If you’ve ever wondered why Middle Eastern food is so packed with flavor, it’s because Arab spice traders once had a monopoly on the spice market, and thus had access to every spice that ever passed through the region.
Cooks could hardly resist finding new ways to use them in their cuisine.
The spices were also used to cure food, especially so during the hot summer months, and most of the flavors used during preservation have been retained through the passage of time.
Essentially, if there is a spice, it has found its way into Middle Eastern cuisine.
Bold, dynamic and becoming more popular in the United States as we learn that there’s so much more to Middle Eastern food than falafel, the flavors of the region are full of depth and surprise, solely because of the diverse use of spices.
Some commonly used Middle Eastern spices include:
Cumin. Cumin is commonly used in hummus, and is a main ingredient in curry powder. While it grows naturally along the Nile River, cumin has found a home in America as a key ingredient in chili, taco seasoning and other south-of-the-border items. Cumin seeds are harvested from a flowering plant native to the eastern Mediterranean to India, which is why it is found in so many different food preparations and spice blends.
Coriander. The warm, citrusy flavor of coriander seeds makes it suitable for a variety of foods. The seeds of the cilantro plant, coriander is easy to grow, and you will have fragrant, citrusy coriander in abundance if you plant just a few cilantro plants in spring. If yours is a warm climate, the cilantro will flower out quickly and will soon turn to seed. The seeds can easily be harvested once they begin to dry. Store the whole seeds in an airtight container and toast them in a cast iron skillet before grinding them to get the most robust flavor.
Rose water. Rose water is made by steeping rose petals in water, and it adds a sweet, distinctly floral flavor to Middle Eastern candies, syrups and jeweled rice. It is also found in Moroccan versions of the sweet treat baklava and in Turkish Delight, also known as locum, a chewy candy that played a pivotal role in the C.S. Lewis book “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” (For a recipe, click here.)
Za'atar. This fragrant mix of sesame, sumac and thyme is often mixed with olive oil and used as a spread on flatbread. Various versions throughout the region use different spices, and it can also top labneh (a creamy cheese made from Greek yogurt) or hummus.
Cardamom. Smoky with a hint of sweetness, cardamom seeds are available in both green and black varieties. Green pods are more likely to be used in tea or sweet applications, while black pods are more commonly used to season meat or basmati rice.
Fenugreek. The seeds or leaves of the fenugreek plant are both used in Indian cuisine, particularly curry, and it holds court in ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew with a 2,000-year history that’s the national dish of Iran.
Saffron. The most expensive spice in the world since each strand is a flower stigma picked by hand, saffron is used in a wide range of Middle Eastern dishes including confections, meat dishes and classic rice dishes.
Sumac. While in America we would expect sumac to have pine notes, sumac instead has a hint of lemon, making it suitable for use any place where a touch of tartness would be welcome. A dried flower, sumac is bright red rather than the deep purple of lavender flower, and can be used on meats, veggies or dips to enhance the existing flavors.
Cloves. One of the smartest tricks we can learn from Middle Eastern or Asian cuisine is that traditionally sweet spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon can bring out the flavors of meat in such a way that you’ll wonder why you haven’t been including them in your recipes forever. While they were originally used to mask meat that had gone slightly bad, today’s contemporary Egyptian, Turkish, Syrian and Moroccan meat dishes often still include cloves, which pair beautifully with garlic to enhance the flavor. To make it yours, add a hint of clove to any sauce to be served with red meat to enhance the richness of the dish.
Ras el Hanout. The Middle Eastern equivalent to garam masala, Ras el Hanout is a spice blend that mixes savory and sweet flavors, one of the tricks that gives Middle Eastern food its depth. To make it, mix together 2 teaspoons each ground nutmeg, ground coriander, ground cumin, ground ginger, turmeric, salt and cinnamon, 1 ½ teaspoons each sugar, paprika and freshly ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon each cayenne pepper, cardamom and allspice and ½ teaspoon cloves. Mix well and store in an airtight container.
Aniseed. One of the oldest spices born in the Middle East, aniseed is the main ingredient in licorice, so it is common in desserts, candies and beverages, but like its Asian cousin, star anise, is can also lend a surprising depth to meats or sauces.
Whether rolled into balls or shaped into kebabs, Kafka is a Middle Eastern classic that differs considerably from region to region. It can be baked, broiled, boiled, grilled, fried or steamed, although grilling and baking allow the meat to caramelize the best, imparting the most flavor.
- 1 ½ pounds each ground beef and ground leg of lamb (any other cut of lamb will be too fatty)
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 tomato, finely diced
- 1 cup fresh parsley, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon sea salt or to taste
- 4 ½ teaspoons ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Mix together ingredients in a large bowl, using your hands to make sure all the spices are incorporated.
Shape the mixture into balls the size of traditional meatballs – ice an ice cream scoop for even results - and bake in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes, turning after 10 minutes to sear the meatballs on each side.