The Middle East lies in the heart of the Mediterranean with access to Europe, Africa and Asia through many sea and land routes. Traditionally the area has been the hub of conveying goods from East to West. This area has retained its culinary traditions many of which are thousands of years old.
This region is the ancient cradle of barley and wheat cultivation, chick peas and fava beans, lamb and goat still hold a central place in most kitchens. Halal is an Arabic word meaning lawful or permissible in Muslim cultures the word extends beyond food but all food must be halal or it cannot be eaten the Jewish culture has a similar tradition known as kosher . If a Muslim cannot find halal products then kosher is permissible. Pork is not considered halal nor is any product that has animal blood, additionally all butchering must be done in Allah’s or God’s name. This area is also the ancestral home of olive oil and it is used in virtually every Middle Eastern country. Sesame is used but not as flavoring oil but in a paste form called tahini which is a crucial ingredient in hummus another traditional Middle Eastern dish. Yogurt is also important in Middle Eastern cooking.
For flavoring the Middle Eastern cook uses a variety of herbs, parsley, dill and fresh mint are of the utmost importance but cinnamon remains the the single most widely used spice. Lemon juice is used in the same way that vinegar and wine are used in other cultures. In Toronto you can buy ingredients for Middle Eastern cooking from Ararat International Fine Foods, they have a wide range of items from superb olives, fetas, and pomegranate molasses to fabulous preserved lemons.
The two most basic flavoring combinations are however, tomato and cinnamon which is used in everything from sweet to savory dishes. Some of the best dishes, such as kibbeh which is similar to steak tartare but with lamb and cracked wheat, use cinnamon or try some of the Lebanese meat or cheese sambussik which are little pastry shells stuff with cheese or ground beef, tomato, onion pine nuts and deep fried.