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Think Mediterranean diet, and dishes from Italy and Greece come to mind. But the Mediterranean coastline spans thousands more miles bearing similar foods, throughout Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel, says Heather Sharkey, a University of Pennsylvania professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
Like the more familiar Mediterranean diet, the Middle Eastern version emphasizes healthy fats, lean proteins, whole grains, and fruits and veggies, along with scant red wine and sugar. But it also offers tempting flavors not found in southern European food, such as rich spices, tangy fruits, and healthy seeds. That’s good news for food lovers seeking variety, since Mediterranean cuisine is linked with a growing list of health benefits, including reduced risk for heart disease and cancer. A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who most closely follow a Mediterranean diet have a 43 percent lower risk for weight gain as well as a 35 percent lower risk for developing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes and stroke.
To get started exploring spicy, robust Middle Eastern cuisine, we asked Rawia Bishara—chef/owner of Tanoreen, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Brooklyn, and author of Olives, Lemons & Za’atar—to share her favorite dishes and cooking tips.
This colorful red fruit is so enmeshed with Middle Eastern culture that some Biblical scholars think Eve plucked one of these and not an apple to get her and Adam ousted from Eden. Its tart, juice-filled seeds (called arils) are the base of pomegranate molasses, a popular Middle Eastern ingredient, and they’re a nutritional powerhouse: A half-cup serving contains just 72 calories and delivers 4 grams of fiber and 3 times more antioxidants than red wine and green tea. Plus, the polyphenols in the juice help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol, Israeli scientists have found.
Shucking a pomegranate can be messy, and the red juice stains hands and fabrics. So to save your skin and shirts, slice the pomegranate in half while it’s submerged in a bowl of water and pick out the arils. (Or save yourself the trouble and buy pre-shucked arils like Pom Wonderful!) Pomegranate molasses is also available at health-food stores such as Whole Foods, but it’s easy enough to make your own: In a small pan over medium heat, dissolve ½ cup sugar in 4 cups pomegranate juice plus 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 70 minutes, until syrup has reduced to 1 cup. Cool, transfer to a glass jar, seal, and refrigerate up to 3 months.
This ancient grain is native to the Mediterranean region and has been a cupboard staple in Egypt and Lebanon for centuries. It’s a form of wheat that’s harvested green, and then is roasted and cracked. Its high protein and fiber content leaves you feeling full and less likely to overeat, explains Vandana Sheth, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in Los Angeles. Freekeh makes a great alternative to your morning cereal: Top the cooked grain (which you can find at Whole Foods) with fresh fruit, Greek yogurt, honey, and cinnamon.
Think of this spice blend as the ketchup of the Middle East—it’s ubiquitous. Each country has its own spin, but generally za’atar is a mixture of the sour-flavored spice sumac, dry oregano or thyme, salt, and toasted white sesame seeds. The nutrition comes from the seeds, which contain manganese, a mineral that your body uses to help process protein, cholesterol, and carbohydrates—toasting the seeds releases the minerals. You’ll find the spice mix tossed in salad dressing, served with olive oil for dipping Arabic bread, and sprinkled atop lebnéh, a mild strained-yogurt cheese. Not near a Middle Eastern market? You can order online at kalustyans.com.
The olive tree traces back thousands of years to the eastern Mediterranean Coast (think Turkey, Palestine, and Israel) before making its way to Greece, Egypt, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and North Africa. Olive oil was a traded commodity, used not just for meals but also for religious purposes and as lamp fuel.
This is the one ingredient you’ll find in nearly every meal, used in lieu of butter and for dipping with soft Arabic bread. “Olive oil replaces butter, something that’s high in saturated fat and raises bad (LDL) cholesterol,” says Lori Zanini, RD, a spokeswoman for AND. And early research findings suggest olive oil might help reduce breast cancer.
Store olive oil like you would red wine: An unopened bottle can stay in a cool, dark place for about two years. Once it’s open, it begins to lose its flavor, so use it within a year. You can find olive oil imported from all over the world, including the Mediterranean region, France, and Australia, plus California. Use high-quality extra-virgin olive oil for dips and drizzling on salads, whereas you can use less expensive “pure” olive oil for cooking. Our favorite top-shelf oil? Fruity, complex Spanish oil made from Arbequina olives (it goes great on ice cream with a little sea salt).
Like za’atar, this spicy blend varies from place to place; it originated in North Africa, when Spanish and Portuguese merchants introduced chiles from the New World some 500 years ago. A standard harissa blend includes spicy chiles, garlic, coriander or cumin, and olive oil, and is spread on eggs, salad, hummus—anything that could use a kick.
Its healthy attributes come from capsaicin, the compound that makes hot peppers taste hot. Science suggests capsaicin may have a hand in reducing blood pressure and may even curb appetite. In a Purdue University study, people who were not used to spicy food and who added such fare into their diets had reduced cravings for fatty, salty, and sweet bites. Find harissa at Whole Foods or at igourmet.com.
These earthy seeds are a common ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes and an accent in Middle Eastern spice mixes. They can be purchased whole or ground and contain 22 percent of your daily iron, a mineral necessary for keeping your energy up. And some people claim that tea made from a teaspoon of cumin seeds will ease an upset stomach.
Try making a spicy nut mix: Stir a pinch each of ground cumin, kosher salt, and ground cinnamon into ½ tbsp maple syrup. Toss 1/2 cup walnuts with the spiced maple syrup and 1/2 tbsp olive oil. Bake on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet at 400°F until the nuts are slightly tacky and fragrant, 10–12 minutes; cool and enjoy.