Fresh, wholesome, healthy, rich, aromatic – it’s no wonder that the past decade has seen Middle Eastern cuisine’s global profile skyrocketing.
While everyone has their favorite dish, we hit up Lebanese-American food blogger Bethany Kehdy of dirtykitchensecrets.com for her take.
Her favorite dishes are simple and rustic, such as m’jadarrah. That’s a lentil stew (also known as poor man’s stew) consisting of slow-cooked lentils with a sprinkling of burghul and caramelized onions and served with a side of zesty cabbage salad.
Or kishik – a porridge made from burghul fermented with yogurt and dried in the sun on rooftops over seven days during the fall before being ground into fine powder.
“It’s soul-soothing, wholesome food in a jiffy, although an acquired taste, I’ll admit,” says the power blogger.
So what is your favorite Mideast dish?
Along with Kehdy’s takes, we rounded up 20 of our favorite Middle Eastern dishes to get you started along with destinations where you can find them:
The big daddy chickpea spread can be slathered on anything from a burger or baked potato to the traditional hot pita bread.
Veteran preference: more garlic, more better.
Where to try it: Abu Shukri, Via Dolorosa near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, Israel. Tel: +972 2 627 1538
The pizza of the Arabic world, manakeesh is a round bread sprinkled with either cheese, ground meat or herbs (zaatar). It’s ideal for breakfast or lunch. Varieties come from both fancy Levantine restaurants or street vendors.
Where to try it: Al Hallab, Guarhoud Road, Garhoud, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Tel: +971 4 282 3388
3. Grilled halloumi
These mini-slabs of chewy goodness are made from goat and sheep milk. Unlike other cheeses, no acid or bacteria is used during processing.
Where to try it: Abdel Wahab, El Inglizi Street, Monot, Achrafleh, Beirut, Lebanon. Tel: +961 1 200 550
4. Foul meddamas
Made of fava beans, olive oil, parsley, onion, garlic and lemon, this dish doesn’t have the most appetizing of presentations – blobby brown mush is about the best we can say of it. Taste and texture make up for it.
Where to try it: The Pavilion Downtown Dubai Cafe, Downtown, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Tel: +971 4 447 7025
You may consider fried chickpeas with herbs as simply a great snack. Or tasty pita filler. For Middle Easterners, however, the origins of falafel are a matter of patriotic interest.
The “New York TImes” has reported how the dish’s provenance sparks fierce debates, but we’re happy to sit on the sidelines and remain addicted to the taste.
Where to try it: Books@Cafe, First Circle Amman, Jordan. Tel: +962 6 465 0457
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy this magical combination of bulgur, parsley, mint, onion and tomatoes. But watch out, you just might be tempted to switch teams after a steady diet of this popular salad.
Where to try it: Cairo Restaurant, Al-Malek Talal Street, Amman, Jordan. Tel: +962 6 462 4527
7. Moutabal/baba ghanoush
Just when you’re ready to declare hummus the best dip on the planet, you find moutabal. Similar to baba ghanoush, the dip offers a similar consistency with an eggplant kick. Spiced up with chili, it delivers a zing.
Where to try it: Zest, One&Only The Palm, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Tel: +971 4 440 1010
This tangy salad is one of the Middle East’s greatest contributions to world culture. Crispy lettuce, crunchy fried squares of pita, diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onion, garlic, lemon, olive oil and mint make for a refreshing addiction.
Where to try it: Al Halabi, Mall of the Emirates, Barsha, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Tel: +971 4 395 1615
9. Umm ali
Egyptian bread pudding, or umm ali, is a hearty pastry cooked in milk and cream. Versions are made with croissant pieces, raisins, pistachios, vanilla and condensed milk.
Where to try it: Naguib Mahfouz Restaurant, 5 Sikkit el Badistan, Khan el Khalili, Cairo, Egypt. Tel: +20 202 590 3788
This cow or sheep milk cheese is usually fashioned into golf ball-sized bites and rolled in zaatar herbs or chili flakes (the latter version favored in Syria). Also often enjoyed with diced tomato, onion and olive oil.
Where to try it: Market Place, JW Marriott Dubai, Abu Baker Al Siddique Road, Al Rigga, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Tel: +971 4 607 7009
No, shawarma wasn’t invented as a hangover cure. But the tender bits of skewered chicken, garlic puree and salad wrapped in pita have made it a beloved post-session snack the world over. One more, please.
Where to try it: Hashipudia, 6 Ha-Shikma Street, Jerusalem, Israel. Tel: +972 2 625 4036
12. Shish tawook
Served with pure garlic paste, this simple skewered chicken dish is hugely popular in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and the Gulf region. Dishes are served with fries and pita bread.
Where to try it: Al Falamanki, Damascus Street, Beirut, Lebanon. Tel: +961 1 323 456
Dolma goes horribly wrong when the stuffed vine leaves become flaccid and slimy after being left out in the sun for too long. They need to be fresh with succulent lamb or juicy vegetables.
Where to try it: Asitane Restaurant, Kariye Camii Sokak 6, EdirnekapI, Istanbul, Turkey. Tel: +90 212 534 8414
Common in Iran and Pakistan, these balls of minced lamb or beef have a spicy, onion kick.
You can fry, grill, barbecue or bake the patties, but they’re best served with a distinctive spicy sauce. In the Arab region, you’ll find them in cylinder shapes, often on a stick.
Where to try it: Gulf Pomegranate Iranian Restaurant, Al Ansab Road next to Al Agbiya Mosque, Muaskar Al Murtafa’a, Oman. Tel: +968 9 223 6697
15. Quwarmah Al Dajaj
Curry veterans, this may be a new one for you.
Known to most as Kuwaiti curried chicken, the zesty dish is made with a blend of Middle Eastern flavors and spices – lime, ginger, turmeric, baharat, cumin, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika – that combine to give it a distinctive pop.
Where to try it: Mais Alghanim, Gulf Road, Kuwait. Tel: +965 2 225 1155
The small version of this Jordanian and Palestinian dish looks like a pizza covered with a lamb carcass, while a larger banquet variety can cover a whole table.
Despite the intimidating appearance, the tender mutton, covered in yogurt sauce and sprinkled with almond and pine nuts, makes for a culinary masterwork.
Where to try it: Jabri Restaurant, Wasfi Al-Tal Street, Amman, Jordan. Tel: +962 6 5681700
17. Kebab karaz
Otherwise known as cherry kebab or desert candy, this Syrian dish offers a new slant on the famed meat stick. Kebab karaz adds sour cherries and pomegranate pips, rendering the meaty mix blood red, sweet and sour.
Where to try it: Al-Mayas, Al-Bedea, Kuwait City, Kuwait. Tel: +965 5 738 089
Buttery filo pastry, chopped nuts, sweet syrup and honey dressing – made from a recipe that dates to the Ottoman empire, it’s no wonder baklava is one of the most enduring and beloved dishes on the planet.
Where to try it: Rihtim Cad, Kati Otopark Alti, 3-4 Karakoy, Istanbul. Tel: +90 212 293 0910
This delicious cheesecake uses Nabusi cheese, which is common to Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. The blush coloring comes from orange blossom water or rose water.
Where to try it: Habibah, Al Malek al Hussein Street, Amman, Jordan
20. Iraqi masgouf
Remember the best piece of carp you ever had? No?
You would if it had been this carp, which is slow-cooked for up to three hours until the fat has been burned off, then served with lemon and pickles.
Where to try it: Al Adhamiyah Iraqi Restaurant, Al Asmakh Street, Jasra, Doha. Tel: +974 4432 4326
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.