There’s a romance to Middle Eastern cuisine, since the most notable dishes from this region—by their very origins—evoke an old-world feel. And there’s a sophistication about this regional food that has only become more evident in recent years.
“The interest in this cuisine is getting stronger and stronger,” says Einat Admony, chef/owner of Balaboosta in New York City and co-author of Shuk: From Market to Table, the Heart of Israeli Home Cooking. “Middle Eastern food is very craveable. It’s exciting, colorful, and very vegetable-forward.”
There’s also been a retelling of the Middle Eastern cuisine story that’s been coupled with modern tweaks on kabob and shawarma recipes and dishes that are now delicately punctuated with Za’atar spice and harissa paste.
Best of all, there are endless ways to experiment with the region’s unique dishes, whether that’s mejadra, a medley of rice and lentils spiced with cumin and topped with fried onions or fattoush—essentially a bread salad—and ingredients, such as freekeh, an ancient whole-wheat grain that is considered the new quinoa, and labneh, yogurt cheese.
At Balaboosta, for example, the menu has always focused on new takes on favorite dishes, including such noted plates as short rib sabzi with hand-rolled couscous. And, Admony even found ways to feature Bamba—a peanut and rice snack that’s very popular in Israel. “One of the favorites at the restaurant is fried cauliflower with lemon, currants, pine nuts, and parsley, which I top with peanut tahini and crushed Bamba,” she says. “I love to take stuff I grew up with and use it in a way that I’ve never seen before.”
“We’re also seeing chefs taking ‘grandma’s recipe’ and creating finely plated dishes,” says Inbal Baum, who runs Delicious Israel, a company based in Tel Aviv that creates personalized walking and cooking tours.
“At Mashya, a restaurant in Tel Aviv, the kitchen is run by a chef who was deeply influenced by his Moroccan grandmother,” Baum says. “The dishes are exquisitely fine-plated versions of Moroccan and Arab cuisine, using entirely local Israeli produce and products.”
That same chef is also known for a dish made with arugula, labneh, Medjool dates, pineapple, and avocado honey blossom and a sea bass fillet with freekeh risotto, burnt tomatoes, and tarragon. “These are real ingredients done simply,” she says. Jessica Randhawa, the head chef and recipe creator at The Forked Spoon, a family-friendly recipe site, says Middle Eastern dishes have always been fun to experiment with due to their bright flavor profile and healthy ingredients.
“I tend to remake these dishes in time-saving formats,” she says. “A good example is my chicken shawarma meal prep recipe, which is a great way to cook ahead and also have an enjoyable meal. Another good time-saver is my slow cooker harissa lamb tacos, which present traditional harissa sauce in a new and exciting way.”
Some chefs recommend using a hero ingredient, such as tehina, and reconfiguring it in myriad ways. “I love the recipe for our quick tehina sauce because it creates this pure unctuous sesame paste that’s so versatile,” says Michael Solomonov, owner of several award-winning Middle Eastern restaurants in Philadelphia. “Traditional Middle Eastern dishes use tehina all of the time, whether it’s drizzled on eggplant with some pomegranate seeds, tossed with beets,or simply just spread on top of chicken schnitzel.” And, if you’re seeking a versatile dessert, look no further than a tehina milkshake.
“This is a modern take on such a classic staple ingredient,” he says. “It’s simple: Just mix tehina, almond milk, and sugar. We add a flavored syrup of your choice—as of late, I love our newest date-flavored syrup—and blend it up into a smooth, creamy drink that’s perfect for summer.”
In the end, preparing Middle Eastern food at home is all about getting creative. “Hummus and tehina are so quintessentially traditional, but it’s always fun to dress it up,” Solomonov says. “A great way to give hummus a fresh twist is by playing around with toppings.
I recommend using what you have on hand. In Israel, people use the local produce they have readily available. Check out your local farmer’s market, find what’s seasonal and fresh in your region, and top your hummus.”