwiches are pretty odd, and I doubt most Americans would be interested in the ubiquitous Middle Eastern breakfast of fava beans (ful) and pita. (Personally, I find this much preferable to syrupy French toast and greasy bacon.)
Pretty much every other cuisine I can think of utilizes more unfamiliar ingredients and spices than Middle Eastern food does, yet we still think of it as “exotic.” I just don’t get it. Perhaps most Americans assume that since the rest of Middle Eastern culture is antithetical to the West (as they see it) the food must be too. Or—and this is probably a more logical explanation—immigrants from the Middle East haven’t been as successful with creating a restaurant culture for their cuisine as Asian and Hispanic immigrants have. Racial profiling, anyone? I assure you, however, that Middle Eastern food is every bit as delicious as Vietnamese or Mexican, and definitely more familiar to American taste buds than Indian or (authentic) Chinese food.
Chances are, if you like to cook you already have most of the pantry items you would need to make a Middle Eastern meal: bulgar wheat, cumin, cinnamon, rice, canned tomatoes, chickpeas, nuts, lentils, etc. What you don’t have is generally easy to find. There are, of course, a few bizarre items that generic grocery stores don’t carry. With the exception of tahini and rosewater, these items can be substituted or even omitted. However, some of them are quite unique and worth seeking out. You never know what uses you may find for the black limes lurking in the back of your cupboard.
Here is a list of some of the more “exotic” Middle Eastern ingredients with suggestions for how to use them:
Rosewater and orange blossom water: I suspect that orange blossom water could, in very small quantities, be used in a dressing for certain salads. Otherwise, these two elixirs are exclusively used in desserts. Most Middle Eastern pastries are soaked in a simple syrup flavored with orange blossom, rosewater, or both. My favorite dessert (of any cuisine) consists of a cheese-semolina dough filled with thickened cream and soaked in rosewater-orange blossom syrup. It’s called halawet el jibn. I also suspect that both waters would make admirable additions to an ice cream base.
Tahini: Tahini is a magical ingredient. Don’t believe me? Here’s a little experiment you should try: Take a few spoonfuls of tahini and whisk in a squeeze or two of lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt. The mixture will inexplicably darken and thicken into a paste. (I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for this, but I prefer to think of it as magic.) Now, whisking constantly, gradually add water. The paste will inexplicably turn into a creamy white sauce that’s subtly bitter, tangy, and nutty. It’s delicious on pretty much everything. You can also turn it into a salad dressing by adding a little more acid and water.
Preserved lemons: In the Middle East, there are no lemons or limes—only limon: beautiful yellowish green or greenish yellow orbs the size and shape over overgrown kumquats. They have very little pith, which makes them perfect to use whole in things like lemonade. (In the Arab world, lemonade is made by putting whole limon, sugar, water, and sometimes mint in a blender, pulverizing the whole thing, and then straining out the liquid. This version is infinitely better than ours.) Limon are also preserved in salt, fermented in their juices, and packed in oil to make “preserved lemons.” Preserved lemons are a common ingredient in Morroccan cuisine, but would lend a tangy, fruity kick to many sauces and stews.
Dried (black) lemons/limes: If you thought preserved lemons sounded strange, meet dried lemons. I’ve actually made these before, much to the consternation of my entire family. To dry lemons—and this may seem counterintuitive—you first have to boil them in very salty water. Then you can either dry them out in the oven (not recommended due to the waste of gas) or in the sun over the course of a week or so (definitely preferably, but difficult if you live in a tropical or otherwise humid climate). I’m sure a food dehydrator would also do the trick. Dried lemons (I did limes) are characteristic of Persian cuisine and are used either whole to flavor broths and stews, or in powdered form as a spice. They’re incredibly earthy but still retain a lemony flavor. I recommend sprinkling dried lemon powder on… well, everything. Everything savory, that is.
Pomegranate molasses: Don’t let the use of the word “molasses” mislead you; pomegranate molasses tastes nothing like regular molasses (the kind made from sugar cane). It’s basically just concentrated pomegranate juice, so it has a tangy, fruity flavor but is deceptively sweet. I use it in dressings, marinades, BBQ sauces, etc. Pomegranate molasses is an essential component of muhammara, a Syrian roasted red pepper-walnut dip.
Aleppo chili powder: Aleppo chili powder is another essential ingredient in muhammara, although I have successfully replaced it with ancho chilies and paprika. Aleppo peppers are thusly named because they are native to Aleppo, a city in the north of Syria near the Turkish border. The powder made from the dried chilies is fruity and smoky with mild heat. I imagine it would pair well with sun-dried tomatoes.
Harissa: This spicy chili paste hails from Tunisia, but is popular throughout North Africa. It consists mainly of piri piri chili peppers and is seasoned with garlic, coriander, and other spices. Harissa can be very hot so use with caution!
Ground sumac: Sumac powder is a really dried, ground up fruits from the sumac plant. (Yes, sumac as in Poison sumac, which is from the same genus—Rhus—as the edible variety.) It varies in color but is generally a dark maroon. In Levantine cuisine, sumac is sprinkled on mezzes (appetizers), fattoush (Middle Eastern panzanella), and kebabs. I particularly like sumac in salads because it adds additional lemony flavor without the acid. Sumac is pretty mild so don’t be afraid to use a lot!
Za’atar: Za’atar is a spice mix made predominantly of thyme, sesame, sumac, and salt. You can sprinkle it over a variety of things—hummus, roasted vegetables, pizza, meat; I think it pairs best with chicken. My favorite way to eat za’atar is with labneh or on manakeesh (Middle Eastern flatbread/pizza).
Labneh: Labneh, aka yogurt cheese, is not really a pantry item, but it’s a delicious staple of Levantine cuisine. It’s also incredibly easy to make if you have a little patience and some cheesecloth. Here’s the recipe I use. In my opinion, labneh is best eaten when rolled in za’atar and spread over warm pita fresh out of the oven. It’s also a good substitute for cream cheese.
And now, without further delay, today’s recipe: Moroccan Chickpea Stew. This recipe is really a vegetarian version of Harira, a Berber soup/stew made with chickpeas, meat, and spices. I made it in a crock pot, but it’s not a fussy stew (there’s no meat to dry out!) so you could definitely make it on the stove or in a low oven—just keep in mind that this method will take less than half the time. Cooking it slowly, however, is important since it gives the ingredients time to infuse the liquid and melt together. The apricots virtually disappear after a few hours, but balance out the acid of the tomatoes, olives, and preserved lemon. They also give the stew a mild fruity flavor.
The olives hold their shape but soften and lend the broth a briny taste, while the preserved lemons increase the complexity of the broth. I like to leave them roughly diced so every once in a while you get a bite of slightly bitter, salty lemon. If you can’t find preserved lemons, you could always throw in a few big pieces of lemon peel and some juice, but as I mentioned earlier, preserved lemons have a unique flavor because of their fermentation. The harissa could also be replaced with red chili flakes.
Moroccan Chickpea Stew
Soak the chickpeas in plenty of cold water overnight.
Also the night before, or the next morning, prepare the rest of the ingredients: Halve and thinly slice the onions. Heat the oil in a wide frying pan and cook the onions over medium-high heat until browned and somewhat softened, stirring occasionally. This should take about 10 minutes. Add the cumin and sauté for another minute to toast the cumin the oil. Transfer to a crock pot or Dutch oven. Add the rest of the ingredients except the lentils, cilantro, and parsley.
When the chickpeas are done soaking, drain out the water and add them to the crock pot. Also add the lentils. Set the crock pot to low and go about your business for the rest of the day, 8-10 hours. When you get back, adjust the seasoning and spice to taste, turn the heat up to high, and cook for another couple of hours until the chickpeas are very tender.
If cooking on the stove, bring the whole pot to a boil and then turn the heat down to maintain a low simmer. Cook for several hours, again until the chickpeas are very tender.
Garnish each bowl with plenty of cilantro and parsley and serve over cinnamon-scented couscous or grain of your choice. You can freeze the leftovers.
*Note: If you can’t find preserved lemons, add two big pieces of lemon peel (peel the lemon with a vegetable peeler) and the juice of one lemon, or to taste.
**Note: If you can’t find harissa, you can replace it with red chili flakes to taste. Add the chili flakes with the cumin to bring out their oil.